Elephants “Out,” Ice “In” at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Meet the "Out of This World" cast members who ... hey, where are their skates?EXPAND
Meet the "Out of This World" cast members who ... hey, where are their skates?
Feld Entertainment

It really comes down to this for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that returns to Anaheim in late July-early August:

Elephants are out.

Ice is in.

Not ice as in Ice, Ice, baby, but ice as in the frozen water that covers the Honda Center floor during Anaheim Ducks games and Disney on Ice shows.

Palmetto, Florida-based Feld Entertainment owns the circus and ice shows, but the “Out of This World” extravaganza touching down July 29 through Aug. 7 at the Honda Center will not be a Ringling Bros.-Disney on Ice mash-up.

The production took on an outer space travel theme out of the necessity after performing elephants were "retired," says Alana Feld, an executive vice president and producer with her family’s entertainment company, over the phone recently.

When Feld Entertainment decided a couple years ago that 13 Asian elephants in three productions would come off the road and into its Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk City, Fla., an “opportunity” was created “to think differently and try to do something new and different to wow audiences,” Feld explains.

As “Out of This World” was being developed, it became clear the flowing figure skating presented during Feld's Disney on Ice shows would not be borrowed for the circus. Instead, the new production would rely on “edgy, acrobatic, thrill skating,” says Feld, who notes having a circus on ice only applies to this new production and not future shows, which will have to employ their own individual themes and “wow” factors.

Elephants supplied the wows since the early days of the circus. James E. Cooper and James Anthony Bailey’s Cooper and Bailey Circus, which started in the 1860s, merged in 1882 with P.T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, and Hippodrome, which had been born in Wisconsin by the namesake, Dan Castello and William Cameron Coup seven years earlier.

Billed as the “Greatest Show on Earth," the Barnum & Bailey Circus headliner was Jumbo, “the world's largest elephant.”

In 1884, five brothers from the Ringling family started a small circus of their own in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Before the decade ended, two more Ringling brothers had joined on. When Bailey died in 1906, his circus was sold to the Ringling family. Elephant images were routinely featured on posters for the early Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circuses through the Feld years, including those for “Circus Xtreme” that rolled in Anaheim last July.

In recent years, animal-rights organizations—especially Norfolk, Virginia-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—have battled Feld Entertainment in court and the media over the care of its elephants. A longtime tradition of having elephants and other animals walk out of rail cars and into Anaheim’s streets bound for the big top was soon accompanied by annual PETA demonstrators with bullhorns and naked women painted like animals and stuck in cages. Barkers hawking circus programs near Honda Center entrances stood near volunteers passing out pamphlets decrying Ringling's treatment of animals.

Groups like PETA sought the complete removal of the pachyderms from the Greatest Show on Earth, while Feld Entertainment stuck to its contention that without elephants, there would be no circus. The company also won lawsuits and damages from animal-rights groups along the way. But after cities like Anaheim considered banning all exotic animals from performing within city limits and Los Angeles forbid the use of bull hooks to train and control elephants beginning in 2017, CEO Kenneth Feld, Alana’s father, announced that by 2018, all traveling elephants would be relocated to his conservation park.

"This is the most significant change we have made since we founded the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in 1995," Kenneth Feld said at the time. "When we did so, we knew we would play a critical role in saving the endangered Asian elephant for future generations, given how few Asian elephants are left in the wild. Since then, we have had 26 elephant births. No other institution has done or is doing more to save this species from extinction, and that is something of which I and my family are extremely proud. This decision was not easy, but it is in the best interest of our company, our elephants and our customers."

His company got the elephants to Polk City sooner than expected. Ringling Bros.’ July 2015 engagement now will go down as the final appearance by his massive mammals in Orange County.

Retiring the elephants drew only faint praise from PETA, which claimed they were also being abused at the center, something Feld Entertainment vehemently denies and claims is offensive to its conservation team and efforts. 

Asked if she expects PETA and/or others to now seek the removal of a different animal species from the circus, Alana Feld was diplomatic. “We have a lot of critics and there certainly is a lot of misinformation out there," she said. "You know, for us, we are really trying to focus on providing incredible entertainment for families. That is really where our focus is: fans. That’s the people we listen to.”

Feld Entertainment was started by her grandfather, Irvin Feld, a music promoter credited with discovering Paul Anka. With brands that now include Doodlebops Live!, Disney Live!, Monster Jam, Nuclear Cowboyz, International Hot Rod Association, AMA Supercross Championship, Disney on Ice and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that Irvin Feld acquired from the Ringling family in 1967, the business is now run by the late Irvin’s son, Kenneth.

The CEO, who owns a majority of company shares, is having his three daughters take over the reins. Each currently has the title of executive vice president and producer, but Nicole Feld focuses on talent, Juliette Feld on strategy and Alana Feld on the business side, including day-to-day management.

She confides that reinventing the circus for “Out of This World” required “a lot of work” over the past two years. “What it took was really challenging each of our departments.”

The idea to perform on ice was inspired by “incredible skating performers” who were scouted by producers during a visit to China, Feld says. More parts were added until the goal became to “create a production that seamlessly goes from ice to air to floor,” surprising the audience each step of the way, she says.

Ringling Bros. elephants visiting Anaheim get a bath.
Ringling Bros. elephants visiting Anaheim get a bath.
Keith May

“With ice, we’re getting a pacing that we’ve never had before with Ringling,” she says. “We can move so fast. You get an exciting performance out of it.”

That, in turn, has helped the “Out of This World” storyline. “There is more of a story driven by heroic good versus evil,” Feld says. “For the first time, audiences can cheer the hero and boo villains.”

Her favorite part of the show, which was still in rehearsals when she spoke, comes during the opening segment and involves a high wire, three performers dressed like astronauts and a “cement wheel.”

“It’s a little hard to describe,” confides Feld, who then shifts into ringmaster mode to add, “It’s unlike anything seen before.”

Communicating that fact to potential audiences spurred her company to expand its social media presence, says Feld, who mentions a Ringling Bros. app that launches in July and will be available in the Apple and Google app stores.

“What’s great about the new app is it has great features for maximum fan engagement when comes to an event. You can have interaction at the event. It’s all about reaching people where they want to be reached, knowing whom our audience is and how they want to be talked to. A lot is shifting to social media because that’s where people are and that’s where they are paying attention.”

While Southern Californians have a reputation for being fickle when it comes to entertainment spectacles—just ask the previous incarnation of the Los Angeles Rams—Feld sees a positive for her circus brand in this region.

“In some ways in Southern California, there are a lot of entertainment choices, but there’s also a greater appreciation for the arts. The circus is certainly a benefit of that.

“Ringling Bros., over 146 years, is one of the most well known entertainment entities in America,” she says. “There is nearly 100 percent brand awareness. All our events do very well, not only in the U.S. but in 75 countries around the world.”

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