The Last of the Greatest Show on Earth

The Ringling Brothers circus will be closing for good in May. It had long been dogged by financial woes, controversies, and even jinxes, as told in this 1944 Post article.


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When it combined with the Barnum & Bailey circus in 1919, Ringling Brothers proclaimed itself “The Greatest Show on Earth.” But this May, the show will take down its tents for the last time.

Ringling’s decision won’t surprise many Americans, who can’t imagine how circuses could stay alive today. How could trapeze artists, high-wire walkers, bareback horse riders, subdued lions, waltzing elephants, and clowns still make money? Today they must compete with video games and computer-animated blockbuster movies. Ticket sales have declined sharply, and operating costs have steadily risen. Yet these weren’t the critical factors.

The end came when the circus, under pressure from animal-rights groups, agreed to stop using elephant acts on tour. When the elephants departed, so did the big audience numbers.

In the past, circuses rode out the hard times. As the December 2, 1944, article “Jinx Over the Big Top” shows, they had survived the Depression, fires, striking workers, and — as the article explains — implacable jinxes.

But Ringling couldn’t survive a public that had become uncomfortable with the idea of training wild animals to perform tricks.

The circus is not dead. It’s only Ringling Brothers that’s folding up its big top. Smaller circuses will continue to tour the country, setting up alongside rodeos, state fairs, and mall parking lots. They’ll feature the traditional high-wire walkers, trapeze artists, and, of course, clowns. But any circus had better have a replacement for its trained animal acts, because they won’t be coming back.


Read the article from the December 2, 1944 issue of the Post.

Featured image: SEPS

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  1. The circus elephant was star
    Long in “The Greatest Show on Earth,”
    A giant stuck in a clown car,
    Counted only for profit’s worth.
    For ages, countless humans came
    To watch the elephant do tricks,
    Not knowing the behind scenes shame
    Of bound in chains and beat by sticks.
    It took over a century
    For finally pressure to bear,
    The circus elephant to be
    No longer cast in the show there.

    Soon after the elephant went,
    Profits went down and so the tent.

  2. Although this news isn’t completely surprising, I’m very disappointed one of the biggest reasons has been the ABSENCE of the elephants in recent months. Apparently a lot of people were okay with the abuse and cruelty to them for their entertainment, and/or turned blind eyes and deaf ears to it anyway.

    Ah, but taking the elephants AWAY, that was the real deal breaker. Abuse of the lions, tigers, camels and other animals was still okay—as long as the ELEPHANTS were there. As a person that deeply cares about animals and their well being, I find people with such reasoning and justification as appalling as the Ringling Bros. themselves with the pain and suffering inflicted on their animals that is so well known.

    I stand by my earlier comments on the story ‘Comfort’ the POST published 6 months ago. “I hope the day that no animals have to suffer in the name of entertainment is close at hand.” Also, “the circus has many fun, unique attributes that can and should be retained without cruelty or humiliation to animals in any way.”

    To that end, there ARE 3 circuses that you can still see, and they’re animal free! These include Circus Vargas, The Zoppe Family Circus and Cirque du Soleil. So to answer your last sentence Jeff, other circuses can start looking here for examples for the animal alternatives they’ll be needing to fill that gap. It can be done. It IS being done!


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