When Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey wrapped its final circus tour, "Out of This World!" at NYCB Live's Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on May 21, 2017, the curtain fell on decades of iconic entertainment marked with much nostalgia and lingering criticism. Here's a look at key moments in the circus' history.
P.T. Barnum, founder of one of the forerunners to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, creates a museum of oddities in Manhattan with displays including a flea circus, ventriloquists. In later years, he added appearances by Siamese twins Chang and Eng, Grizzly Adams’ trained bears and 25-inch-tall General Tom Thumb.
P.T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome debuts under a tent in Brooklyn. (Barnum, pictured, lent his name to an existing circus.) This is the year cited for the founding of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. It wasn't until a decade later that Barnum teamed up with well-known circus man James Bailey, creating yet another forerunner to what would become Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Jumbo the elephant makes his debut in the new Barnum & Bailey Circus. He would later march across the newly built Brooklyn Bridge to prove its strength.
The showman P. T. Barnum dies, leaving his circus empire worth $5 million dollars. Bailey purchased the circus, then died in 1906. The next year, the Ringling Brothers, operators of an independent circus, purchased the Barnum & Bailey show, which the brothers ran separately from the Ringling circus until 1919, when the two shows were combined.
Despite wartime restrictions on rail travel, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus receives special dispensation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The famous clown Emmett Kelly was a performer, as were the daredevil "flying" Wallendas.
In Hartford, Connecticut, a Ringling tent catches fire and falls atop the audience, killing 160.
Brothers Irvin and Israel Feld, along with Roy Hofheinz, pictured center, and others, purchase the Ringling Bros. Circus.
Feld Entertainment establishes the Center for Elephant Conservation, a breeding farm and retirement facility in Polk City, Florida.
Johnathan Lee Iverson, a native New Yorker, is hired as the first African-American ringmaster.
The ASPCA and other groups file a lawsuit accusing Feld Entertainment of mistreating its Asian elephants.
The tall-haired Bello Nock, a daredevil clown, headlines the show.
After a series of legal battles, animal rights groups end up paying a combined total of $25 million in settlements to Feld Entertainment for bringing what U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan characterized as “groundless and unreasonable” litigation.
Feld Entertainment announces its elephants will cease performing and retire to the Center for Elephant Conservation.
Citing a sharp downturn in attendance, Feld Entertainment CEO Kenneth Feld announces the final shows of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, including the May 21 finale at NYCB Live’s Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.