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Ringling circus to close after 146-year run

Alexander Lacey, animal trainer for the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus in Washington on March 31, 2017. (New York Times photos)

It began in 1871 as PT Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome. It survived the Depression, two world wars and the new media of its time. But on May 21, the world’s most historic circus, Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, will shut down after failing to sufficiently dazzle the children of the smartphone age and to overcome the fierce opposition of the animal rights movement.

The frenzied spectacle of today is still rooted in its 19th-century traditions, with a dash of the modern mixed in. Clowns flop. Trapezists fly. Wild animals jump. Contortionists bend. Horses gallop. Tightrope walkers wobble.

But ticket sales, which had been declining for a decade, plummeted last year when the elephants left the ring for the last time. Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling, spent years battling animal rights groups and accusations of elephant abuse. The circus never lost in court; it won a total of US$25 million in two settlements from two major animal rights groups and beat back allegations that it had mistreated elephants with chains and bullhooks. 

But a surreptitious 2009 video showing heavy-handed tactics against the elephants and a powerful online campaign helped dampen enthusiasm for the circus, even as Ringling moved to revamp its practices.

"We won in court -- and obviously in the court of public opinion we didn’t prevail," said Kenneth Feld, the 69-year-old chairman and chief executive of Feld Entertainment, which bought the circus in 1967. In an unforgiving marketplace, he said, it just became too hard for the circus to hold on to its most crucial fans: wide-eyed kids and their nostalgic parents.

The circus, whittled from five rings to three to, finally, one, found it impossible to compete with cellphones, video games and endless on-demand entertainment. Now, in its last days, the men and women who have dedicated years to an enterprise that felt eternal are looking back with pride, grief and a sense of disbelief that "the greatest show on earth" is going dark for good.

There is no place like the backstage of a circus. Unicyclists weave past motorcyclists who rev up to roll into their globe of steel. Clowns in slapstick shoes cross paths with lions waiting in cages for their cues. Acrobats sidestep trapezists who pull up on a practice bar. Poodles in a wagon zip by equestrians who jog in place next to their horses.

Above it all, literally, stands the ringmaster -- Johnathan Lee Iverson, the gangling man who became the first African-American and the youngest person in Ringling history to don the bedazzled top hat and tails. With his megaphone tenor and towering presence, Mr Iverson opens the circus on a float -- a rocket ship, in this case.

With the circus ambling toward its final farewell, Mr Iverson does less presiding than marvelling and philosophising over this "theatre of the impossible" and the talent it boasts. He has spent 18 years and five months as ringmaster with Ringling; the circus is where he got married, welcomed a son and daughter (who are now in the show), saw the world unfurl through the window of a train (his home) and adopted an extended family of international circus performers.

"I wear the moniker of circus freak with pride," said Mr Iverson, 41.

The circus, he said, is a "compulsion" with little, if any, downtime. "To see people put hours, days, years into eight perfect minutes is a really inspirational thing," he said.

As for his own future, opera may lure him back. A talk show would be wonderful. Playwriting is a possibility.

But Mr Iverson also carries traces of disappointment. The way he sees it, Feld Entertainment should have used a little more razzmatazz in its publicity and marketing to save the circus and counter the narrative of the animal rights groups.

Mr Lacey made his career choice when he was 12.

The first thing Alexander Lacey, Ringling’s heartthrob animal trainer, does every morning after he feeds and waters the 14 lions, tigers and one leopard he has raised since birth is gauging their mood.

"Once you understand your animals so well, there is no reason to be scared of them, because you are never going to put yourself in a position where it is dangerous," said Mr Lacey, 41, who was born in England into a lion and tiger-training family.

The worst injuries he has suffered are scars and scratches. On and off the ring, he hugs many of his lions and tigers and, with Masai, a male lion, he kisses him on the mouth and lets the lion lie on top of him. In his last act, he stuck his head in his mouth.

Animal rights groups say animals don’t belong in captivity.

Mr Beatty’s whip, pistol and chair are long gone. Gunther Gebel-Williams, the trainer and performer, changed the culture of animal training, one that Mr Lacey embraces. Starting at eight months, the lions and tigers learn through a system of meat treats, guides (a thin pole) and repetition. Mr Lacey puts his nose in their mouth and blows when they are teeny to get them used to the feel. As they grow, his face goes in deeper. Two years later, they perform.

After the final show, Mr Lacey plans to take his cats and go to Germany to join his brother, another animal trainer and breeder. His wife, Katie, who works at Ringling, will join him.

Davis Vassallo, 37, paints red cheeks on his daughter, then moves over to her lips, getting her ready to play a child version of his character. Adriana is seven.

Soon, Mr Vassallo will move on, maybe to another circus. "Every time I go home, I get bored," he said. "That’s when you realise you love your job."

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