On Sunday, May 21, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will give its final performance after 146 years of entertaining “children of all ages.” America’s premiere circus is ceasing operations due to attendance declines attributed to the retirement of its elephant act in 2016.
The last performance of the circus’ “Out of This World” show will be available for live viewing on Facebook and at ringling.com at 7pm ET/ 4pm PT on May 21. Having traveled across the U.S. in March specifically to see this production, I can guarantee viewers will be entertained and amazed by the acts they have one final opportunity to enjoy.
Helmed by Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson, the first African-American to hold that role for Ringling, “Out of This World” delivers enthralling athleticism, artistry, and amusement that appeals to all ages. This year’s crowd at Richmond, Virginia’s Coliseum ranged in age from toddlers to senior citizens, with plenty of school classes, families, and VCU college students mixed in. At the end of the show, every spectator left with at least one standout memory from the circus.
Traditionally, animal acts have been audience favorites. In fact, the first American circus centered around equestrian performances. That tradition continues in “Out of This World” with the Cossack Riders. As their beautiful, athletic horses reach speeds of up to 25mph, the 15 member Cossack team performs acrobatic stunts such as pyramids, dead-man drags, handkerchief grabs, and bareback feats on horseback. The act demonstrates why its human performers are known as “daredevil riders.”
The other major animal act in the show is Alexander Lacey’s Spectacular Cats. Lacey grew up around big cats; his mother performed with white tigers and his father was a zoo and circus director. For his center ring act, Lacey presents lions and tigers together. He personally raised his animals (all of which were born in captivity) and the trust and affection he and his cats share is apparent. At one point in the act, one of the tigers licks his arm while Lacey jokes, “I hope I don’t taste too good!”
Human performers who demonstrate athleticism and nerves of steel are found throughout “Out of This World.” The Torres family of Paraguay is a perfect example. The motocross racers developed a Globe of Death act in which they race motorcycles inside a steel globe at speeds of up to 60mph. To see them start with four cycles and end up with eight total, all moving in perfect synchronization, is amazing.
Acrobats are also featured. From the opening Simet Space Walkers to the Heilongjiang Provincial Acrobatic Troupe, these acts are international in origin. The Simet act is led by Laszlo Simet, who was raised in a family of high-wire walkers in Hungary. Simet has 40 years of high-wire walking experience and performed in both the opening and closing ceremonies of the London Olympics. His performance for “Out of this World” uses the rotating Giant Semaphore Wheel on which Laszlo, his wife Olga, and acrobat Diana perform a variety of gravity-defying balancing acts, including one involving a loose beam.
The Heilongjiang Troupe from Harbin in northeast China executes acrobatic stunts while ice skating. The act includes a traditional catapulting (known as “flying”) of one team member into an elevated chair. The female members of the troupe skate on stilts and one uses specially designed skates which allow her to do a handstand while using her arms to skate. You have to see it to believe it.
An American circus would not be complete without “the man on the flying trapeze,” an act that became part of U.S. circuses in the mid-1800s. The Tunziani Troupe has innovated that tradition for “Out of This World” by introducing a side-by-side trapeze act, the only one of its kind in the world. By presenting two trapeze teams simultaneously, the entire audience witnesses non-stop aerial gymnastics, including mid-air somersaults at the rate of up to 65mph!
Rounding out the entertainment is America’s own King Charles Troupe. This group was the first all-African-American circus act when it debuted with Ringling almost 50 years ago. The granddaughter of the troupe’s founder is one of the athletes in a basketball game played on unicycles, some of which elevate their riders ten feet in the air.
For 146 years, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has been entertaining, amazing and inspiring audiences across the U.S. From the days when the circus really raised a big top tent in each city (for actual footage of this labor intensive process, see director Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 Best Picture winner “The Greatest Show on Earth”) to more recent performances at sports arenas around the country, the circus has been part of the childhoods of many Americans. As a business model, it’s always been a financial challenge to profitably stage such a large cast of human and animal performers in so many cities. Unfortunately, current economic realities mean the circus must close.
It is with fond memories and sincere appreciation that America bids farewell to “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Thank you to the performers (both human and animal) who over the past century and a half raised spirits, captured imaginations, and entertained generations of Americans with their talents. And, as the Ringling ringmaster always says, “May all your days be circus days.”