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Florida Says Goodbye To Ringling Bros. Circus

Stephanie Colombini/WUSF

After 146 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus is taking down its big top. This week on Florida Matters, we're exploring the history and the economic impact of the circus.

Ringling's Bros. Circus was recently in Tampa for its last performances in the Sunshine State.

“Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, welcome to the Greatest Show On Earth!” Kristen Michelle Wilson says uttering those iconic words has been the biggest thrill of her life. She’s Ringling's first female ringmaster, and also it's last. Palmetto-based Feld Entertainment recently announced it’s ending the circus tour.

“You know all of us, cast and crew, were surprised, we were so saddened but, at the core of us, we work in show biz, and we understand that the show must go on,” Wilson said.

Just before their final shows in Tampa, Wilson and some fellow cast members visited students at the Straz Center's Patel Conservatory.

Ivan Skinfill, in classic clown makeup and costume, was able to amuse the audience with his comical expressions and a bowler hat he flung around the room like a boomerang. He says he's dreamed of being a Ringling clown since he was 18 living in Mexico.

“I remember I bought a poster of Ringing Bros. in an antique store,” Skinfill said. “All the time I was watching this poster like, ‘I want to be a part of this circus,’ and now I'm here!”

Skinfill is fairly new to Ringling. Juggler Victoria Zsilak on the other hand has a lifetime of memories.

“I’m third generation, and I have a funny story with Ringling Bros. because my mom and dad met here at the Greatest Show on Earth early in the ‘60’s,” Zsilak said.

Zsilak, a Hungarian immigrant, followed in her parents footsteps. The juggler met her husband at Ringling, and raised her son to perform alongside her. For her family, losing Ringling is like losing a home.

“It's a bittersweet time,” Zsilak said. “Of course we are not happy about it, but we are here for the crowds."

And for this final tour, the crowds are there for them. Thousands flocked to Tampa's Amalie Arena for each of Ringling's last eight shows in Florida.

Many fans like Janet Adams bought a ticket after Feld Entertainment announced this would be the final tour .

“Because I went to Madison Square Garden to see the Ringling Bros. when I was five years old, and I thought we have to bring closure to the circus and closure to ourselves by being here,” Adams said.

Childhood nostalgia is exactly what brought Alanda Mitchell and her sister to the show .

“When they used to tell us the circus was coming, we used to wait outside to see the elephants,” Mitchell said. “So it's real sad the elephants aren't going to be here.”

Yes, the elephant in the room for Ringling Brothers Circus was that there would be no elephants in its show. Ringling retired them from the circus last year after a long battle with animal rights groups. Feld Entertainment says the declining ticket sales that followed contributed to its decision to shut down the show altogether.

In fact, the announcement hasn't stopped the demonstrations. About two dozen protesters quietly stood outside before each performance in Tampa, holding signs saying things like, "Cruelty is Not Entertainment." 

Myriam Parham, co-founder of Florida Voices for Animals, says Ringling still features wild animals like lions, tigers and camels in its shows.

“And the actual outcome of the animals here have not been clearly defined,” Parham said. “We're hoping that they will go to proper accredited sanctuaries.”

Some circus goers heading to the show passed the sidewalk protest and wondered aloud, "Haven't you already won?"

Paul Adams, who came to see the final tour, admits he has mixed feelings about it.

“I understand the whole animal rights issue, but for some reason in my mind I always trusted [circus workers] cared for the animals in the right way,” Adams said.

Protester Suzanne House says it’s been tough to explain their message.

“There are a lot of people here who have been very angry at us for closing down the circus,” House said. “We never wanted to put anybody out of work or close the circus down, we think human acts are great.”

But come May, those humans will have to find a new job. Hundreds of circus workers will be unemployed once Ringling holds its final performances in Rhode Island and New York. Juggler Victoria Zsilak is pragmatic about the future.

“For us, we need to look around for other circuses and other places you find entertainment and try to get a job there," Zsilak said.

The clown Ivan Skinfill, who just got his dream job, thinks he'll try to work in another country like China or Germany – anywhere he can make somebody smile.

“Let me tell you something, when I started being a clown, I never work because I just enjoy, enjoy, enjoy,” Skinfill said. “It’s not a job, it's my life!”

And despite the sadness of saying goodbye, the performers say they feel a sense of pride. Because when the curtains close on Ringling for good, they will be there, forever etched in history as part of the Greatest Show on Earth.

Copyright 2020 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7.

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters,WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.
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