‘Greatest Show on Earth’ ends in May

Declining attendance and rising costs cited as reasons for closing the Ringling Bros. circus.

BY RYAN GILLESPIE
ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS

ORLANDO – Just hours after Ringling Bros. told performers it was shutting down the circus in May, parents holding hands with giddy children trickled into the Amway Center on Sunday afternoon, eager to see the spectacle and excitement that’s dazzled crowds since the 1880s.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation threw a retirement party for 11 of its performing Asian elephants on May 6, 2016, in Polk City. The animals were to be bred to preserve the endangered species.
(SUSAN JACOBSON/ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS)

For Brooke Johnson, 13, who comes to the show every year with her family, the news of its demise was disappointing.

“It’s been a part of my life every year since I was born,” said Brooke, who was at the Amway Center in what would turn out to be her last time seeing the Greatest Show on Earth. “It’s been something I look forward to every year.”

Officials with Feld Entertainment, the circus’ parent company based in Manatee County, cited declining attendance and exorbitant operating costs as factors in the decision.

‘No more beatings’
The show’s 100-plus performers were informed of the company’s decision following shows in Orlando and Miami Saturday night.

Not everyone is unhappy to see the circus go.

On sidewalks flanking the arena on Sunday, protesters with the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida celebrated Ringling Bros. impending closure. They toted signs reading “The Cruelest Show on Earth,” “Circuses: No fun for animals” and “No more chains, no more beatings.”

One protester, Ashley Boatright, was posted on a sidewalk just behind the line of folks streaming into the Amway Center and shouted “Enjoy your last show!”

One man flipped his middle finger at her.

Elephants retired
Bryan Wilson, a spokesman for the foundation, was driving home from the protest following the Saturday night show when news broke. It was after 2 a.m. before he finally calmed down enough to get to sleep.

“Today is a celebration,” Wilson said Sunday. “This has been over 140 years of the suffering of animals. Every animal imaginable has lost his or her life at the hands of Ringling Bros. trainers.”

Ticket sales declined steeply following the company’s decision to remove elephants from its shows last May. The move came on the heels of some states passing legislation banning bullhooks, which were used to train the pachyderms, and others outlawing live-animal performances.

Eleven elephants were retired last year to Ringling’s Center for Elephant Conservation 45 miles south of downtown Orlando. That ended the tradition of the circus rolling into town and elephants walking from the train to the Amway Center.

‘Nothing is forever’
Barbara Keller, who was seated outside the ticket booth on Sunday with Zechariah, 9, was excited to introduce the circus to her grandson.

Keller grew up attending the circus at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Years ago, she attended a show in Orlando at the old Amway Arena and wanted to share the experience with Zechariah. He was most excited for the clowns.

“This is his first circus he’ll see, and it will probably be his last,” Keller said. “Nothing is forever.”

Wayne and Diane Dicken drove down from Daytona Beach to take their two young granddaughters to the circus.

The couple read from Wayne Dicken’s phone the news about the fate of the circus they’d known for years. In the future, their granddaughters “won’t be able to enjoy what we’re taking them to today,” Diane Dicken remarked.

“Everything but the animals — hopefully someone will carry that on,” Wayne Dicken said. “I’ll miss the entertainment part of it with the people more than the animals.”

Ringling Bros.’ last show will be May 7 in Providence, R.I.

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