January has been tough on some American institutions.
First, Sears and Macy’s each announced they are closing stores around the country due to lackluster holiday sales and long-term trends that have seen customers hunting for bargains online rather than in department stores. The Macy’s store at Washington Crown Center is one of the outlets being shuttered. Mall owners across the country are now surely wondering how their properties will stay afloat if the anchors start to sink.
Then, there was the announcement Saturday that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is going to fold its tent for good in the spring, ending a 146-year run.
To put that in perspective, that’s before the invention of the telephone, television, radio, the phonograph, the motion picture and all the other foundation stones of the 21st century entertainment industry.
The reasons for the demise of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus come down to high costs and declining attendance, according to its owners. Its ticket prices have been relatively affordable even as tickets to concerts have sometimes topped $100 or more, and tickets to touring Broadway shows have reached $75.
But this venerable form of family entertainment has simply not been bringing enough of those families through the turnstiles. Also, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has had to deal with high overhead costs that involve moving two companies across the country by rail and providing a school for the children of the company’s performers.
Kenneth Feld, the chief executive of Feld Entertainment, which has owned Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus since the 1960s, told the Associated Press, “It’s a different model that we can’t see how it works in today’s world to justify and maintain an affordable ticket price.”
If it’s any comfort to Feld and the 400 or so Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey cast and crew members who will receive pink slips, they’re not alone. Other circus companies, both in the United States and abroad, have been seeing hard times, as circus attendance has tumbled as much as 50 percent over the last 20 years. Apparently, the sometimes leisurely pace of the circus no longer matches our contemporary sensibilties.
Referring to the circus company’s tiger act, Feld remarked to the AP, “Try getting a 3- or 4-year-old today to sit for 12 minutes.”
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus also has been hobbled by its decision two years ago to drop elephants from its shows, following protests from animal rights groups who contended that making the pachyderms spin and dance under the spotlight was cruel and exploitative.
This also reflects our changing times, as more and more potential customers turn away from spectacles if they suspect animals are being harnessed for the sake of entertainment and profit.
Still, it’s tough not to feel a twinge of sentimentality and regret at the thought that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will no longer be coming to town.
It’s an indelible part of our country’s history that will almost certainly never be replaced.