The lights went up on the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus on Sunday evening to reveal 14 lions and tigers sitting in a circle, surrounding a man in a sparkling suit. It was a sight too implausible to seem real yet such an iconic piece of Americana that it was impossible to believe the show would not go on.
After 146 years, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey is closing for good, responding to a prolonged slump in ticket sales that has rendered the business unsustainable, according to its operator, Feld Entertainment. On Sunday, the circus glittered, thundered and awed beneath the booms and klieg lights of Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. That there was no tent over the final show, no striped eaves from which the daring young man on the flying trapeze could hang, felt fitting. The big top was packed up, this time forever.
Autumn Luciano stood outside, ticket in hand. “It feels a little like a funeral today, but I’m trying not to mourn it in a sad way,” said Ms. Luciano, 33, a pinup photographer who had flown in from Lansing, Mich., to see the last show. “Circus is all about being happy.”
She pulled up her sleeve to reveal a tattoo of a circus tent on her wrist. Without circuses, “we lose the ability to go and see that humans can do anything,” she said. “You go to the circus and see human beings doing insane things, but the truth is, we all have the ability to do crazy things.”
When the ringmaster, Johnathan Lee Iverson, first saw the circus as a 9-year-old at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, he could have sworn that the spangled horses that galloped there were real unicorns. At 41, after nearly two decades with Ringling Brothers, he has an awe in his voice when he speaks of the place that suggests that his certainty endures.
The world is losing “a place of wonder,” he said at an event a few days before the final performances. All around him, performers with thick makeup and saddened faces spoke to reporters about the circus’s demise. “It’s the last safe space,” he said. “It’s the last pure form of entertainment there is.”
For Ashley Vargas, 30, who worked with the animals and skated in the show, the loss of the elephants, some of which she had tended to from birth, was the beginning of the end. The elephants were retired to the circus’s sanctuary in Florida.
“To this day, the final performance with the elephants is the hardest performance I have ever had to go through,” she said. “I had to say goodbye to elephants I’d been with since they were born. They were part of my family.”
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