Ringling Bros. Circus Hosting Its Last Show Ever at Nassau Coliseum

Ringling Brothers
The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus elephants in action. (Photo by Laura Bittner)

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus will give its final performance ever, ending its 146 years in business, at the renovated Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale on May 21.

The company that operates what’s billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth” blamed rising costs of doing business and declining ticket sales for the decision. Fans of the circus were saddened by the news while advocates concerned with the treatment of animals in the show cheered the announcement.

“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,” said Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment, which produces the circus, in a statement. “The decision was even more difficult because of the amazing fans who have become members of our extended circus family over the years, and we are extremely grateful to the millions of families who have made Ringling Bros. part of their lives for generations.”

Ringling Bros., the nation’s largest circus that travels the nation in the world’s largest private train, isn’t the only group of traveling clowns, acrobats, trained exotic animals and other performers to have struggled to compete with more modern forms of entertainment. The Big Apple Circus filed for bankruptcy last year.

Since it has roots in New York, holding its final performance on Long Island brings Ringling Bros. full circle. Hachaliah Bailey, a Westchester County farmer, founded one of America’s earlier circuses in 1808 when he formed a traveling show around the star, “Old Bet,” the first circus elephant in the US. Bailey’s hometown of Somers is known as “The Cradle of the American Circus.”

Hachaliah Bailey’s nephew, James Anthony Bailey, later partnered with P.T. Barnum, who had a competing traveling show, to form the Barnum and Bailey circus. Their biggest competitor, Wisconsin-based Ringling Bros., bought them out in 1906 and later merged them. Florida-based Feld Entertainment, which also runs such shows as Disney on Ice, Monster Jam and Marvel Universe Live!, bought the circus nearly a half century ago.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), among the circus’ most vocal critics, was happy to hear that Ringling Bros. is coming to an end.

“After 36 years of PETA protests, which have awoken the world to the plight of animals in captivity, PETA heralds the end of what has been the saddest show on earth for wild animals, and asks all other animal circuses to follow suit, as this is a sign of changing times,” the group said in a statement.

Ringling Bros., which was fined $270,000 for federal animal welfare violations in 2011, retired its elephants to an animal sanctuary last year. The rest of its animals will follow suit after the show closes.

The Circus Fans Association of America, a group dedicating to reversing the decline in interest in the traveling shows, was saddened to hear of Ringling Bros.’ demise.

“Although to some of us, the closing is not totally surprising given the retirement of its elephants last year, the passing of an iconic institution and brand is cause for mourning by America,” said Gary Payne, the group’s president, in a statement. “For nearly 150 years, the show survived so much, yet always found a way to seem new and exciting each year.”

Most of the circus’ 500 performers who travel the nation in two troupes will be laid off, according to The Associated Press, which first reported the news. Some will be absorbed into the parent company’s other shows.

“Ringling Bros. will always be part of Feld Entertainment, and its spirit will live on in every production and project we do,” said Feld, the CEO.

Locally, a relic of The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus will live on despite the show’s closure. The PT Barnum, one of the ships operated by The Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Steamboat Co., travels daily across the Long Island Sound between LI and Connecticut, where the circus founder was also a politician and co-founder of the ferry company.