RALEIGH This week near Linwood, N.C., Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’ two mile-long trains passed each other.One, carrying the performers for the “Circus XTREME” show, headed toward Greensboro, while the other “Out Of This World” troupe chugged toward Raleigh.It was a symbolic and sad moment. This week “The Greatest Show On Earth” will be performing for the final time in North Carolina as Ringling’s 146-year run comes to an end in May.”The circus closing is obviously bittersweet for us,” said Stephen Payne, a Greensboro native and vice president of corporate communications for Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Bros. since 1967.Payne remembers as a child going to the circus each year when it came through Greensboro, even recalling that his mother may have had a crush on Ringling’s famed animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams.”It does bring back memories,” Payne said.But the logistics of transporting performers, crew, animals and all the equipment necessary via train to put on the circus in city after city caught up with the circus’ bottom line.When the two touring units wrap up their current schedule “Circus XTREME,” which is at Greensboro Coliseum Feb. 8-12, will wrap up in Providence, R.I., on May 7; “Out Of This World,” in Raleigh at PNC Arena Feb. 9-12, will perform the circus’ final show May 21 in Uniondale, N.Y. it will mark the end of an era in entertainment.Feld Entertainment operates 26 touring units including Monster Jam, Disney On Ice, Arenacross and more but came to the realization the circus’ business model was simply no longer sustainable.Part of that was the decision for Ringling Bros. to take its centerpiece Asian elephants out of its performances last May. The elephants’ participation in the show has long been a lightning rod for controversy, with animal rights organizations protesting around the country, but was also a huge draw for the circus.”The ticket decline post-elephant was much more dramatic than anticipated,” Payne said. Ringling’s elephants last performed May 1, 2016, and the company still cares for 34 of its elephants at its Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida. The elephants cost $65,000 a year to care for, Payne said.Other options, like going down to one touring unit or selling off the circus, were considered but none were economically feasible.”Because of the size and scope of Ringling Bros., selling it was not an option,” Payne said.Feld Entertainment, a private, family run company, has operated Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey for 50 years longer than even the Ringing family and Payne said the family’s commitment to the circus kept it running longer than it probably should have.”I think if we were a public company the circus would’ve closed years ago,” he said.Payne has been with Feld Entertainment for nearly a decade “I had been a fan of the circus for my whole life,” he said and his Twitter handle, @savethecircus, exemplifies his personal commitment to trying to keep Ringling Bros. up and running.”To a certain extent, you can’t point at just one factor,” Payne said of the decision to shutter the show.The renewed interest in “The Greatest Show On Earth” as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey closes in on its swan song could make Payne and those involved with the circus bitter, but he said the show is at its best when playing to packed crowds, the performers reveling in the energy.”Since we made the announcement [that the circus was ending], the outpouring from audiences and the media has been amazing,” Payne said. “It has made what will be a difficult situation easier.”When the lights dim May 21 in Uniondale, there will certainly be tears. But not before some final smiles and cheers.
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