RIP Ringling Brothers Circus: 1871-2017


Like most kids growing up in the 90s, I went to see the circus with my family.  The circus performance came with typical skits – the ringleader introducing the show, clowns running around playing pranks on each other, elephants playing with beach balls, and even tigers walking through a balance beam.  It was all part of good ol’ fashion fun for American families.  Circuses are still around these days, but one major circus performing company is pulling the curtains on their shows this year.

After 146 years of show business, The Ringling Brothers Circus is closing its doors this year.  The owner of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey announced that their final show will be on May.  Thirty shows will be performed between now and May with major stops including Washington, Philadelphia Brooklyn, Atlanta, and Boston.  A variety of factors caused a decline in attendance over the last decade.

Ringling Brothers Circus has been an American staple of entertainment since performing their first show on 1871.  Phineas Taylor Barnum was a showman/businessman who founded the Barnum & Bailey Circus.  Before diving into the circus, Barnum was known as a showman who promoted celebrated hoaxes for his audience.  He wasn’t shy of entertainers/vendors utilizing hype (or in his own words, “humbug”) in promoting materials as long as the public was getting their value for money.

P.T. Barnum was so strategic as a publicist that he was considered a master of PR manipulation in the 19th century.  Public Relations didn’t gain its popularity until the early 20th century, but Barnum was actually utilizing PR before it was even a thing!  Phineas Barnum is considered a legend within the PR world.

Surprisingly enough, Phineas didn’t enter the circus business until he was 60 years old.  His first gig was in Delavan, Wisconsin in 1870 where established “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome”, a traveling circus featuring menagerie and a museum of “freaks”.  It went through multiple name changes until an 1881 merger with James Bailey and James L. Hutchinson shortened the business title to “Barnum and Bailey’s”.  Barnum and Bailey split up for a bit in 1885, but reunited in 1888 to form “Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth”.

Other than being a legendary figure of public relations, Barnum also became known as the Shakespeare of Advertising because of his innovative and impressive ideas.  He figured out how to draw in the patrons, giving them a short glimpse of something they have never seen before.  His advertising strategy revolves around indulging in the truth and making it seem more appealing.

It’s been decades since his traveling circus took off and now it’s being geared off the rails by May.  Many PR problems caused attendance to drop like flies, but one unfortunate reality that led to the closing is what initially drew millions of spectators in the first place: the animals.  After a costly and long legal battle in May 2016, Ringling Brothers removed the elephants from their shows and sent them to live on a conservation farm in Florida.  Animals have always been the main symbol of the circus since Barnum bought the Asian elephant named Jumbo to America in 1882.

Even after the battle in May 2016, public opinion was still shifting.  Los Angeles and Oakland prohibited the use of bull-hooks by elephant trainers/handlers.  Asheville, North Carolina dropped wild or exotic animals from performing at the U.S. Cellular Center.  As a side note, just go home and watch Disney’s Dumbo if you want to know how bad animal cruelty wasIt’s a classic children’s film that will give you a glimpse of how horrifying elephant captivity was decades ago.

These events mirror off of similar actions that happened after Blackfish was released back in 2013 (read more about Blackfish here).  Attendance has always been dropping the past 10 years (with audiences favoring digital entertainment more than performances), but attendance dropped dramatically after the elephants left.  Case in point: the animals served as the main drive for Barnum & Bailey, but trending shifts towards animal activism in the 21st century caused the circus to take a serious nosedive.

Make no mistake, Ringling Brothers DID try to remain relevant in the digital age.  Actions such as hiring its first African-American ringmaster or launching an interactive app were interesting strategies to keep up with the current trends.  But these strategies were no match for games like Pokémon GO and a generation of kids that looked up to YouTube celebrities.

And with that, it was the end of a glorious era of performance entertainment for Ringling Brothers.  What was once a spectacle showcasing mystery and curiosity has now been replaced by iPads and VR games.  This goes beyond just the death of a company: it’s the death of timeless entertainment for the United States.  Gone are the days of kids being enthralled by elephants balancing on a beach ball for a few minutes.

This was sad news to hear!  I remember going to the circus a few times with my family and it was fun to watch the animals perform.  On the plus side, it’s great that the animals will finally be released back in the wild after all those years of performing.  Blackfish basically ruined the reputation of animal performances for Orcas, as well as elephants.

Time played a factor for the cultural shift against animal cruelty.  Before the age of social media, we were naïve about how the animals were treated after the performances were over.  Social media provided us a window to the bleak truth of companies conducting animal cruelty towards their animals.  We are now informed of these controversies, forcing us to act upon these problems to create a better world for our future generation.  Our history won’t ever be erased, but we can definitely learn from our mistakes and create meaningful entertainment that doesn’t endanger animals’ lives.

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