South Florida

Elephants on the causeway? The circus came to town. It's never coming back

The elephants of the Ringling Brothers Circus cross the Venetian Causeway.
The elephants of the Ringling Brothers Circus cross the Venetian Causeway. MiamI Herald File/1975

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is ending its 146-year run on Sunday, May 21, in New York.  The final visit to Miami was in January. For decades, the shows played in West Palm Beach, Sunrise, Miami Beach, then at the old Miami Arena, and finally at AmericanAirlines Arena. Here are highlights of the circus in South Florida through the years, from the Miami Herald’s archives.

Miami's final show

Jan. 5, 2017: For well more than a century, the name Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has thrived on tradition, its tried-and-true approach consistently providing thrill-seekers with breathtaking feats of acrobatic grace and dazzling stunts with majestic animals.

But in 2017, the venerable franchise that is older than both baseball and Coca-Cola has boldly veered from tradition with its latest circus extravaganza, "Out of This World." And judging from the drastic changes it has made, it's an appropriate title.

Add ice-skating? Check. No more elephants? No problem. Throw in an actual story line? You got it.

PICTURES: Circus performers visit kids in hospital

Circus lovers might say that "Out of This World, " billed as an "intergalactic adventure of good vs. evil, " is indeed from another planet. "This is not your father's circus, " goes the old cliché.

But the smartest companies know that change is good, and that one must evolve to survive. With this show, Ringling Bros. - and its parent, Feld Entertainment - is embracing a future of enhanced technology and more compassionate animal regulations.

"We wanted to do something different, " said Alana Feld, executive vice president and producer for Feld Entertainment, which is also responsible for the "Disney On Ice" and "Monster Jam" shows, among many others. "We didn't want to just say we were doing something different - we wanted audiences to come into the arena and know right away that this was different."

Mission accomplished. From the start, crowds should notice the changes.

"The beginning of the show is pretty amazing, because rather than just starting off with a big announcement and a big song, we actually start to transition the arena to space, " said Feld, who as daughter of company CEO Kenneth Feld joined the family business in 2003. "The lights go out, and you start to see a space-scape, with lighting and video, and you start to hear the sounds of space. And before you know it, you look up and see an astronaut orbiting Earth."

Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus will retire the elephants this year.

Elephant farewell

Jan. 14, 2016: Before the circus elephants lumber into the sunset, audiences have a few more days to see them under the big top (or at least the arena roof).

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has brought the "Greatest Show on Earth" to AmericanAirlines Arena in downtown Miami for its annual January run. For the elephants, it's their final time in the spotlight.

Once billed as "the biggest brute you'll ever see, " elephants have been part of the Ringling circus for 143 years.

On Wednesday, the circus rehearsed its acts for the media. Four elephants nibbled on hay as their trainer stood watch. After May 1, all the Ringling circus elephants will be retired to a Florida conservation center.

For years, animal-rights groups have focused on their treatment and training, especially the use of bullhooks, and have called for an end to their appearances.

Stephen Payne, a spokesman for Feld Entertainment, said Wednesday that the move comes as cities pass laws restricting circus animals on tour.

"We're an entertainment company, not in the business of fighting legislation, " he said. "It was becoming impractical for us to tour with the elephants in some markets, like Los Angeles. We couldn't leave the elephants at the city's limits."

The circus will evolve, like it always has, Payne said.

"We don't see it as a loss to the show. The Ringling Bros. evolves over time - that's how it's survived, " he said. "The producers are looking at which areas will change. We'll miss the elephants, but this is a change we know it was time to make. There'll be plenty of other reasons people will want to come to the show."

Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus played its final Miami shows on Sunday in front of excited kids and some wistful, but realistic parents.

Debut of magic

Jan. 8, 2010: Magic abounds when the circus comes to town -- especially this year.

For the first time in its 139 years of bringing the Greatest Show on Earth to the wondrous masses, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is incorporating the world of illusion in its latest creation, "Zing Zang Zoom, " which kicks off its second-year tour at downtown Miami's AmericanAirlines Arena Friday. The show combines the mystique of Cirque du Soleil colliding with classic, family-friendly circus acts, with a modern twist.

"Zing Zang Zoom are our new magic words, as opposed to 'abracadabra, ' which is real old-school, " says "Zingmaster" Alex Roman, who calls himself a hybrid of a performing magician and ringmaster and MC of a traditional Ringling Bros. circus. "We're kind of revitalizing."

The circus is also injecting a refreshing shot of youthful energy to the show.

"We've been touring with this show for a year now, and America has loved it, " says Roman, who at 24 is one of the youngest people to lead a Ringling Bros. production. "I think they like the excitement and mystery of the magic mixed with the thrills of the circus. So you're scratching your head and thinking, 'How is this happening?' then gasping as human cannonballs are flying through the air. It's pretty cool."


Jan. 8, 2003: The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus opened Tuesday night at the AmericanAirlines Arena: 12 elephants, 22 horses, nine tigers, three zebras, four goats, 75 animals in all plus such human notables as the Mystical Mei Ling and Sylvia, Siren of the Circus, performing in three rings on the floor normally occupied by the Heat.

And outside, stamping against the cold: protesters.

Fifteen of them stood along Biscayne Boulevard for the better part of an hour before the circus was to start. "Don't support animal abuse!" a man shouted to the crowds filing into the arena. "Boycott the circus!"

They held signs. "Circus Animals, Scared and Tormented, " read one. "This clown is crying for the animals, " read another.

Broward appearances

Jan. 2, 2002: On New Year's Day, workers set up lights, tents and unloaded llamas to get ready for the three-ring circus that starts tonight at the National Car Rental Center in Sunrise.

"We come in, and it is just a bare arena, " said Scott Fleury, a circus operations manager. "We travel with everything we need to get it together and to fix it. There is no challenge that is too small."

They started unloading their 55-car train in Fort Lauderdale at 1 a.m. on Tuesday and workers were still going strong later that afternoon.

The Sunrise venue is particularly challenging - it's 18 miles from the train stop and 30 miles away from Miami, where the circus employees are staying.

"This is the furthest we truck our animals from any engagement in the country, " said Mark Gaipo, unit general manager of the red unit of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Free manure

Jan. 10, 1992: Those big stars of the Greatest Show on Earth are leaving a little something behind. And the circus is eager to spread it around.

So today, for the first time ever in West Palm Beach, the folks at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will be peddling free manure.

That's right. Llama leavings. Camel caca. "Pachyderm Poo, " as a publicist put it. Tons of it, gratis, to anyone with a shovel and a container. "A Mammoth Manure Give-Away."

They say it's good for your plants. High in phosphorus and nitrogen, "just the answer to pep up an anemic garden."

Circus star

Dec. 30, 1989: His rhinestone-encrusted jump suit (the one he parades about in during the opening minutes of the Greatest Show on Earth) is of the brightest azure. His teeth -- big stumps of Farrah Fawcett white -- are nearly blinding. And the hair -- then there's the hair -- an impossibly blond mane combed into the fullest of bouffants.

A word about the hair color: It's the work of Miss Clairol.

"Sssshh, " says Gebel-Williams, feigning embarrassment. "My wife, she touches it up every couple of weeks." No gray. No way.

This is not a man who relishes the process of aging. But it is one who knows when to quit when he's ahead.

So that's what Gunther Gebel-Williams is doing. At 55, he's quitting the circus.

"I don't want people to come and say 'I saw him when he was good, ' " says Gebel-Williams, who has been a circus performer for 44 of his 55 years. "I want to be remembered as the best. I want to go out on top."

That he is doing — literally. Riding high in the saddle atop Congo, his pet pachyderm, he and the Ringling Bros. "Farewell Gunther" tour have pranced through more than 400 performances to date. Only 900 more to go, including a stint through Jan. 7 at the Miami Arena.

While he's in town, Gebel-Williams will serve as grand marshal of the King Orange Jamboree Parade, on New Year's Eve.

Elephant march

Jan. 21, 1986: There'll be elephants walking down Biscayne Boulevard today. The lions, tigers and bears will ride.

The circus is coming to town.

The 42-car train hauling the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is to arrive at noon. The animals will be let off precisely at 5:15 p.m.

The animals will compete with rush-hour traffic as they make their way to the Miami Beach Convention Center. That's where the Big Top is.

The circus opens Wednesday and runs through Feb. 4.

The Animal Walk, which marks the circus' arrival each year, starts at a railroad siding at Northeast Second Avenue and 29th Street. From there, the elephants, horses, zebras, llamas, goats and, probably, one buffalo will walk east to Biscayne, south to the Venetian Causeway, and east again, to the convention center.

"They move at a pretty brisk pace, " Jeff Cogen, an advance man for the circus, said Monday. "It's a long walk, 6.5 miles. We hope to get in before it gets dark."