In May 2017 Feld Entertainment closed the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth after 146 years of successful touring in the States. In a statement Feld Entertainment said ‘this was because they had been running at a loss’, however there had been a lot of bad press from the animal rights activists about the way they treated their animals.
But regardless of the reason for their closure I wondered if it really was the Greatest Show on Earth? This was two circuses that had merged together, the Barnum and Bailey Circus which was first opened their doors in December 1871 and the Ringling Brothers Circus which was opened in 1884. It only was after PT Barnum’s death in 1891 and James Bailey’s death in 1906 that the circus was sold to the Ringling Brothers who continued to operate the two shows separately until 1919 when it became the Ringling Brother and Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. Feld Entertainment was first involved to manage the operation from 1956.
Up until the Ringling Brothers took over in 1906 the Barnum and Bailey Circus had toured in Europe. It wasn’t until 1980 that they began an oversea venture trying to mirror the three ring effect in Japan and Australia.
Though I never had the privilege to see the show live and I am sure it was one of the Greatest Shows every produced, but the bit I question is ‘on Earth’?
When James Bailey and PT Barnum first hatched the idea of The Greatest Show on Earth I am sure their vision was to take this show not just on a rail road tour or reproduce the three rings on other continents, but one massively amazing, translantic, multi continent, international phenomenon, which I don’t think ever was fully achieved.
So what was it that Feld Entertainment and the Ringling Brothers did wrong that led to reduction in ticket sales which led to the canvas being folded for the last time for the great show? Was the show mismanaged? I don’t think it was, Feld Entertainment successfully produces over 5000 shows a year internationally. Was it the animal rights activists? I don’t think it was, I read somewhere that in fact ticket sales had increased during the initial protests, which I can believe since people still do love to see animals perform, but for very different reasons then that when they were first brought to the ring. In the 21st century science has now shown us that many animals have high IQ and actually benefit from the stimulation of human interaction. Wild animals also have the ability to care for humans as it has been found online if their keeper were attacked the animal will defend them.
I think there are a couple of things going on here which were possibly the main contributors to the final closure of the show. These were simply failing to close the generation gap and lack of vision. I think these really go hand in hand, but I will discuss them separately.
Firstly the generation gap both from audience and that of performers. When you read and listen to the performers who have lost their jobs you quickly learn that some of these people have never written a CV as they have got to where they are by default because other family members, their parents mainly, have done it before them. If this show requires you to be top of your game then how can you do that without competition? Other people coming in to do what you are doing will automatically help you to raise your game because it become competitive this is all extremely healthy.
So for generations of people in this show some of which some have been in as long as 20 years plus, it almost starts to become what Brits call a ‘Gentleman’s Club’. What this means that it’s an exclusively private club for members only and in this case generations of performers coming from families who were already were doing specific acts in show and not allowing performers from outside with a new perspective of the act to come and be part of it, because the notion is ‘regardless of our standard., we have 20 clowns we don’t need any more thank you’.
So when you have the same performers for 20 plus years, you have to think about the audience’s perception, parent would have seen the acts when they were kids, and they may be willing to take their children to see them, how many times can you sit through the same people doing near enough the same thing time and again? Les Miserable has been going for over 30 years in the West End and still plays to a pack audience wherever it plays. Whilst this is a different genre of entertainment the principles are always the same. The reason Les Miserable can continue to play to a full house is because they change their cast every 12 to 18 months. You may see this musical 2 or three times over a 5 or 10 year period, but it will be very unusual to see the people playing the principle parts more than once in that time frame, unless they were your family or close friend.
The lack of vision, this comes really hand in hand with the second part of the point above. If you are continually having the same people performing the same act year on year in the same places across the country then how can anyone expect the public to keep coming after 146 years? While I do accept that new performances may have been added as in as different kind of act, how many long term families left the train? PT Barnum actively went out looking for new acts and as act stop making him money he sold their contract on.
So while The Greatest Show on Earth was widely known about I am not sure that it quite reached PT Barnum’s full expectations or followed his business plan if he had one.
But with all this said how do I think The Greatest Show on Earth on should look and operate? Or should the question be what direction do I think PT Barnum would have taken the show after nearly 150 years?
First and foremost I think he would say there needs to be an acknowledgement of change over the decades, views on uses of animals for example, while I don’t disagree with the views of PETA about the handling of animals on a broad scale and I do disagree with the way they handled their protests. But I still don’t think there is a need for animals in circuses on such a large scale in the 21st Century, but then you need to know what the tastes of the audience are.
When PT Barnum took on Jenny Lind, he had never heard of her, he didn’t know her work, was unsure if the American public would accept her, so he thought she was a high risk act. But he still signed the deal, later she would made him a fortune and became his most respected act.
Technology has changed and updated, and I don’t just mean things like lighting and sound for the performance but also for transportation. How small can equipment be packed, how fast can we get from venue to venue? The train was customised to the needs of the show, what other methods of transportation can be customised to make the touring experience easier?
The final ingredient is the staff, acts and crew. The opening ceremony at the Olympics is often referred to as ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, and when you watch it either live in the stadium of as one the millions of TV viewers from around the world you see why, each performance tops the last Olympic ceremony. They just get better and better, why? Different people, new ideas, different setting, but mainly time. It can take between 4 to 8 years to create performances of that size and quality.
This is why we have 4 years between the big international sporting events, each country has 4 years find the stars that are top of the game including a new and upcoming generations. The Olympics are about proving they are top. Over the cause of that four years those competitors would have been to other sporting events to help them improve, the Olympics is just the ultimate challenge.
The World Scout Jamboree again held every 4 years hosted by a different country the participants are all aged between 14 and 18. This means to participate in the world’s largest youth event becomes a once in a lifetime opportunity to spent 10 days sharing a campsite and thousands of activities with 33,000 other young people. You may go back time and again to volunteer to help run the event, but that is a different experience.
So while the Greatest Show on Earth should be a continual 365 days a year event, to make it successful we should to learn from the big sporting and youth events. Whether you are management, backstage crew or a performer the contract is for a time maybe 12 or 18 month, then you move on and the policy would mean you couldn’t re-join the show for something like 4 years. The only thing that remains the same and a constant is the operating company just to ensure that policies and procedures are kept up to date.
With so many people coming and going it is always giving new people the opportunity to be part of something amazing, and also gives them time to try out other things, to go and have a life away from it then maybe come back fresh after the period. Also there will be a whole new generation of audience who may never have seen or heard those performers, it means performers are talked about in the exciting way those who saw them may 4 or 8 years earlier but doing something new. But most of all there is a continual flow of new ideas being generated in every aspect.
So maybe one day in the not so distant future there can be a revival of The Great Show on Earth, that doesn’t travel by train in one country, but is an international phenomenon just as PT Barnum first dreamed it.