By Zack Downing, Staff Writer
The circus is an American pastime that dates back to the first centennial, before the advent of telephones, cars, and lightbulbs.
The king of the circus has always been Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, following their merger in the early 1900s.
When Americans think of the circus, Ringling Bros. is the brand that comes to mind.
However, at the beginning of this year their parent company Feld Entertainment announced that the famous circus would be shutting down in May 2017, putting an end to 146 years of family entertainment.
This decision was the culmination of a number of factors, most notably the recent increase in pushback from animal rights activists.
One of the most iconic parts of the Ringling Bros. circus was the elephant acts, in which trained elephants did tricks for the crowd with their trainers.
Groups such PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) claimed the elephants were being treated inhumanely, and petitioned against animal acts as a whole in the circus.
Ringling Bros. put forth effort to treat their elephants well, going as far as setting up a large elephant conservation center in Florida to keep them in safe captivity.
However, animal rights groups kept opposing them and picketing, and after the circus was cited for violating the Animal Welfare Act in 2011, it appeared that their reputation couldn’t be recovered.
The other reason for the circus closing down was due to declining profits, brought on by the combination of falling ticket sales and rising operating costs.
The animal rights controversies certainly played a role in the low attendance. Not only had the Ringling Bros. lost their base of animal lovers, but the fact that elephant acts were disappearing made the last fans of the circus not want to attend them.
After it became clear that the lack of elephant acts would make it close to impossible to run the circus without facing bankruptcy, Feld Entertainment decided to call it quits.
The folding of the biggest name in circus entertainment is the signal of the end of the circus era. Ever since entertainment became more easily accessible in the average household, the family circus trip became rarer.
Today we think of the circus as an old-fashioned trope—something a Tom Sawyer-esque character would attend in early American literature.
Unfortunately, the air has been leaking out of the giant red tent for decades, and the elephant controversy was the final nail in the Ringling Bros. coffin.
It’s a shame to see it fall away; seeing wild animals do tricks and wincing as performers breathed fire and swallowed swords was genuinely an exciting thing to behold.
Despite the action, it couldn’t hold a candle to the explosion of movie, TV, and video game entertainment that captivated Americans in the second half of the twentieth century.
If you’re a fan of the circus, the good news is that the Ringling Bros. are not quite done. They are going on a 30 show tour to close the circuit, including one in Providence on May 7.
Additionally, Ringling Bros. was not quite the last bastion of circus entertainment.
Cirque de Soleil is a modernization of the circus template, and is respectably popular among people of all ages.
It may not feature the animal acts that circuses of old were known for, but it instead features incredibly talented acrobats and gymnasts that perform remarkable displays of skill and contortion.
If you’re looking for new entertainment, you should definitely seek tickets to Cirque de Soleil and prepare to be blown away.
If you’re interested in experiencing one of the last shows of the historic Ringling Bros. circus, head to the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence in May and witness the timeless acts that countless generations before you looked forward to seeing every year.