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After fame, magic and controversy, Ringling Bros. Circus will take its last bow

April 10, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
For 146 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has been awing audiences with acrobatic spectacles and animal stunts. But next month, “the greatest show on earth” will take its final bow after its parent company pulled the plug due to declining ticket sales. Its ringmaster and others weigh in on what has made the circus special to its performers and fans.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For many years, 146, to be exact, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has been awing crowds with acrobatic feats and animal stunts. But the Greatest Show on Earth is coming to an end next month.

Its parent company made the decision after ticket sales had been dropping for years. The circus also struggled with a long court battle over the treatment of animals, particularly the elephants.

The circus won in court, but the elephants were dropped from the show.

We caught up as Ringling Bros. rolled through Washington, D.C., one more time, and spoke with longtime performers and their families.

JOHNATHAN LEE IVERSON, Ringmaster: My name is Johnathan Lee Iverson, ringmaster of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

It’s just pure, unadulterated, unapologetic entertainment. Where everything you look at now is sort of defiled, circus is the last bit of magic in the world, and your children’s imaginations are safe there. Your imagination is safe here.

TATIANA TCHALABAEV, Queen of the Circus of Fire: Well, in this amazing show, I’m playing the character of the Queen Tatiana of the Circus of Fire.

We are artists. We are performers, like the people in the movies. They’re coming out there and they are doing the shot. We are doing live.

We don’t have no repeats. We basically have to perform our stunts.

JOHNATHAN LEE IVERSON: It’s all about the impossible. It’s all about really art at its highest level. People are flying. They’re talking to animals.

DERRELL WALKER, Retired Fire Captain: Kids love the clowns, the animals, the cotton candy, the popcorn, all that stuff. So we have a great time.

KATHY ALMASSY, Maryland Resident: We’re extremely disappointed to see it end. I understand the concerns, but we’re very, very sad. Sad to see it end.

WILLIAM, 13-year-old: I’m not very happy about it, because I love coming here, and it’s really nice and fun for me and my family to hang out together.

DERRELL WALKER: I like the lions and the tigers. I like the suspense. I like the danger that’s involved. I mean, it’s just — and they’re beautiful animals. They’re very beautiful animals, very, very majestic.

ANNALISE, 8-year-old: I like the animals, like how they’re colorful.

STEPHEN PAYNE, Feld Entertainment: Have the animal rights disputes hurt Ringling Bros.? Yes, it was a factor. But it wasn’t the only factor. We won in court, and we won in most legislative fights that we have.

My name is Stephen Payne. I’m the vice president of corporate communications for Feld Entertainment.

When we transitioned the elephants off of the circus last year, we knew we were going to see some decline in ticket sales. The entertainment landscape has changed. When Ringling Bros. started, there wasn’t TV. Now there’s 1,000 stations. There wasn’t iPhones.

It’s a huge, huge undertaking that requires an immense number of talented crew members to pull off.

ALEXANDER LACEY, Big Cat Trainer: You have to be completely dedicated to the animals. You have to love doing what you’re doing. It’s what keeps you safe. And I have been doing it now for 22 years solid.

My name is Alexander Lacey, the big cat trainer and presenter here on the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

Of course, everybody wants to see the lion-tiger trainer get eaten, so I have a point in my act where the lions attack on command, which is quite a highlight, because people think they have suddenly gone out of control. But it’s a trained movement.

DAVIS VASSALLO, Highlight Clown: When you go to a show, you don’t think about your problem at home. You just enjoy the show you, and you have a nice time, and you feel like children again.

My name is Davis Vassallo. I am the highlight clown of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

My grandfather was a clown. My father was a clown. I just have fun. I become like children. And I think that, for the people, watching a clown is a little bit like watching children. How can you not smile when you see children, a little bit goofy, falling down, do some funny things? And in this moment, you don’t think about anything else.

TATIANA TCHALABAEV: For us it’s our home. It’s our life. It’s our love. It’s our heart. It’s everything.

When, in the end, our announcer is saying it for the last time, enjoy Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, my tears are coming out.

JOHNATHAN LEE IVERSON: When those curtains close, it — you know, a part of a part of us ends in America.

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