UNIONDALE, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — It was the end of an American tradition Sunday night, as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus put on its very last show at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Long Island.
As CBS2’s Erin Logan reported, a ringmaster announced, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” for the last time Thursday. The slogan dates back before the Ringling brothers of Baraboo, Wisconsin – John, Otto, Charles, Al and Alf T. – purchased Barnum & Bailey’s traveling show in 1907.
“It was like sad. I’m going to miss it,” said Michelle Blackwood.
But now, it is officially over. And it was sad news for a lot of people as they lined up for the final Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
“There’s a feeling of adoration, pride, in the fact that I’ve been a part of an American institution,” Ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson said before the show.
It’s a bittersweet ending for Sheila Eriksson, who says she’s always had a special connection to the circus since she was born.
“I’m sad because I was born in Somers and P.T. Barnum lived in my godmother’s house and Old Bet was born in her barn,” she tells WCBS 880’s Mike Smeltz.
Old Bet was Barnum’s elephant, and it was the first elephant to be used in a circus in the U.S. in the early 19th century.
The final show drew fans of the circus with decades of stories.
“When I was little, I remember the show,” said Mary Petritch. “So that’s why it special to me, so I want to see the last one.”
Petritch wanted her preadolescent sons to experience it.
Zach Petritch said he expected “clowns and animals to do tricks,” and he saw just that. So did Liz Garcia, 5.
“It was really cool,” she said.
Adults who have seen the show many times at all different ages felt performers saved the best show for last.
“This was very modern — a lot of very high-tech,” Blackwood said. “I enjoyed it.”
“It’s like everything I remembered as a kid, you know, 50, 60 years ago. It’s a lot of fun,” one woman named Christine told 1010 WINS’ Andrew Falzon. “But no elephants.”
Christine was visiting from Punta Gorda, Florida — about 55 miles south of Sarasota where the circus’ winter headquarters were located for decades and where the Ringling name still looms large. She attended the final show with her grandchildren.
“I don’t think they realized how important a circus was to me, so I think they enjoyed it because I enjoyed it so much,” she said.
Karen, of Plainview, Long Island, also brought her grandchildren.
“I remember being 3 years old at the old Madison Square Garden at Eighth Avenue and 50th Street, and there were three rings, and it was amazing,” she said.
For the past 146 years, the circus has made us laugh, holler, and whoop with its perfectly practiced choreography and death defying stunts.
But its the animals that eventually led to the troupe’s downfall, or rather the lack thereof.
“Removing the elephants from the touring units, we saw a very sharp drop in attendance,” Field Entertainment’s Chief Operating Officer Juliette Feld said. “Much greater than we anticipated.”
Management removed the Asian elephants last year as a response to animal cruelty allegations.
“There are no clowns any more, there are no trained dogs any more,” New Yorker Marvin Freidman said. “There’s a whole part of Americana that’s gone.”
“Love our animals,” horse performer Tatiana Tchalabaev said. “We care about them. We want them to be happy, healthy.”
Animal rights activists outside the Coliseum said they had been trying to get the entire show pulled for years. For that reason, they felt a sense of accomplishment – but they are still on a mission.
“There are many other animal circuses as well still touring in the United States, and we’re coming for all of them and if they don’t evolve and go animal free,” said animal rights activist John DiLeonardo.
After Sunday, all 74 of the remaining animals will go to better homes. As for the performers, the world is their stage now.
“This is one circus,” one performer said. “Where one curtain closes, another opens.”
Phineas Taylor Barnum – a native of Bethel, Connecticut – made a traveling spectacle of animals and human oddities popular. He began selling lottery tickets when he was 12 years old, and in 1841 bought Scudder’s American Museum in Lower Manhattan – where he showcased “500,000 natural and artificial curiosities from every corner of the globe,” according to the virtual library for the Ringling Museum in Sarasota.
Barnum coupled his show with James Anthony Bailey’s circus in 1882.
Meanwhile, the five Ringling brothers performed juggling acts and skits from their home base in Baraboo, Wisconsin. The modern circus was born when they bought the Barnum & Bailey Circus, according to the museum.
The sprawling troupes traveled around America by train, wowing audiences with the sheer scale of entertainment and exotic animals.
The Feld family bought the Ringling circus in 1967. The show was just under 3 hours then. Today, the show is 2 hours and 7 minutes, with the longest segment — a tiger act — clocking in at 12 minutes.