ABOVE PHOTO: Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson, right, performs during the opening of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus Wednesday, June 14, 2000, in North Little Rock, Ark. Iverson, 24, is the youngest ringmaster ever for the circus. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
By Tamara Lush
UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus began its final show Sunday evening after 146 years of wowing audiences with its “Greatest Show on Earth.”
Earlier in the day, as the circus performed its second-to-last show at the Nassau County Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, about 30 miles east of New York City, a group of retired and former circus performers sat across the street at a hotel bar, laughing and hugging and sharing memories of tours past.
“There’s a lot of mixed emotions, said Rev. George “Jerry” Hogan, Ringling’s circus chaplain. “It’s a reunion, but it’s bittersweet. I’m seeing people I haven’t seen in years.”
Known as Father Jerry, the Catholic chaplain waved at a group of clowns at the bar. Nearly all of the folks at the bar said they were headed to the final 7 p.m. performance, but first, they needed a trip down memory lane with people who were, and always will be, part of a unique family.
“It’s 146 years of tradition, older than American baseball,” said David Gregg, a clown from Hollywood, Florida. “This was one of the last nomadic tribes running around the country.”
Ringling’s parent company, Feld Entertainment, announced in January it would close the show, citing declining attendance and high operating costs.
Kenneth Feld called the final shows “a celebration.”
Feld said Sunday that while he is melancholy about closing the production, he feels the performers are energized to “go out on top.”
“We all have to embrace change,” he said. “But there is a love for the circus that will never die. Our family has given a half century of life to something that would have ended 50 years ago.”
Feld’s father and uncle bought the circus in 1967. It was sold to Mattel in 1971, but the Feld family continued to manage the shows. The Felds bought the circus back in 1982.
Over the years, animal rights activists had targeted the circus, saying that forcing animals to perform and transporting them around the country amounted to abuse. And in May 2016, the company removed elephants from its shows, but ticket sales continued to decline. Bello Nock, who is often called “The World’s Greatest Daredevil,” says it’s emotional to see the final shows.
Nock, who has a signature shock of two-foot-tall blond hair, performed with the Ringling circus from 2000-2008. His parents met at the Ringling circus in 1954 and said the show inspired generations of performers.
“Every single circus in America used Ringling Brothers as their compass,” he said.
Once a mainstay of entertainment in small towns and big cities across the country, Ringling had two touring circuses this season, one of which ended its run earlier this month in Providence, Rhode Island. That show was the more traditional, three-ring circus, while the one performing this weekend has a narrative storyline. Called “Out of This World,” it’s set in futuristic outer space, with Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson narrating in his signature baritone.
It’s an arena show, with an extravaganza of big cats, motorcycle stunts, clowns performing death-defying tricks, ice skaters and Mongolian contortionists — and that’s just the first half. The second half includes more aerialists, hoop divers, basketball players in unicycles and an act that the circus staff calls “The Fuzzies,” featuring dogs, pigs, llamas and goats.
There are mild explosions and flashing lights. It’s a sensory overload, but one that captivates the little ones, as does the giant, branded boxes of popcorn and the snow cones in big cat mugs.
In the end, though, Feld executives said they knew the circus couldn’t compete with iPhones, the internet, video games and massively branded and carefully marketed characters. Their other productions – Frozen on Ice, Marvel Live, Supercross, Monster Trucks, Disney on Ice – resonate better with younger generations.
And so Sunday, sometime after 9 p.m., the Greatest Show on Earth was no more.