Curtain falls on ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ after 146 years

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 02: Fans come out to see one of the final performances of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey as they present "Out of this World" at Barclays Center on March 2, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

UNIONDALE, N.Y.— The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus that has wowed crowds for 146 years with its “Greatest Show on Earth” is taking its final bow on Sunday.

The circus’ last show at the Nassau County Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, is sold out, and former circus performers will be in the audience. It’s something of a reunion — or a funeral — for a production that’s centered on bringing joy to the public.

Ringling’s parent company, Feld Entertainment, announced in January it would close the show, citing declining attendance and high operating costs.

Animal rights activists had targeted the circus, saying that forcing animals to perform and transporting them around the country amounted to abuse. And in May 2016, the company removed elephants from its shows, but ticket sales continued to decline.

Once a mainstay of entertainment in small towns and big cities across the country, Ringling had two touring circuses this season, one of which ended its run earlier this month in Providence, Rhode Island. That show was the more traditional, three-ring circus, while the one in Uniondale, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of New York City, this weekend has a narrative storyline. Called “Out of This World,” it’s set in futuristic outer space, with Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson narrating in his signature baritone.

It’s an arena show, with an extravaganza of big cats, motorcycle stunts, clowns performing death-defying tricks, ice skaters and Mongolian contortionists — and that’s just the first half. The second half includes more aerialists, hoop divers, basketball players in unicycles and an act that the circus staff calls “The Fuzzies,” featuring dogs, pigs, llamas and goats.

There are mild explosions and flashing lights. A sensory overload, but one that captivates the little ones — as does the giant, branded boxes of popcorn and the snow cones in big cat mugs.

In the end, though, Feld executives said they knew the circus couldn’t compete with iPhones, the internet, video games and massively branded and carefully marketed characters. Their other productions — Frozen on Ice, Marvel Live, Supercross, Monster Trucks, Disney on Ice — resonate better with younger generations.

And so tonight, sometime after 9 p.m., the Greatest Show on Earth will be no more.