Sunday will be the world’s last chance to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus as it performs the final shows of its 146-year existence at the renovated Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale.
“Many, many generations have been entertained by The Greatest Show on Earth. We’ve really been part of the American family,” said the circus’ last-ever ringmaster, Johnathan Lee Iverson, speaking before a performance Friday afternoon. “I imagine there’ll be a lot of tears, and I’m sure I’ll shed one, too.”
The closure of the circus, launched in 1871 by the legendary impresario P.T. Barnum, was announced in January by Feld Entertainment, a family-run company that owns several other live touring shows, including Disney On Ice and Marvel Universe LIVE! The Felds’ announcement came after more than a decade of legal battles with animal-rights groups and a decision last May to pull Ringling’s Asian elephants from shows. That led to an unexpectedly sharp downturn in attendance, making the circus — which still travels the county by railroad — an unsustainable proposition for the company.
“As a business decision, it was the right thing to do,” said Alana Feld, the company’s executive vice president and the granddaughter of Irvin Feld, a music promoter who purchased Ringling with other partners in 1967. “But from a personal perspective, it wasn’t an easy decision to make,” she added, speaking Friday at a Coliseum press conference.
Ringling’s closure will scatter a close-knit group of more than 100 performers, some of whom will join other circuses around the world. Davis Vassallo, a fourth-generation clown from Italy, said he is already booked for an upcoming tour of China, while lion-tamer Alexander Lacey and his acrobat wife, Katie Azzario Lacey, have plans to take their big cats on tour through Europe.
“All my cats have been born and bred for circus work,” said Lacey, whose family has raised 11 generations of lions and nine generations of tigers. “They know when they’re about to perform. They’re up on their feet, walking up and down, ready to go.”
As for Ringling’s other animals, they will be transferred to other “caregivers,” according to Alana Feld, though she would not offer specifics.
“That’s not information we’re disclosing,” she said.
The final edition of Ringling is titled “Out of This World” and uses an intergalactic theme to tie together traditional circus acts such as horseback riders and trapeze artists. Vassallo, the show’s marquee clown, says the performers have no plans to change the final performance, despite its historic significance. Any moments of emotion, he says, will most likely be shared between the performers in private.
“I will feel the real feeling when the last night, the curtain closes,” Vassallo said. “This will be the most challenging moment for all of us.”
Ringling’s final shows will take place Sunday at 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. The last performance will be streamed live via ringling.com and Facebook.