When an institution has been around for 146 Years, there is little you can say about it that hasn’t been said before. But as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey packs up their tent and gear for the last time this Sunday, May 21st (and coincidentally ships a lot of that memorabilia to Illinois State University for safe keeping) many people are weighing in nonetheless. Current and former employees of Ringling are paying their respects online and saying their goodbyes in person, some are moving back home after years on the road, others are seeking new opportunities elsewhere and many are fondly paying homage to the company that gave them the opportunity to live their dreams of being in the circus. We checked in with a few members of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey community to ask if they had any stories or thoughts they wanted to share about the significance the Greatest Show on Earth had on their lives and here is what they had to say:
Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson Reflects
Can you share a memory or a story about your time at Ringling that exemplifies what Ringling means to you?
No one event can capsulize such a rich and multifaceted experience. There is no one thing. Life at Ringling Bros. defied expectations for me. This was going to be for a year or two at best and I’d move on; and have fun stories to tell and a unique credit on my resume. 18 and half years later, I have a wife and two children, all of whom work for The Greatest Show On Earth. My children’s first job ever was as performers at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
Do you think the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey brand will live on in a new manifestation of circus in the future?
It already does and continues to throughout entertainment and society. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is like the Little Richard of the entirety of the entertainment industry, everyone – from WWE to Pink has drawn inspiration or flat out copied it in one way or another, but no one wants to admit it. We are the bedrock of American pop culture and that extends into the world of marketing and publicity for which we wrote the book.
Clowns Never Forget
Barry Lubin, AKA Grandma, got his start at Ringling and later went on to be the heart and soul of Big Apple Circus. This past year Barry became the first clown to perform on all 7 continents. Shortly after, he was hired to be part of the new incarnation of Big Apple Circus starting this fall. What a great year for Grandma!
“Ringling changed my life and the lives of countless others. I was a lost soul trying to figure out what to do with my life that would be meaningful. When I was seduced by the magic of Ringling and when I realized that a traveling circus appealed to the adrenaline junkie in me, I found a home. I questioned, naively, whether being a clown in the circus had any impact or meaning to our world. When 9/11 changed the world, it became clear that my contribution was important in its own way. Ringling birthed my gift to the world and through the generosity of Irvin and Kenneth, Ringling birthed my legacy, Grandma.”
–Barry Lubin, AKA Grandma the Clown
“Clown College was a life changing experience. I went in in 1989 as an actor looking to learn more funny stuff to do. I left as a clown, and as a member of a fraternity of some of the funniest physical comedians ever. I was the 1001st clown to graduate from Clown College and they closed it in 1997. Clowning has become my theatrical life’s focus, and something that really resonated for me. I never worked for Ringling itself, but I am proud and happy to be in the Ringling and clown community. I’ve been creating my own work for over 25 years and have studied with a lot of people, but at the base of what I do is the work I started at Ringling.”
–Adam Gertsacov, Founder of Acme Clown Company
“After the announcement of the closing the show, I felt even more responsible for delivering the Greatest Show on Earth to the Children of All Ages. I spent so much time working harder than ever and celebrating more than ever that the last 4 months of my farewell tour felt like a year. I’ve tried to emotionally prepare myself for any upcoming event in my life, but I did try to prepare for the closing of Circus Xtreme. However, the closer we got to the end, the more attached I became. Everything hit me the hardest the morning after the final show. I was packing up my room and realized I had nothing left that I needed to bring with me. I looked around the tiny room frantically as if I were trying to find an excuse to stay, but what I saw was my room, empty! It was something I just hadn’t considered preparing myself for. So there it was, my adventure was officially over. It was time to hop in the car and only have the memories of the year and a half I spent on tour with The Greatest Show on Earth. Being with the circus hasn’t always been my dream, but I know in a short amount of time the experience I had will certainly feel like one, and I’m thankful for it.
Thanks to Clown Alley and everyone who’s been a part of it, but a special thanks to the clowns I was on tour with that became family through blood, sweat, tears, and laughter. Boss Clown Sandor Eke, Boss Clown Taylor Albin, Dean Kelley, Ivan Vargas, Gabor Hrisafis, LaRena Rose, Brian Wright, DJ Weiss, Ben Macon, Lindsey AnneMarie Merryfield, Julia Bothun, Mariko Iwasa, Ivan Skinfill, Nick Lambert, Truett Adams, Zach Page, Matthew Lish, and Beth Walt.”
–Stephen Craig, AKA Stevey, Red Unit
Megan O’Malley played trombone for the band in the Red Unit for five years. The last show was May 7th in Rhode Island. So she has already packed up her life and moved to Kansas City to start a new job. But she has an endless supply of great stories about life on the road with the circus and if you’d like to get a feel for what it was like to work for a traveling circus, visit her blog to read about her life behind the scenes up until the last show. Here is an excerpt from her blog:
As I was about to walk away for the last time, a gentleman in a hard hat stopped me and asked if I’d like a picture in front of the portal. I thanked him profusely. Why not. I could not be prouder to be standing under this logo in my partial costume, with floor crew loading out in the background and the Red Unit dissolving around me. This was the circus, and I got to be a part of it.
And with that it was really over. I took all of my things out to the car and drove to a hotel, where I typed all this out and cried a little. There’s still a part of me that’s just devastated. It feels like a part of my soul was taken out and is gone forever. Yet as I move forward in my life…as all of us move forward and adjust as best we can…I will strive to keep and cherish a little bit of circus magic. I have learned so much here, and while the experiences I’ve had are now only memories, certain things can remain to be shared with others. My circus family is not lost, only scattered.
“I am somewhat reluctant to comment about the closing of Ringling for a number of reasons. Where were all these people heaping accolades on the show when it really needed their support? Also, I am so heart sick about the whole business that I just don’t want to think about it anymore. The Ringling Bros. Circus has been an important part of my life from my earliest memories up until the present, a source of the greatest pleasure, an annually anticipated one by which I marked the progress of each year. So now I will no longer have that to look forward to and the loss is incalculable.”
–Ernest Albrecht, circus writer and historian, publisher of Spectacle Magazine
Circus Talk Bulletin: You can purchase tickets to see the last Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show in person on May 21st at Nassau Veterans Memorial in Long Island, NY or you can stream it live on Facebook at 7:00 pm ET/4:00 pm PT.
Main Image: "Best Foot Forward" by Paul Rice, 1963.