After 133 Years, The Ringling Brothers Circus Performs Its Final Act

When the Ringling brothers performed with their new circus on May 19, 1884, they caught the attention of the more venerable, aging Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Until that point, it was a Barnum & Bailey world, but these Ringling brothers had something impressive. That was long before the elephants.

In time, the two circuses would merge into The Greatest Show On Earth, a business which is destined to close its tent flaps this month. Long before this, it was simply the dream of five boys from Wisconsin.

The Ringlings

“It’s a Barnum and Bailey world
Just as phony as it can be
But it wouldn’t be make-believe
If you believed in me”

–Yip Harburg and Billy Rose’s song, “It’s Only a Paper Moon”

When August Fredrick Rungeling immigrated to the United States, he had no idea that the family he would raise there would create the Greatest Show On Earth.

There were seven brothers born from Rungeling, except he wasn’t Rungeling anymore. He’d changed the family name to a more American-sounding version, Ringling.

The boys were Albert, August, Otto, Alfred, Charles, John, and Henry. Five of them started entertaining, building an act they hoped could grow into something more.

They had no idea…

The First Ring

When the brothers first formed their troop, it was 1882. They would perform skits and juggling acts in towns around Wisconsin.

Back then, they weren’t yet a circus, but a variety act. They didn’t even own proper suits, something they purchased after their first tour.

By 1884, they purchased the Yankee Robinson Circus that same year. They had enough of a show, suits and all, to create a one-ring show. The premiere was May 19, 1884.

More Rings

The brothers did so well, they were able to purchase part of a circus owned by Barnum & Bailey, who divided the U.S. territory with them in an agreement to play nice.

The agreement precluded the brothers from playing at Madison Square Gardens, but that wouldn’t matter for too long.

By 1887 they Ringling Circus had grown enough to warrant a title change: “Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals.”

It was a lot to think about; so was their show.

All The Rings

In 1891, P.T. Barnum passed away. The following decade, 1906, his partner Bailey passed too.

This left the Barnum & Bailey Circus in a place where the Ringling brothers could buy up that circus. They would finally play the Gardens.

The two circuses operated separately, but both owned by Ringling, until 1919 when they merged into them into Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the Greatest Show on Earth.

The act by that time was huge. They continued to perform in tents for a few decades, but by the 50s they ditched the tents for auditorium venues.

Then, in 1967, a group of investors and promoters, including Irving Feld and Israel Feld, purchased the brand. The Feld family controls the circus to this day.

The Last Ring

In more recent years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus suffered from fewer and fewer ticket sales.

“I don’t think people view the circus in the same way [today] because everything progresses,” says Kenneth Feld to Forbes Magazine. Feld has been the owner and CEO for the past 32 years. He added, “The circus grew up in a time when there was no television and very little entertainment.”

The first thing to go were the actual circus rings, antiquated and irrelevant. They replaced outdated aspects of the act with more daring ones. Outfits like Cirque De Soleil would push their circus to be more.

In more recent years the Felds caught flack for their treatment of their animals, the elephants in particular.A yearlong investigation branded Feld’s show “The Cruelest Show on Earth.”

Like what happened to Sea-world in the wake of Blackfish, mistreatment of their animals hit them so hard, they had to let go of the act. Sad, but it was for the best.

Regarding the last act of the show, on the Ringling site, Feld says to his fans:

“The circus and its people have continually been a source of inspiration and joy to my family and me, which is why this was such a tough business decision to make.”

Feld intends to continue to entertain, leveraging the Ringling name until it no longer matters, but this is the end of an era. Kids born today, even yesterday, will not check the Ringling Bros. show off their rites of passage.