The Last Greatest Show on Earth

Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson (in the multi-colored jacket) hosts the final performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus on May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, New York. Credit: © Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey


On Sunday, May 21, the iconic Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus gave its final performance at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. The grand finale of the traveling circus, long billed as the “Greatest Show on Earth,” came after years of evolving cultural tastes, declining revenues, and increasing costs. The circus, famous for its numerous animal acts, had also come under increasing resistance from animal rights activists. The circus’s final three shows—played consecutively on Sunday with the space theme “Out of This World”—were sold out and streamed live over the Internet.

Showman P. T. Barnum started the circus—also known for its live music, acrobats, clowns, contortionists, dancers, trapeze artists, trick riders, and the famed human cannonball—in 1871. The circus traveled by railroad from town to town, operating beneath tents that included the iconic “big top” for the largest acts. Barnum died in 1891, but the circus continued under the management of Barnum’s business partner, James Bailey, until his death in 1906.



Emotional performers embrace during the final staging of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus on May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, New York. Credit: © Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey


The Ringling brothers—who had run their own circus since 1884—purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1907. The two circuses ran separately until 1919, when they combined to form the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The circus remained in the Ringling family until 1967, when Feld Entertainment bought the traveling show but kept the name.



The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus traveled by train—the last circus to do so—right up to the show’s final performances in May 2017. Credit: © Harvey Henkelman


The circus—which continued to travel by rail—retired its famous elephants in May 2016. The show continued to feature acts with camels, lions, snakes, and tigers, as well as numerous dog and horse performances. The human performers and crew of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will now disperse among other acts, circuses, and shows—or find different lines of work. The show’s remaining animals will retire to sanctuaries, zoos, or individual homes. Feld Entertainment had announced in January 2017 that this spring’s tour would be the show’s last.



Elephants last performed in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in May 2016. Credit: © Shuttertock


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