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Ringling's evolution, from freak shows to the big top

Associated Press logo Associated Press 1/15/2017
FILE - In this July 19, 1978 file photo, actor Charlton Heston is shown with Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus clown Prince Paul during the City of Hope's Celebrity Circus opening in Inglewood, Calif. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will end "The Greatest Show on Earth" in May 2017, following a 146-year run of performances. Kenneth Feld, the chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, told The Associated Press when the company removed the elephants from the shows in May of 2016, ticket sales declined more dramatically than expected. (AP Photo/Mclendon, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this July 19, 1978 file photo, actor Charlton Heston is shown with Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus clown Prince Paul during the City of Hope's Celebrity Circus opening in Inglewood, Calif. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will end "The Greatest Show on Earth" in May 2017, following a 146-year run of performances. Kenneth Feld, the chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, told The Associated Press when the company removed the elephants from the shows in May of 2016, ticket sales declined more dramatically than expected. (AP Photo/Mclendon, File)

ELLENTON, Fla. (AP) — From New York to Wisconsin to London and beyond, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has performed for millions of fans during its 146-year reign as one of the world's biggest big tops.

In this Feb. 28, 1945 photo, Elizabeth Wallenda pauses on an aerial ladder during rehearsal for her return to the Wallenda troupe's high wire act with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, now in winter quarters in Sarasota, Fla. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will end "The Greatest Show on Earth" in May 2017, following a 146-year run of performances. Kenneth Feld, the chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, told The Associated Press when the company removed the elephants from the shows in May of 2016, ticket sales declined more dramatically than expected. (AP Photo/Earl Shugars) © The Associated Press In this Feb. 28, 1945 photo, Elizabeth Wallenda pauses on an aerial ladder during rehearsal for her return to the Wallenda troupe's high wire act with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, now in winter quarters in Sarasota, Fla. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will end "The Greatest Show on Earth" in May 2017, following a 146-year run of performances. Kenneth Feld, the chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, told The Associated Press when the company removed the elephants from the shows in May of 2016, ticket sales declined more dramatically than expected. (AP Photo/Earl Shugars)

The show, which is closing down permanently because of declining ticket sales, has its roots in a spectacle that began two decades before the U.S. Civil War — equal parts freak show, zoo and museum. In 1881 it officially became the circus that generations grew up watching and saw many evolutions over the years, most recently with its decision to retire its elephant acts.

FILE - In the 1882 file image at an unknown location, American showman P.T. Barnum is shown. In his lifetime, Barnum was an entrepreneur, museum owner, politician, journalist, impressario and creator of his circus "The Greatest Show on Earth" in 1871. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will end "The Greatest Show on Earth" in May 2017, following a 146-year run of performances. Kenneth Feld, the chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, told The Associated Press when the company removed the elephants from the shows in May of 2016, ticket sales declined more dramatically than expected. (AP Photo, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In the 1882 file image at an unknown location, American showman P.T. Barnum is shown. In his lifetime, Barnum was an entrepreneur, museum owner, politician, journalist, impressario and creator of his circus "The Greatest Show on Earth" in 1871. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will end "The Greatest Show on Earth" in May 2017, following a 146-year run of performances. Kenneth Feld, the chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, told The Associated Press when the company removed the elephants from the shows in May of 2016, ticket sales declined more dramatically than expected. (AP Photo, File)

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FILE - In this March 27, 1955 file photo, a policeman calmly directs a parade of elephants across the busy intersection of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in New York. The parade heralds the arrival of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for the season. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will end "The Greatest Show on Earth" in May 2017, following a 146-year run of performances. Kenneth Feld, the chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, told The Associated Press when the company removed the elephants from the shows in May of 2016, ticket sales declined more dramatically than expected. (AP Photo/Jacob Harris, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this March 27, 1955 file photo, a policeman calmly directs a parade of elephants across the busy intersection of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in New York. The parade heralds the arrival of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for the season. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will end "The Greatest Show on Earth" in May 2017, following a 146-year run of performances. Kenneth Feld, the chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, told The Associated Press when the company removed the elephants from the shows in May of 2016, ticket sales declined more dramatically than expected. (AP Photo/Jacob Harris, File)

— 1841 — Phineas Taylor Barnum buys Scudder's American Museum in New York City and renames it Barnum's American Museum, which was something of a zoo, museum, lecture hall and freak show. It was filled with artifacts and items from around the world. The museum later burned down. Barnum also took his show on the road as "P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling American Museum."

FILE - In this May 13, 2009 file photo, Firefighter Eforrest Allmond houses down Asian Elephants from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus in Philadelphia. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will end "The Greatest Show on Earth" in May, following a 146-year run of performances. Kenneth Feld, the chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, told The Associated Press when the company removed the elephants from the shows in May of 2016, ticket sales declined more dramatically than expected. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this May 13, 2009 file photo, Firefighter Eforrest Allmond houses down Asian Elephants from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus in Philadelphia. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will end "The Greatest Show on Earth" in May, following a 146-year run of performances. Kenneth Feld, the chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, which owns the circus, told The Associated Press when the company removed the elephants from the shows in May of 2016, ticket sales declined more dramatically than expected. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

— 1881 — Barnum partners with James A. Bailey and James L. Hutchinson for "P.T. Barnum's Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger's Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United," later shortened to the "Barnum & London Circus."

— 1882 — The Ringling Brothers — Alf, Al, Charles, John and Otto — performed their first vaudeville-style show in Mazomanie, Wisconsin.

— 1884 — The Ringling Brothers Circus begins as a traveling performance.

— 1887 — The official Ringling touring show became the "Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals."

— 1895 — The Ringlings decided to branch out to New England, which was already the territory of P.T. Barnum. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, the two circuses "agreed to divide the U.S. rather than compete head-to-head. The Ringlings established their headquarters in Chicago while Barnum and Bailey stayed in New York."

— 1907 — After the death of James Bailey, the Ringlings buy Barnum and Bailey. They keep the circuses separate, and the Wisconsin Historical Society wrote that by the 1910s the Ringling Bros. Circus had more than 1,000 employees, 335 horses, 26 elephants, 16 camels and other assorted animals that traveled on 92 railcars. The Barnum and Bailey Circus was roughly the same size.

— 1919 — The two circuses merged and became known as "Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows."

— 1927 — John Ringling moves circus headquarters to Sarasota, Florida.

— 1967 — Irvin Feld, a music and entertainment promoter, buys The Ringling circus and formally acquires it in a ceremony held at the Colosseum in Rome.

— 1985 — Kenneth Feld, Irvin's son, becomes the owner of Feld Entertainment and the circus after his father dies.

— 2016 — Feld Entertainment announces it will retire elephants from its circus shows. The animals are moved to its Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk County, Florida.

— 2017 — Feld Entertainment announces that it will close the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

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