South Florida

Why the circus is leaving town — and never coming back

The last day of the circus in Miami

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

“This will be the last time The Greatest Show on Earth appears in Miami...”

The raspy voice of Tina Harris, a modern carnival barker with a headset microphone, told approaching customers: The circus is ending for good.

READ MORE: How the circus changed through the years

Sunday’s shows at AmericanAirlines Arena in downtown Miami served as a farewell after the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey announced over the weekend that the circus would shut down. This marked not only the last performances of the year (ones that annually send the Miami Heat on a weeklong road trip), but the last performances ever.

Many of the families and children climbing the arena steps to the 11 a.m. show already knew the big news: The 146-year run of the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus ends May 21 with shows at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Long Island.

And at the Sunday evening performance, Miami’s very last show, dozens of people rushed to the box office to get last-minute tickets — well after the 7 p.m. start time.

Jasmine Cooper bought tickets for herself and her four children Sunday morning after hearing it would be her last chance to take them to the circus.

“Where else are they going to be able to see a circus like this?” Cooper, of Miami Gardens, said. “To me, it’s just really sad.”

A world without the circus. Who would have thought?

But changing tastes, rising costs and pressure from animal-rights activists piled up to bring down the big top.

In seeing the announcement Saturday night, Richard Morris of Miramar tagged it on Facebook and wrote, “This is it.”

“This being their first and last time to enjoy the circus, it’s kind of heartbreaking,” said Morris, who had a 19-month-old in the stroller and a 4-year-old by the hand. “It’s hard for me to see as a father. It’s going to be bittersweet as far as enjoying this last viewing. But I’m glad they get a chance to see it.”

“I’ve been doing this 27 years. I’ve seen it every year since 1958...”

“It seems like it’s a part of American history,” said Josef Bittman of Miami Beach.

“It’s sad,” said Rachel Bittman, who recalled watching the elephants walk across the Venetian Causeway in the 1980s on the way from the train depot to the Miami Beach Convention Center. The circus played there before moving to the old Miami Arena, and then to AmericanAirlines Arena on the bay.

“I haven’t been to the circus since I was kid like 30 years ago,” Josef Bittman said. “I’m glad we’re getting to catch it at least one more time. I didn’t really think about the fact that it was going to end. We just wanted to take our kids to the circus and they were old enough to take them.”

Not that the Bittmans told their two preschool-age daughters where they were going. The girls didn’t know what awaited them inside the arena. But on Sunday morning, Josef said, the girls saw shots of circus acts accompanying news reports of the circus closing and said, “Cool!”

“I remember as a kid it was really cool,” Josef said. “I think people liked the elephants a lot. I don’t know if revenue dropped once they got rid of the elephants. That’s probably what it was.”

That’s one of the reasons given by Feld Entertainment for the demise of the circus. Last year, the company eliminated the elephants under pressure from animal-rights groups that felt the animals were mistreated.

A handful of protesters stood along the sidewalk outside the arena Sunday evening with signs that read “Circuses no fun for animals” and “Circus = animal cruelty.”

The circus said in a statement: “The decision to end the circus tours was made as a result of high costs coupled with a decline in ticket sales, making the circus an unsustainable business for the company. Following the transition of the elephants off the circus, the company saw a decline in ticket sales greater than could have been anticipated.”

The world also moves faster than it did back when circuses captivated kids. Attention spans shorten. Entertainment options proliferate as long as a child can grab a smartphone or iPad.

“It’s been through world wars, and it’s been through every kind of economic cycle and it’s been through a lot of change,” Felt Entertainment CEO Kenneth Feld told The Associated Press. “In the past decade there’s been more change in the world than in the 50 or 75 years prior to that. And I think it isn’t relevant to people in the same way.”

The 11 a.m. show in Miami attracted a decent crowd, but it was hard to ignore the black curtain that obscured the empty upper deck. Blocs of empty seats blotted a few lower bowl sections.

The circus, despite the tradition, did try to reach audiences with updated themes. A Star Wars-like plot encased Sunday’s show, a space-set tale of the good circus fighting against the evil ringmaster trying to make hers the galaxy’s supreme circus.

“Just walk right up to them with your books and they’ll sign them and take pictures with you. You’re getting autographs of the stars of The Greatest Show on Earth. Programs! Souvenir programs!”

With a 4-year-old girl sporting a turquoise princess dress at the end of each arm, Cecily Cooper of Miami Beach approached the entrance unaware she was just getting in under the wire.

“I guess there’s too many other options for entertainment now,” Cooper said when informed of the company’s decision.

As for the role of animals, Cooper said, “People are super socially conscious now. I think that probably drives a lot of it. I mentioned to a good friend of mine that I was taking the girls to the circus, which is something I did with my mom growing up. She said, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’d never take my daughter to the circus.’

“I think there’s a lot of that sentiment.”

David J. Neal: 305-376-3559, @DavidJNeal