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Nostalgia takes an emotional hit with closing of Ringling Bros. circus

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus announced Saturday night that it would close for good in May. Circus owner Feld Entertainment said the decision was the result of high operating costs and declining attendance.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus announced Saturday night that it would close for good in May. Circus owner Feld Entertainment said the decision was the result of high operating costs and declining attendance.
Published Jan. 16, 2017

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus made headlines this year when it retired the elephants, the star act for generations.

Soon, the tigers will need new homes, too.

The clowns, trapeze artists and other performers will be out of a job.

The football field-length spread of costumes will be a relic when Ringling's 146-year run ends in May.

The show's parent company, Ellenton-based Feld Entertainment, announced to circus crews Saturday night that this will be the last season for "The Greatest Show on Earth."

CEO Kenneth Feld cited high operating costs and declining ticket sales made worse by the removal of elephants from the show, according to a statement on the company's website. Feld representatives could not be reached for comment Sunday.

The decision dealt a nostalgic blow to an industry with deep roots in Florida.

"It's a heartbreaker," said Al Pelski, director and museum curator for the Toby the Clown Foundation, a nonprofit organization and clown school in Lake Placid. "In the old days, they didn't have movie theaters, they didn't have DirecTV and television. People went to the circus by the thousands. They're just not making it anymore."

Industry followers have watched the popularity of circuses drop with competition from technological advances in home entertainment and pressure from animal welfare groups that say the circus mistreats animals.

In Ringling's prime, trainloads of performers, animals and equipment came through St. Petersburg in early January, often the first stop on nationwide tours, said Jim Schnur, a special collections librarian with the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

A procession of circus acts marched from the railroad through the streets to the Bayfront Center, a venue built in the mid-1960s at the site of what is now the Salvador Dali Museum.

One home video from the early 1970s shows children gawking as lions and tigers in cages rolled down Fifth Avenue S, Schnur said.

The confinement of animals, specifically the show's trademark elephants, later drew negative attention from animal welfare activists.

Cities and counties across the country passed ordinances related to treatment of wild or exotic animals, making it difficult to schedule the circus tour around the restrictions.

In May, Ringling's elephants were retired from the show and moved to Feld's Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk County.

Suzanne House, a board member of Florida Voices for Animals, said she thinks the pressure from groups like hers led to the removal of the elephants — and to Ringling's demise.

"They say when they took the elephants away that their attendance went down," she said. "I believe attendance was going down before that. It's because for 30 years we've been showing up at circuses educating people about abuse."

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Ringling has two circuses touring between now and May, with stops at Tampa's Amalie Arena from Jan. 25-29 during the Circus Xtreme tour. Without its elephants, Ringling has worked to appeal to modern tastes.

The show features its first female ringmaster — 35-year-old Florida native Kristen Wilson — and stunt acts including BMX trick riders, trampoline daredevils and a bungee aerial skydiving display. Unlike the circus productions a generation ago, this one has shorter acts and a quicker pacing to keep up with today's attention spans, Feld representatives have said.

Sixth-generation performer Tabayara "Taba" Maluenda, Ringling's popular Chilean tiger trainer, said the circus of today is "completely different" than the one he grew up in.

"We have better conditions," he said. "But people don't respect the circus performance like 30, 40 years ago. With the TV and the media, people forget this beautiful profession."

That sentiment was shared Sunday at the International Independent Showmen's Museum in Riverview, which preserves the Tampa Bay area's history as a one-time home base for circus and carnival performers.

Museum executive director David "Doc" Rivera said he had heard speculation for months that the circus would be shut down or sold to Disney.

The reason for declining interest in the circus, he said, can be attributed to the Internet, video games, television and other forms of modern home entertainment.

"It used to be that you had to get off your butts and leave the house to be entertained," he said. "Not anymore.

"There was a time when if you wanted to see a 500-pound lady or a giant you had to go the carnival or circus," he said. "Then one day you could turn on your TV and see them."

Circus fans Brandon and Julie Howey of Indiana, who visited the museum Sunday, recalled one of their first dates: to the circus.

"We were 16. His mom drove us. This is sad," Julie Howey said.

Her husband showed off his right arm covered in a sleeve of tattoos depicting sideshow circus performers of a bygone era, such as Lobster Boy, a two-headed lady and a psychic.

Around the corner at the Showtown Bar & Grill, bartender Victorina Haynes, 22, said she oddly has never been to a circus despite working at a carnival-themed establishment frequented by local retired carnies.

But as soon as she heard the news of Ringling's final tour, she bought tickets.

"This is it," she said. "I couldn't be the woman to never see the big circus."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 445-4157 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn. Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8595. Follow @SharonKWn. Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.