Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson leads the crowd in celebrating Ringling Bros.and Barnum & Bailey's last show.
REPORTING FROM UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The need for circus inserts on the arena floor and elephant doors to the arena bowl left the building along with a franchise that anchored arena bookings worldwide, Ringling Bros.and Barnum & Bailey Circus (RBBB). RBBB’s blue unit, the original circus to tour by train and produced by Feld Entertainment, took its final curtain call here Sunday (May 21) at NYCB Live’s Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
The last performance of 17 during the run, three of them on Sunday, drew 10,083, with a lot of industry professionals and circus alumni included in the masses who made the trip to see this show. Some also attended the last performance of the red unit, originally created for famed lion and tiger whisperer Gunther Gebel-Williams, which closed for good at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, Providence, R.I., two weeks earlier.
Kenneth Feld, chairman of Feld Entertainment, was joined by his family during opening remarks at the last show, saying the circus family has “always been an inspiration to us and should be an inspiration to everyone on how we conduct our lives. It has been incredible to have this experience, to see how this ‘town without zip code’ works, how they pull together day in and day out. No matter what it is, they rise to the top. They’re the reason this is the Greatest Show on Earth.”
In the 50 years the Felds have owned the 146-year-old RBBB, a quarter of a billion people have seen the show, Feld said. “I’ve learned that perseverance makes the impossible possible.”
Young and old came to Long Island to share in the bittersweet ending to the Greatest Show on Earth, with a reported performance attenance of 10,083.
During media day on Friday, May 19, and again at the last show Ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson and tiger trainer Alexander Lacey encouraged the fans to support circuses, zoos and any other means of seeing these magnificent circus animals and acts so that joy and that education about these magnificent wild animals will not be lost to our young.
At the end of the performance, Iverson called everyone in the cast and crew to the arena floor for a rousing rendition of Auld Lang Syne, letting everyone be part of a circus tradition.
It was “the hardest night” for Bill Powell, VP at Feld Entertainment. “It’s bittersweet in the sense that for 38 years I gave birth to every RBBB that came out of Tampa/St. Pete, Fla. I knew how important it was to have a full house and have the cast energized. To see this tonight and see it closed, in one sense it’s heartbreaking. In another sense, I am so proud of having been a part of something that has gone on for 146 years.”
About 60 alumni of Ringling, most of them regional promoters at the beginning of their careers, gathered in Manhattan Saturday night before the last show, sharing memories and lessons learned, along with innumerable road warrior stories.
Feld Entertainment's Bill Powell and The Gold Group's Joe Gold at the alumni dinner. Below, Powell spreads the joy with his box of red noses and the group is all game. (VT Photo)
Joe Gold, who joked that he went from live entertainment to dead entertainment as a promoter of museum exhibits through his Gold Group, said working for the circus “taught me to be a man, to balance my life’s work and family. I have a business now and I treat my employees like family, just like the circus.”
Russ Simons, Venue Solutions Group, has been on the venue side of hosting and marketing the circus all his career. He attended both closing weekends, first in Providence, then here.
As the night wore on, talk turned to the practical side of what we will now miss. New buildings, Simons noted, have been designed with the circus in mind these past five decades. For instance, you have to plan for circus inserts (anchors in the floor to accommodate rigging in spots specifically for circus acts). No other shows use those circus inserts, to his knowledge. They are in unusual places and need to be included in original construction, especially if the arena has ice. They cannot be added later at the risk of bursting a pipe.
He recalled at the Nashville Arena (now Bridgestone Arena), they had 64 anchors just for the circus. “It is one of the first things you do, consult with the circus,” Simons said of building design and planning for use of an arena.
Mike McGee, Barmac Consulting, when asked what hosting the circus required of an arena manager, listed, off the top of his head: “Access to water, housing, ventilation, solid waste disposal for animals. Ceiling height of 45 feet minimum, approximately 17,000 square feet of performance area, lighting capable of delivering a black out situation to instant on, adequate power (guessing 1,200 amps-—3 phase,) adequate shore power for any traveling trailers, reasonable proximity to a rail yard (no other show travels by train), adequate concourse power (30-50 amp breakers) for merchandise and traveling F/B concessions, show office, F/B Merch office area, area for Pie Car, area for Clown Alley, wardrobe and costume storage, nearby parking for show vehicles, dressing areas, adequate sound system, minimum 8-12 spotlights. If performing on an ice surface (as it was here) you would need rubber matting on backstage floor areas to protect the skating blades when the performers come off the ice.
“Also, you need to make sure inserts can support the stress and weight loads and are properly anchored into the floor, which is critically important when the inserts are positioned in an ice floor.”
This litany has been the Bible for arena managers for five decades.
The newly-renovated Nassau Coliseum (it has the inserts from its prior design) had only been open 35 days when it hosted this historic event. Not only did they have a nearly sold-out run of circus performances, they also hosted Metallica in the middle of the run, requiring they move the circus out completely, move Metallica in, then out, and move the circus back in.
Matt Felker, Chris Giacalone, and Matt Garrick, director of events marketing and sales at Nassau Coliseum, the day of the last show. (VT Photo)
Matt Felker, GM at the arena for Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment and AEG Live, noted Metallica was a big show and theirs was the only arena date on the band’s stadium tour. That event drew 14,878 fans.
Ringling had 20-25 trucks of gear and the circus compound was in the attached exhibit hall at the arena. The last circus performance before Metallica ended at 9:30 p.m. “We had the floor at 3 a.m. First, we had to do ice work with the Zamboni to prepare for the stage (the show was in the round).” Load in for Metallica started at 9 a.m. Load out took less than four hours. At 8 a.m., the circus was moving back in.
It took 20-25 operations crew and well over 100 stage hands to pull it off.
Nick Vaerewyck who books the venue, noted 17 of the first 29 shows here were Feld Entertainment’s circus and another four were Feld’s Monster Jam. It is a major franchise for arenas.
Booking Metallica was a highlight of his career, though. Vaerewyck cited a good relationship with AGI, Metallica’s agent. He put the offer out there, with the added enhancement that it was a new building. Though Metallica was on a stadium tour with an end-stage configuration, they took the bait and brought in the stage they last used in Denmark for an in-the-round performance at Nassau Coliseum.
“Metallica was a heavy, heavy show. You couldn’t mix the two productions,” he added. “Nothing from the circus could stay. And all this is over ice, too. Our ops team is not too happy with me, but it’s a good story to tell.”
Seeing the last circus, though, that was “a pretty amazing moment,” he said.
Chris Giacalone, who is director of food and beverage for Levy at Nassau Coliseum, prepared a kid-friendly menu for the circus performances and instituted all the space-saving devices he could to ease congestion in the hallways. Concourses were lined down one side with merchandise carts and the other with concessions stands.
The $6 hot dog from Nathan’s Famous was the hit he expected, though he took the specialty dog, Nathan’s Long Island Duck Dog, off the list because it wasn’t kid friendly.
Throughout the industry, kudos have flooded in to Feld Entertainment for bringing the franchise that is The Big Show to circus folks, to arenas worldwide. “I’ll miss it,” said Lee Zeidman, Staples Center, Los Angeles. “I’ll miss how it evolved. I’ll miss seeing the troupes come in. I’ll never forget the elephant walk right before Michael Jackson’s Memorial Service. I grew up with the circus. I won’t miss the smell.”
“We had this one dear friend who is not here with us now,” Powell said during the alumni dinner. “I’m forever hopeful it will come back.”
Feld Entertainment, he noted, did not sell the circus. The intellectual property still belongs to the organization. Feld Entertainment owns Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, The Greatest Show on Earth forever more.
“Anything can happen in the future,” Powell said.