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Shutting Ringling circus will throw 462 out of work, owners say

Juliette Feld and Kenneth Feld, top executives with Feld Entertainment, say they will work with performers to help them transition when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus shuts down in May. [CHRISTOPER O’DONNELL | Times]
Juliette Feld and Kenneth Feld, top executives with Feld Entertainment, say they will work with performers to help them transition when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus shuts down in May. [CHRISTOPER O’DONNELL | Times]
Published Jan. 17, 2017

ELLENTON — A sixth-generation circus performer, Ivan Vargas has been part of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for 12 years, nine of them as a show-opening clown.

But his costume weighed heavy and he had a tough time jollying his face with makeup Sunday, his first performance after learning that the circus' 146-year run is coming to an end.

"I'm sad and devastated, because I was born and raised on Ringling," said Vargas, 26. "This is my home. I have to leave my home, and all my friends have to leave their home."

Ringling's parent company, Feld Entertainment, acknowledged Monday that closing down the circus will throw 462 people out of work.

Chief operating officer Juliette Feld said the company will meet individually with workers to try to help them transition to new jobs. There will be assistance with resumes and job interview skills, she said.

Some of the performers were born into the circus life and have never needed to fill out a resume. There also will be help for them to find housing since many live on the two mile-long trains that convey the circus' two touring companies.

The circus informed its crews of the decision Saturday, blaming high operating costs and a decline in ticket sales that began a decade ago. That was exacerbated by the removal of elephants from the show in May in response to animal rights concerns.

"The percentage drop was much more severe than what we anticipated," said Kenneth Feld, the company's CEO. "That's what ultimately led to this difficult decision."

Feld declined to talk about how much ticket sales plummeted but said the business had become unsustainable. Circus workers will get a severance package, he said.

It's not just the two-legged performers that will need a new home come May.

Even without its elephants, Ringling was home to more than 50 animals, it's touring train cars a menagerie of lions, tigers, horses, camels, llamas and other creatures.

Finding a home for such a large number of exotic animals will take time, said Kenneth Feld.

"You can't take 50 animals and say, 'Here's a home,' " he said. "We're working on a process, and we will find suitable homes."

The company will continue to run a sanctuary in Polk County where its retired elephants live, Feld said.

Animal rights activist groups including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals hailed the closing of the circus as a victory for their long-fought campaign against the use of animals in live performances.

In 2014, Feld Entertainment won $25.2 million in settlements from groups including the Humane Society of the United States, ending a 14-year fight over allegations that circus employees mistreated elephants.

Feld said there were no winners but admitted that changing attitudes about the treatment and use of animals had likely been a factor in declining attendances.

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"We won in court and, obviously, in the court of public opinion we didn't prevail," he said.

Ringling Bros. has two touring circus companies this season — Circus Xtreme and Out of This World — and will perform 30 shows between now and a final show in May. Based in Ellenton, Feld Entertainment also puts on live touring shows worldwide, including the Monster Jam truck show held last week at Raymond James Stadium.

Vargas, the Ringling clown, said he had not seen the end coming.

"I thought it would be way after I was out of the circus," he said. "Obviously I've seen the decline in attendance, but some cities we saw packed houses and some not so much. But I didn't see it as a trend."

There are still 30 circus companies touring the United States, although none of them are as synonymous with the big top as Ringling, said Brian Liddicoat, president of Circus Ring of Fame Foundation, based in Sarasota.

"I hope people will take this to heart and come out and support every little circus," he said. "The circus is not a dead art. The artists who perform it are the mainstay of the entertainment industry."

Dolly Jacob performed for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for 14 years, dangling 32 feet above the ground from metal rings with no safety net.

When she left in the late 1980s, she helped start the Circus Arts Conservatory in Sarasota to teach circus skills to children.

When word spread Saturday that Ringling was closing down, her thoughts weren't just with performers, but also with the tradesman, the animal trainers, even the popcorn vendors.

"I feel for them; I feel for the industry," she said.

But she remains confident that circus folks' diverse skills will mean they can find work.

"Circus people make their own costumes, their own music, their own rigging," she said. "When they're not working, they find other jobs."

She said the circus and its pageantry and pomp are part of Americana and need to be preserved. She takes heart from the enthusiasm she sees in her students. More than 700 children attended summer programs there last year.

"No matter what year it is children are children and still get those same goose bumps when the lights go down and the spotlight comes on," she said. "It's magical."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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