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Ringling Bros. shuts down the big top after 146 years

Associated Press logo Associated Press 5/22/2017 By TAMARA LUSH, Associated Press
The Ringling Bros. Out of This World performers, crew and their families gather in the ring after the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) © The Associated Press The Ringling Bros. Out of This World performers, crew and their families gather in the ring after the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

UNIONDALE, N.Y. (AP) — With laughter, hugs and tears — and the requisite death-defying stunts — the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus received its final standing ovation Sunday night as it performed its last show.

Ringling Bros. ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson opens the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) © The Associated Press Ringling Bros. ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson opens the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

"We are, forevermore, the Greatest Show on Earth," boomed Johnathan Lee Iverson, who has been the ringmaster since 1999. His son, who also performed, stood by his side. The show was held at the Nassau County Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of New York City.

Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment, speaks before the start of the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) © The Associated Press Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment, speaks before the start of the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
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It was an emotional 2 1/2 hours for those who worked on the circus. Many of Ringling's employees are second, third and even fourth-generation circus performers, while others met their spouses while touring. All spent months on the road, traveling from city to city in Ringling's train cars and describing themselves as a giant family, albeit one with many clowns.

Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson opens the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. Ringling's circus began its final show Sunday evening after 146 years of wowing audiences with its "Greatest Show on Earth." (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) © The Associated Press Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson opens the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. Ringling's circus began its final show Sunday evening after 146 years of wowing audiences with its "Greatest Show on Earth." (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

But it also was the fans who felt like family.

An acrobat performs in a transparent ball suspended above the floor during the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) © The Associated Press An acrobat performs in a transparent ball suspended above the floor during the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Elaine Bario, a 57-year-old usher at the Nassau County Coliseum, said she's seen the circus every time it's been on Long Island — some years as a child with her father, who also was an usher at the same venue.

The final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus begins, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) © The Associated Press The final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus begins, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

"The animals, this is where we fell in love with them," she said. "We got to see animals here and the Bronx Zoo. We don't go on safaris."

Big cat trainer Alexander Lacey directs one of the lions during the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) © The Associated Press Big cat trainer Alexander Lacey directs one of the lions during the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Bario cried as she watched the final big cat act with its leopards, tigers and Alexander Lacey, the handsome animal trainer.

Davis Vassallo performs during the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) © The Associated Press Davis Vassallo performs during the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

"I've always had a crush on the lion tamers," she said, laughing through tears.

Davis Vassallo, center, hugs a member of the trapeze troupe as he holds his daughter Adriana after the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) © The Associated Press Davis Vassallo, center, hugs a member of the trapeze troupe as he holds his daughter Adriana after the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

But it was those animal shows that led to the circus' eventual demise.

Tatiana Tchalabaev wipes tears from her face after the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) © The Associated Press Tatiana Tchalabaev wipes tears from her face after the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Over the years, animal rights activists had targeted Ringling, saying that forcing animals to perform and transporting them around the country amounted to abuse. In May 2016, the company removed elephants from its shows, but ticket sales continued to decline. People, it seemed, didn't want to see a circus without elephants. Ringling's parent company, Feld Entertainment, announced in January it would close the show, citing declining attendance and high operating costs.

Two performers kiss at the end of the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) © The Associated Press Two performers kiss at the end of the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

A handful of protesters stood outside the venue on Sunday, with signs that said "compassion always wins," and "the future is animal free."

A performer hugs a young girl on the show floor after the final performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) © The Associated Press A performer hugs a young girl on the show floor after the final performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Feld Entertainment CEO Kenneth Feld said that "we all have to embrace change."

A clown holds up his cell phone to record the end of the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) © The Associated Press A clown holds up his cell phone to record the end of the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Feld's father and uncle bought the circus in 1967. It was sold to Mattel in 1971, but the Feld family continued to manage the shows. The Felds bought the circus back in 1982.

Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson, left, and his daughter Lila Simone and son Matthew Felipe wave farewell to the audience at the end of the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) © The Associated Press Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson, left, and his daughter Lila Simone and son Matthew Felipe wave farewell to the audience at the end of the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Earlier Sunday, a group of retired and former circus performers sat across the street at a hotel bar, laughing and hugging and sharing memories of tours past.

The Thundering Cossack Warriors perform during the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) © The Associated Press The Thundering Cossack Warriors perform during the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

"There's a lot of mixed emotions, said Rev. George "Jerry" Hogan, Ringling's circus chaplain. "It's a reunion, but it's bittersweet. I'm seeing people I haven't seen in years."

Members of the audience react during the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson) © The Associated Press Members of the audience react during the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Once a mainstay of entertainment in small towns and big cities across the country, Ringling had two touring circuses this season, one of which ended its run earlier this month in Providence, Rhode Island . That show was the more traditional, three-ring circus, while the one performing this weekend had a narrative storyline. Called "Out of This World," it was set in futuristic outer space.

In the end, though, Feld executives said they knew the circus couldn't compete with iPhones, the internet, video games and massively branded and carefully marketed characters. Their other productions — Frozen on Ice, Marvel Live, Supercross, Monster Trucks, Disney on Ice — resonate better with younger generations.

But that didn't stop the circus from giving the performance of their life, one last time, to one last crowd.

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Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush

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