A few thoughts on the closing of Ringling Brothers

There’s more “change” going on than just the upheaval in the political world these days. In a surprise announcement over the weekend, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus informed the world that they were literally pulling up stakes and shutting down the show this spring. The variety of reactions coming from people around the world is telling, both in terms of how accepting society is of this form of entertainment and the inescapable forces of capitalism. (New York Post)

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.

“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.”

There are obviously some folks who are sad to see the “Greatest Show on Earth” going away. Our RedState colleague Sonja Bochow bid them a rather touching farewell.

Bye-bye Big Top. You were once grand. You captured our imagination with your feats of derring-do, amazing acrobats and incredible animal acts. Time catches up with us all. And the time has come to pull up the tent stakes for good. Ladies And Gentlemen! And, Children Of All Ages! The Greatest Show On Earth!

My own memories of the circus are fuzzy. We went at least twice when I was a child, and it was a significant journey for a lower middle class family in a rural area. It was a several hour journey by car to the nearest city where the circus performed and the kids would be asleep in the car for most of the trip back. And yes, it was a spectacle in an era which was short on truly eye opening entertainment.

In later years I came to dislike the circus animal acts… a subject which can’t be separated from the topic of Ringling Brothers closing, but also doesn’t account for the entire story. Much like zoos and SeaWorld style marine parks, I didn’t care to see the large, intelligent mammals like the elephants and big cats put on display and made to perform unnatural tasks while living in cramped quarters and being trucked around the continent. It wasn’t some sort of torture, however. The circus beat back the animal rights groups accusing them of cruelty a few years ago and even obtained a $25M judgement against them, but a significant portion of public sentiment had clearly shifted. Personally, looking at the animals just made me sad.

When the announcement came out, those same animal rights groups were taking a victory lap along with celebrities such as Pamela Anderson. On the other side of the fence, Shaquille O’Neal was very unhappy to see them go. I think that divide mirrors what can be said for rank and file individuals across the nation.

But we should remember that this was about more than just the animal acts, and the end of this era was both predictable and proper. If the government had swooped in and shut down the show in some misguided mission of social justice it would have been an outrage (absent any proof of criminal behavior). But that’s not what happened. Ringling Brothers is going down because consumers voted with their wallets. Part of it centered on the animal shows to be sure. The owners admitted that some people stopped coming because of the elephants, but another large group stopped attending after the elephants were retired a few years ago.

Beyond that, however, the circus was simply part of yesterday’s entertainment and it couldn’t compete in the 21st century. The cost and benefits of going to this sort of a show were worth it for many Americans in the era of my childhood which I described above. Today, other entertainment options deliver more bang for the buck than the circus and they simply weren’t attracting enough customers. That may seem rather casually brutal to say, but it’s the reality of the free market. Ringling Brothers is going out of business because they failed to deliver a product which a sufficient number of consumers desire. In the end, that’s all there was to it.