End of ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’

Go Lean Commentary

Come this May (2017), it will be ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ … no more!

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After 146 years, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will close, shut down and come to an end for good. The Agents of Change in entertainment has been chasing this fabled institution, and time finally caught up with it.

Kenneth Feld, the Chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, the company that owns the circus, verbalizes the drama succinctly:

“The competitor in many ways was ‘time’.”

“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.”

So now the legacy of exotic animals, flashy costumes, death-defying acrobats and clowns is over, under this model. The iconic American spectacle was felled by a variety of factors, company executives explained these contributing factors:

  • Changing public tastes
  • Declining attendance combined with high operating costs
  • Prolonged battles with animal rights groups

While this spells the end of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, it is not the end of circuses in general or the company Feld Entertainment; they also own-operate other profitable shows that will continue; a sample include:

Monster Jam, Disney on Ice and Marvel Live, etc.

Still, in the end – starting next month – some 500 people who perform and work on the circus shows will be impacted. According to the news article here by the Associated Press, “a handful will be placed in positions with the company’s other profitable shows but most will be out of a job”. See the full article here:

Title: Ringling Bros. circus to close after 146 years
By: Tamara Lush
ELLENTON, Fla. (AP) — After 146 years, the curtain is coming down on “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus told The Associated Press that the show will close forever in May.

The iconic American spectacle was felled by a variety of factors, company executives say. Declining attendance combined with high operating costs, along with changing public tastes and prolonged battles with animal rights groups all contributed to its demise.

CU Blog - End of 'The Greatest Show on Earth' - Photo 6“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, Rhode Island, on May 7 and in Uniondale, New York, 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 United States 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, kids became less and less enthralled. Movies, television, video games and the internet captured young minds. The circus didn’t have savvy product merchandising tie-ins or Saturday morning cartoons to shore up its image.

“The competitor in many ways is time,” said 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 3 hours then. Today, the show is 2 hours and 7 minutes, with the longest segment — a tiger act — clocking in at 12 minutes.

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“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, and it was the one thing that initially drew millions to the show: the animals. Ringling has been targeted by activists who say forcing animals to perform is cruel and unnecessary.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a longtime opponent of the circus, wasted no time in claiming victory.

“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,” Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, wrote in a statement.

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, acknowledged the move was “bittersweet” for the Felds but said: “I applaud their decision to move away from an institution grounded on inherently inhumane wild animal acts.”

In May of 2016, after a long and costly legal battle, the company removed the 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. In 2014, Feld Entertainment won $25.2 million in settlements from groups including the Humane Society of the United States, ending a 14-year fight over allegations that circus employees mistreated elephants.

By the time the elephants were removed, public opinion had shifted somewhat. Los Angeles prohibited the use of bull-hooks by elephant trainers and handlers, as did Oakland, California. The city of Asheville, North Carolina nixed wild or exotic animals from performing in the municipally owned, 7,600-seat U.S. Cellular Center.

Attendance has been dropping for 10 years, said Juliette Feld, 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. Juliette Feld says 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. Juliette Feld said the company will help employees with job placement and resumes. In some cases where a circus employee lives on the tour rail car (the circus travels by train), the company will also help with housing relocation.

Kenneth Feld became visibly emotional while discussing the decision with a reporter. He said over the next four months, fans will be able to say goodbye at the remaining shows.

CU Blog - End of 'The Greatest Show on Earth' - Photo 3In recent years, Ringling Bros. tried to remain relevant, hiring its first African American ringmaster, then its first female ringmaster, and also launching an interactive app. It added elements from its other, popular shows, such as motorbike daredevils and ice skaters. But it seemingly was no match for Pokemon Go and a generation of kids who desire familiar brands and YouTube celebrities.

“We tried all these different things to see what would work, and supported it with a lot of funding as well, and we weren’t successful in finding the solution,” said Kenneth Feld.
Source: Associated Press – Posted January 15, 2017; retrieved April 25, 2017 from: https://apnews.com/020bc7b2f16f4446ade338bcf4a500ed

While this is an American drama (consider the slice of Americana portrayed in the movie “The Greatest Show on Earth” highlighted in the Movie Trailer in the Appendix below), there is a lot of consideration in this news that relate to the Caribbean. There are lessons for us to learn and apply in the stewardship of Caribbean affairs. These points are being highlighted by the promoters of the book Go Lean…Caribbean; it presents a roadmap to elevate the 30 member-states in the Caribbean region through economic, security and governing empowerments. The book asserts that the entertainment industry can be a great economic contributor to Caribbean communities. Already, tourism is our primary economic driver, and so amusement and entertainment are closely linked.

There are changing trends in tourism, the same as there had been for circus appreciation. At many Caribbean resorts, the business models of casino gambling and golf resources simply do not have the same appeal as in previous days. There is the same factor that affected the circus: “changing public taste”.

So let’s consider the following lessons that the Caribbean is able to glean from experiences (good and bad) of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus:

  • There is a need to reconcile past abuses – The Circus had a checkered past of abuses; of the 3 separate circuses that merged over the 146 years, (Ringling Brothers, Barnum, Bailey), the Barnum entity – famed for P.T. Barnum – was known for its exploitation and displays of Freaks, people who were malformed or disabled in some way. This is a total disrespect to dignity and human rights. Lesson: Past sins must be repented and reconciled. (See Go Lean book Page 34: 10 Ways to Manage Reconciliations).
  • By extension, the abuse of animals was clearly documented by animal rights activists and advocates. The Circus should have just conceded this bad practices and worked to rectify. Instead, after decades of denials, when the irrefutable evidence were presented, the circus had no choice but to retire the Elephants and other exotic animals. There was no structured Change Management so as to prepare the public for the new absence of the elephants. The Circus attendance assuredly declined. Lesson: The Circus did have to answer to animal protection entities in the State and Federal governments; they should have negotiated with stakeholders – even opposers – like partners, not enemies. (See Go Lean book Page 32: 10 Ways to Improve Negotiations).
  • Circus performers are people too; they have families and children; many performers are children. Many media productions (i.e. documentaries) abound describing Carnie Life. There should have been more concerted effort to bring dignity to this travelling profession, like the travelling schools, without the need for the hard-fought labor rules and concessions. Carnies should have been viewed as indispensable partners. Lesson: The Caribbean can apply many lessons in the management and administration of Sports and Student Athletes; think Sports Academies. (See Go Lean book Page 229: 10 Ways to Improve Sports).
  • Circuses have excelled with their Transportation innovations – Ringling’s use of railroad tracks, trains and cars have been ingenious. They have also deployed residential cars for the cast and crew while they are on the road. Lesson: The Go Lean roadmap calls for deployment of innovative transportation solutions like ferries and the Union Atlantic Turnpike; logistics are necessary to empower communities. (See Go Lean book Page 205: 10 Ways to Improve Transportation).
  • Circuses have innovated and engineered amazing Event Centers – Tents and Temporary Stadiums. These have been advantageous since the circus only makes a temporary occupancy. Lesson: The strategies for Event Tourism in the Caribbean member-states require facilitations for stadiums and arenas. What we learn from the circus, is they do not have to be permanent structures. (See Go Lean book Page 191: 10 Ways to Impact Events).
  • Changing public tastes: – There is a need to understand the market and plan the business for the Caribbean economic engines. Lesson: In our region, casinos and golf are declining as hotel amenities, while Cruises Lines are transforming the public taste for how to consume the Caribbean. (See Go Lean book Page 193: 10 Ways to Impact Cruise Tourism).
  • Listen to the complaints – Ringling’s officials confess that “public opinion had shifted somewhat”. So in effect, the complainers (animal protesters for the circus; negative commentators for the Caribbean) represent the customers views.
  • Can’t beat them, join them – Ringling should have partnered with their stakeholders (Cities, Animal Advocates, “Carnies”) to develop a win-win product; but rather, for much of their 146-year history they were exploiters. Lesson: Lean Project Management methodologies, calls for “Plan, Do & Review”. Each year’s post-analysis goals should have been on finding solutions for the known challenges. (See Go Lean book Page 147: 10 Ways to Measure Progress).
  • Value the ‘Genius’ Factor – The Art & Science of circus must be fostered as an ongoing vocation. With their Clown College, Ringling made the proper effort to foster genius. Lesson: The Caribbean region must also foster those with genius qualifiers. (See Go Lean book Page 27: 10 Ways to Foster Genius).
  • Circus amusement is a leisure activity, 100% discretionary spending. The public can readily lower their spending. Lesson: The Caribbean cannot depend solely on Tourism, its a leisure activity; we need to trade in essentials. (See Go Lean book Page 195: 10 Ways to Impact Extractions).
  • Patriarchy & Orthodoxy must go – Diversity and Inclusion should not have been optional for the Ringling circus. Only in recent years, has the Ringling Circus even tried to remain relevant, hiring its first African American ringmaster, then its first female ringmaster, and also launching an interactive smart-phone app. Lesson: Institutions should reflect the better values of society, the Greater Good. (See Go Lean book Page 37: 10 Ways to Impact the Greater Good.).
  • The Ringling Circus will be missed – An absence of circuses hurts society. Circus amusement can be effective for influencing people: make people happy, feed them and entertain them, then heavy-lifting tasks can be pursued – see this point developed in this previous blog.

As alluded to earlier, there is a model for circus entertainment that works successfully in today’s economy:

Cirque Du Soleil

This model had previously (1984) rebooted, reformed and transformed circus entertainment, and now they are one of the most successful entertainment enterprises in North America – they continue to soar. This model features death-defying acrobats, costumes, and clowns; only no exotic animals. See the pricing here for their permanent show – Cirque du Soleil La Nouba – in Orlando’s Downtown Disney (Disney Springs) entertainment complex. The field of Economics teaches an important lesson here: Price is a measurement of demand.

Greatest Show - Photo 8

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Lessons learned!

The Go Lean book presents a plan to reboot, reform and transform the regional economy and create the needed jobs and careers, some even in the amusement & entertainment industry. But, the Go Lean book asserts that this effort is too big a task for just for Caribbean member-state alone; all the 30 member-states must convene, confederate and collaborate in order to effect change. As such, the Go Lean book serves as a roadmap for the introduction and implementation of the technocratic Caribbean Union Trade Federation (CU), for the elevation of Caribbean society. This CU/Go Lean roadmap has these 3 prime directives:

The Go Lean book stresses that reforming and transforming management of Caribbean talent must be a regional pursuit, considering the genius-qualifier of show-business and sports. This was an early motivation for the roadmap as pronounced in the opening Declaration of Interdependence (Page 14):

xxxi. Whereas sports have been a source of great pride for the Caribbean region, the economic returns from these ventures have not been evenly distributed as in other societies. The Federation must therefore facilitate the eco-systems and vertical industries of sports as a business, recreation, national pastime and even sports tourism ….

xxxii. Whereas the cultural arts and music of the region are germane to the quality of Caribbean life, and the international appreciation of Caribbean life, the Federation must implement the support systems to teach, encourage, incentivize, monetize and promote the related industries for arts and music in domestic and foreign markets. These endeavors will make the Caribbean a better place to live, work and play.

This commentary previously related details of the subjects of talent management and fostering genius (including show-business and sports) that can be applied directly in the Caribbean. Here is a sample of previous blogs:

http://www.goleancaribbean.com/blog/?p=10351 ‘Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast’
http://www.goleancaribbean.com/blog/?p=7866 Switching Allegiances: Jamaican sprinters represent other countries
http://www.goleancaribbean.com/blog/?p=2415 How ‘The Lion King’ roared into history
http://www.goleancaribbean.com/blog/?p=1446 Caribbean Players in the 2014 World Cup
http://www.goleancaribbean.com/blog/?p=1214 The Art & Science of Temporary Stadiums – No White Elephants
http://www.goleancaribbean.com/blog/?p=498 Book Review: ‘The Sports Gene’

The Go Lean book details the community ethos, strategies, tactics and operational advocacies to effectuate this goal of preparing the Caribbean for change. This 5-year roadmap does not want our economic engines to just stop, like the circus is about to do in the US in May 2017. There will still be the need for amusement, entertainment and fun, all such things associated with the circus and leisure travel. And just like the circus was branded “The Great Show on Earth”, our Caribbean destination have been branded, according to the Go Lean book (Page 251):

… the greatest address in the world …
… appreciated not only by the residents but also by the visitors to these shores – estimated at 80 million. But things are missing here. Since we cannot move the islands, the only solution is to fill the deficiency. … This is not the first time a society has had to institute change to adjust to the realities … Many examples abound; lessons can be applied from the success and failures of others.

In this vein, the Go Lean book identifies the Agents of Change affecting the Caribbean marketplace and then tries to prepare the region for its eventuality. The book describes some of these agents as:

  • Technology
  • Globalization
  • Climate Change

The book (and this commentary) concludes (Page 252):

Get moving … now is the time. Opportunities abound; … there is opportunity enough in the preparation for the coming change. So act now! Get moving to that place, the “corner” of preparation and opportunity.


Download the free e-book of Go Lean … Caribbean – now!

Sign the petition to lean-in for this roadmap for the Caribbean Union Trade Federation.


Appendix – Movie Trailer VIDEO – The Greatest Show on Earth – https://youtu.be/2QswjButLfA

Published on Sep 10, 2012 – Charlton Heston stars as Brad Braden, the diehard circus manager who lives and breathes to keep the show rolling. With the Big Top about to hit rock bottom, Braden hires The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), a daring trapeze legend, to revitalize the circus. His arrival sparks the rivalry and admiration of Holly (Betty Hutton), Braden’s girlfriend and trapeze star.

License: Standard YouTube License

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