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Ringling Bros. wraps final shows in 146-year history at Nassau Coliseum

Clowns, aerialists, Cossack riders, lions, tigers and nearly 200 other human and animal performers took their final bows with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus Sunday night at the renovated Nassau Coliseum, bringing "The Greatest Show on Earth" to an end after 146 years. (Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara)

Clowns, aerialists, Cossack riders, lions, tigers and nearly 200 other human and animal performers took their final bows with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus Sunday night at the renovated Nassau Coliseum, bringing the Greatest Show on Earth to a close after 146 years.

“It’s a sign of the times,” said circusgoer James Schuessler of Lindenhurst, who marked the occasion by taking a selfie outside the venue with his wife, Natalie, and their 4-year-old, Lucas. “This is the last circus, so I wanted to get him out here for it. It’ll be his first circus and the last.”

A heightened sense of emotion, both in the crowd and on stage, characterized Ringling’s last-ever performance of “Out of This World,” which used a space-themed storyline to tie together traditional circus acts. The audience cheered for the spacesuit-clad acrobats that opened the show and gasped as Davis Vassallo, a fourth-generation clown from Italy, did a headstand atop a pole some 80 feet in the air. There was also warm applause for a preshow speech from Kenneth Feld, the CEO and chairman of the family-run Feld Entertainment company, which owns Ringling.

“In the 50 years that our family has been producing Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, over a quarter of a billion people have seen the shows,” said Feld, accompanied by his two young grandchildren. “So from the bottom of our hearts, we want to say thank you all very much, and please enjoy and celebrate the Greatest Show on Earth one last time.”

Big-cat trainer Alexander Lacey halted his performance to address, if indirectly, the animal-rights groups whose protests and lawsuits against Ringling led the circus to pull its Asian elephants from all shows in May 2016. That move caused a steep slide in attendance and forced Ringling to close its doors. On Sunday, about three dozen protesters stood outside the NYCB Live’s Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum with signs.

“People aren’t really concerned with wildlife until they see it, feel it and love it as much as I do,” Lacey said. He also encouraged the audience to “Support good, well-run circuses” before giving Masai, the lion, one last kiss on the Ringling stage.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Eric Tann of Nesconset, who attended the show with his girlfriend and blamed the animal rights groups for the end of Ringling. “I want to bring my son or daughter to the circus some day. And because of them, I can’t.”

The show ended with a standing ovation as ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson brought virtually the entire Ringling troupe onto the floor. “I thought the circus was antiquated? You mean you love the circus?” He said. After thanking nearly every member of the company — from floor crew to train crew to bus drivers — Iverson led Nassau Coliseum through a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.”

Sunday’s finale was a bittersweet moment for dozens of former Ringling employees — from chefs in the circus train’s “pie car” to famed clown Bello Nock sporting his signature foot-high Mohawk — who met outside the Coliseum before the Sunday swan song to be together on what one of them called “The Saddest Day on Earth.” They donned red clown noses and hugged friends not seen in years before gathering in front of a Ringling truck for a photograph.

Seeing the circus on its final day was “a little bit sad,” said Jeff Sinkiewicz, 56, of Centereach, there with a friend and her 10-year-old daughter. “It is something other generations won’t get to experience.”

With Michael O’Keeffe

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