January 20, 2017 (Palmetto, FL) - It was announced this week that the "Greatest Show on Earth" will have its last curtain call later this year. The 146-year-orld Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus revealed that poor attendance numbers and a struggle to sell tickets will cause the antique crowd pleaser to close this May. The curiosity behind the announcement has left many scratching their heads. After all, the circus has been an American foundation for entertainment and amusement. Just four years ago the circus had appeared to be heading for a resurgence. What could have gone wrong?
In early 2005, Steven Gwynn appeared to turn the circus around when he took over as Ring Master. He inherited a showcase with large debt, inequality among performers, and two treacherous price wars over tiger food. The circus needed hope, and they found it in their new Ring Master.
During Gwynn’s time as Ring Master, he championed equality for patrons and performers alike. He installed cushions on the metal bleachers so that they customers could be comfortable while they watched mediocre-at-best entertainers and smelled elephant dung for three hours. Gwynn also finally authorized clowns to have the same access to comfortably sized vehicles as the rest of their counterparts. Gone were the days of a dozen jesters packing into a beat up '65 Beetle just to get to the stage, because now, clowns had a voice.
It was these types of progressive thinking that helped Ring Master Gwynn turn a once downtrodden franchise around. Ticket sales rose, as did the morale of the performers. A new chapter had appeared to be created with Ringling Brothers as Gwynn came to the end of his commonly practiced eight-year term for Ring Master.
“Yeah, Gwynn was a breath of fresh air for us at the circus,” said Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment, owner of the Ringling Bros. franchise. “He brought so much intellect and grace to his time as Ring Master, it was something special to see and be a part of.”
The fresh-air had elevated some of the elephant smell but eventually dissipated during the heated 2013 Ring Master elections that pitted career-long clown Stephen Carter versus carnival employee Nathan Montoya. Carter was considered to be a Big-Top insider with more than two decades of working within The Tent. Many circus employees viewed Montoya and his gilded thousandaire style (much of his money coming from rigged carnival games) as an alternative to how the circus had performed since its conception.
As election night neared, it appeared to be a toss-up between Carter and Montoya for Ring Master. Many believe the race would be tight and come down to the very last vote, this included owner Kenneth Feld.
“I sure thought it was going to be a close race, but boy was I wrong," Feld said. "It turned out to be a landslide victory for Montoya. It was kind of my mistake, too. I was swept up with all the progressive rhetoric that Gwynn was spouting that I allowed for both human and animal performers to vote. Little did I know that late at night Montoya was going to the animal cages and feeding them steak. Of course, this made the tigers and lions love when Montoya came around. Which played right into how we vote for our Ring Master; you kinda just go stand next to who you’re voting for. So obviously when we voted, there was a split of human performers, but all the animals went to Montoya expecting him to feed them. We have a lot more animals… I kind of messed up on that one.”
As Montoya and his team transitioned into The Tent, new fiscally aimed ideas began to be implemented at Ringling Bros. The business-minded Montoya wanted to erase the debt he inherited and developed spectacular act after spectacular act to increase attendance. Montoya even commissioned a Clown College for wittier entertainers. The increased value of performance had an equally impressive value upturn in revenue. Customers flocked to the circus as they once did when there was no Facebook, or Real Housewives of New Jersey, or literally any other form of modern entertainment. With Montoya as Ring Master, the circus appeared to be headed for an even better run than it had under Gwynn.
Montoya was a zealous man, however, and coveted an act of the rival Moscow Circus: their dancing bears. So he made a deal with competing Ring Master Evegni Petrov. In exchange for “The Dancing Bears,” Montoya would hand over the secrets to the main attraction at Ringling Bros.: “The Globe of Death.” The stunt features a mesmerizing spherical steel cage with motorcycles zipping back and forth, miraculously avoiding each other. The stunt is so death-defying that it was portrayed in the 2012 movie The Place Beyond the Pines, with hunk Ryan Gosling playing a bad-boy Globe rider.
Many of Montoya’s counterparts at Ringling Bros. advised him not to become involved with the rival performance because Petrov could not be trusted with “The Globe of Death” secrets. Sure enough, in a matter of months, similar acts started to pop-up around the world and lessened the specialized impact Ringling Bros. had as the only act in the Western Hemisphere.
As more venues started to use the act each day, the stunt became less a rarity. Ringling Bros. saw its once raising ticket sales and customer enthusiasm plateau and ultimately start to plunge, hitting a record low last November. Serious questions started to emerge about Montoya’s leadership skills and qualifications for the role. Sure, he was a successful carny, but this was the Big-Top, some proverbial worlds away from the Midway. With doubters becoming more vocal, Montoya started to become cantankerous, even bashing respected performers via social media.
“It became ugly quick,” Feld said. “We definitely should have seen a decline coming. After all, Montoya had no prior experience. I’m pretty sure that Clown College was bogus, too.”
Within the next few months, the "Greatest Show on Earth" will relocate hundreds of exotic animals to shelters, leave sword jugglers without work, and force dozens of clowns to make adequate-at-best balloon animals at birthday parties. The closure also leaves many parents scrambling to feign interest at local PTA meetings about what their children will do for a class field trip now. Trying to come up with another non-educational outing that they can get out of work for. Whether it was the misguided actions of Montoya or the lack of any real advancement in entertainment for close to a century and a half, Ringling Bros. will soon be no more.
Anthony Salerno was born and raised in Buffalo, New York. He is a current DCH student and has performed with German Harmony and Titanium. When he’s not working at his day job, he’s rocking out to Led Zeppelin and rooting on his hapless Buffalo Bills.