When the ringmaster announces that "Nicole and Alana Feld are proud to present the 141st edition of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus," the audience may miss the meaning.
It's a changing of the guard of sorts.
Circus impresario Kenneth Feld has put two of his daughters, ages 32 and 30, in charge of producing his touring shows, while his youngest, Juliette, 27, learns the ropes as director of strategic planning.
It's freed chairman and chief executive Feld, 62, to focus on the bigger parts of his sprawling empire that claims to be the world's largest producer of live entertainment.
Besides three touring units of Ringling Bros., Feld commands 18 other tours, including Disney on Ice, Disney Live, Monster Jam, AMA motocross, drag racing and bull riding. Last year, 30 million people bought tickets to Feld's events, enough to rival sports leagues like the NBA or NHL.
Feld, who calls a Harbour Island condo in Tampa home six months a year, talked recently with the St. Petersburg Times, while his daughters rehearsed two new circus productions at the circus' winter home at the Florida State Fairgrounds.
Feld talked about how he keeps a century-old tradition relevant, how his daughters got in and the logic behind the Human Fuse and the Nuclear Cowboyz.
Is Ringling Bros. now Nicole and Alana's circus?
It's their show, but it's our circus. They might not see me over their shoulders as much, but I still take and share a lot of notes.
You learned the ropes from your father, Irvin, who parlayed a record counter in his Washington, D.C., drugstore into a career as a 1960s rock show promoter and ultimately saved the circus by moving it from tents into arenas. What did you learn from him to help ease your daughters into a family business?
He was a teacher, but most importantly a listener. Every night after dinner he sat over cigars and cognac for three hours to rehash everything he did that day and why. But he always wanted to know what I thought, how I would have done it.
My daughters grew up with the circus and its performers and animals as their playground. But they grew up affluent and privileged. So I offered as much college as they wanted, but laid down a rule that they work at least two years for someone else so they know how to survive in the real world.
Since you never encouraged them to work for you, how did you usher them in?
I made them write me their interests, their passions and what they could contribute to the business, including how they could help us make money. It had to be business, not about a paycheck.
The corporate mission statement is "make parents heros for their kids." And 88 percent of the seats are filled with children ages 2 to 12. How has the circus changed?
Our customer wants to be entertained in a modern way that still touches the nostalgia of our traditions. But half of all families today are headed by single parents. Usually both spouses work. It's made time more valuable. We used to struggle getting a show down to three hours. Now we have the same size cast of 130, but it's high-energy, nonstop action for two hours (and) five minutes.
How about kids?
They've become digitized by all the computer-generated special effects (on TV, video games and movies). The circus is the ultimate reality show. But they don't believe high-wire artists actually risk their lives. So we put a human face of the people doing these amazing and unbelievable things: closeups of the performers shown on a big screen.
We added a preshow 45 minutes before showtime that takes them backstage and 90 minutes to walk where we care for the animals. To cure fear of clowns, we show them putting on their makeup, so they recognize the person doing those unicycle stunts.
Why don't you follow the popularity of shows like Cirque du Soleil that steer clear of animal acts?
They are a niche product. We're priced like Walmart for the masses. Animals will remain an important part of the traditional circus experience. The animal extremists just want to shut us down, as well as all zoos. Once people find out what they really mean by animal rights, most agree with our vision of animal welfare and the people who care for them 24/7.
One of the best things we've established is our 200-acre elephant conservation center in Winter Haven. Except for 19 elephants on tour, that's where the rest of our herd of 54 (ages 7 to 65) lives for species research, captive breeding and retirement. We're responsible for almost half the endangered Asian elephant births in North America.
The economy has hurt. Attendance is up slightly, but people today want a deal, so ticket prices are down. I think it's the new normal. Everybody wants to hunt for a discount, but once they arrive they spend substantially more. They are just more practical about it.
You bought Live Nation's Motorsports business for $175 million in 2008. Why?
Because it was for sale, it broadens our male audience, gives us 600 hours of annual TV exposure and offers no language barrier. So we can take it international. Plus, it's amazing live entertainment. When I see (monster truck) Grave Digger leap 40 feet in the air and crush a school bus, I'm thrilled.
What about Nuclear Cowboyz?
Motocross has these incredible extreme athletes, but the presentation lacked for mainstream audiences. So we made it more theatrical. It's the biggest indoor pyro and fireworks presentation ever, telling the story of three battling tribes of riders: the Metal Militia, Soldiers of Havoc and Shadow Warriors. Once they unite as Nuclear Cowboyz, they do jaw-dropping choreographed feats like four back-flip ramp jumps simultaneously while acrobats swing on ropes around them.
What do you want in a circus act?
Something amazing and unexpected. In Fully Charged, we have a team of 24 Chinese acrobats bouncing around (on spring-loaded) stilts. They start out like a dance troupe, then break into a basketball game. We designed a human crossbow for human cannonball Brian Miser. He developed the mechanism since it's his body being shot across an arena at 65 miles an hour. In midair he erupts in flames. He's the Human Fuse.
How do your daughters fit into succession?
I'm not going anywhere because to me this is not a job. I resisted having the girls work together because they are all bright with different personalities and strong wills. But, last year, Nicole and Alana co-produced their first show to great success. Juliette has been with us seven months, so she is spending four months in various parts of the organization. Our chief operating officer mentors them all because he knows things I don't.
I don't have an endgame yet. But I've had no grand plan since joining my dad 42 years ago. It just evolved as a patchwork quilt.
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.