Ringling Bros. Circus to Close After 146 Years

ELLENTON, Fla.—After 146 years, the curtain is coming down on “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

The show will close forever in May, the owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus said.

Declining attendance combined with high operating costs, along with changing public tastes and prolonged battles with animal-rights groups all contributed to the show’s demise, company executives said.

“There isn’t any one thing,” said Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment. “This has been a very difficult decision for me and for the entire family.”

The company broke the news to circus employees Saturday night after shows in Orlando and Miami.

Ringling Bros. has two touring circuses this season and will perform 30 shows between now and May. Major stops include Atlanta, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston and Brooklyn. The final shows will be in Providence, R.I., on May 7 and in Uniondale, N.Y., at the Nassau County Coliseum on May 21.

The circus, with its exotic animals, flashy costumes and death-defying acrobats, has been a staple of entertainment in the U.S. since the mid-1800s. Phineas Taylor Barnum made a traveling spectacle of animals and human oddities popular, while the five Ringling brothers performed juggling acts and skits from their home base in Wisconsin. Eventually, they merged and the modern circus was born.

The sprawling troupes traveled around America by train, wowing audiences with the sheer scale of entertainment and exotic animals.

By midcentury, the circus was routine, wholesome family entertainment. But as the 20th century went on, children became less enthralled. Movies, television, videogames and the internet captured young minds.

“The competitor in many ways is time,” said Mr. Feld, adding that transporting the show by rail and other circus quirks—such as providing a traveling school for performers’ children—are throwbacks to another era. “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. So you’ve got all these things working against it.”

The Feld family bought the Ringling circus in 1967. The show was just under three hours then. Today, the show is two hours and seven minutes, with the longest segment—a tiger act—clocking in at 12 minutes.

“Try getting a 3- or 4-year-old today to sit for 12 minutes,” he said.

Feld and his daughter Juliette Feld, who is the company’s chief operating officer, acknowledged another reality that led to the closing: the animals. Ringling has been targeted by activists who say forcing animals to perform is cruel and unnecessary.

In May 2016, after a costly legal battle, the company removed elephants from the shows and sent the animals to live on a conservation farm in Central Florida. The animals had been the symbol of the circus since Barnum brought an Asian elephant named Jumbo to America in 1882.

Attendance has been falling for 10 years, Ms. Feld said, but when the elephants left, there was a dramatic drop in ticket sales. Paradoxically, while many said they didn’t want big animals to perform in circuses, many others refused to attend a circus without them.

“We know now that one of the major reasons people came to Ringling Bros. was getting to see elephants,” she said. “We stand by that decision. We know it was the right decision. This was what audiences wanted to see and it definitely played a major role.”

The Felds say their existing animals—lions, tigers, camels, donkeys, alpacas, kangaroos and llamas—will go to suitable homes. Ms. Feld said the company will continue operating the Center for Elephant Conservation.

Some 500 people perform and work on both touring shows. A handful will be placed in positions with the company’s other, profitable shows—it owns Monster Jam, Disney on Ice and Marvel Live, among other things—but most will be out of a job. Ms. Feld said the company will help employees with job placement and resumes. In some cases where a circus employee lives on the tour railcar, the company will also help with housing relocation.