Attending the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus was a cherished yearly ritual throughout my childhood, and I faithfully covered its annual Orlando appearances until the nearly 150-year-old tradition came to an end in 2017. So I was thrilled to recently receive an invitation to attend dress rehearsals for the rebooted and reimagined Ringling circus, which premieres in Louisiana later this month ahead of its Amway Center run next January.
In addition getting to tour Feld Entertainment's ginormous Palmetto headquarters — also home to Disney on Ice, Monster Jam and Jurassic World Live — and preview the new production, the highlight of my visit was an opportunity to interview Juliette Feld Grossman, who carries on the family legacy of legendary impresarios Irvin and Kenneth Feld as current producer of the all-new "Greatest Show on Earth."
As much as Ringling Bros. forms a part of my core memories, that's nothing compared to how Grossman grew up immersed in circus culture. "I can't remember a time before Ringling because I'm third generation," says Grossman. "For me, it's always been such a special place in my heart, and getting to grow up around rehearsals and getting to see the whole process ... it's just pretty special."
The decision to end the former version of the Ringling circus came after years of animal-related controversies, and just a couple of years before the pandemic, which led to the show being away longer than the Felds originally envisioned.
"We certainly had a difficult time when COVID happened in 2020, because our business is about bringing people together," recalls Grossman. They completed their Supercross bike racing finals inside a "bubble" in Salt Lake City in June 2020, and relaunched touring shows that October. "Though we were limited on what states we could travel to, we were really cautious and conscientious in terms of local regulation on testing for our audience and for performers, as well as for seating arrangements. We worked through all of that so we could bring audiences some joy during that terrible time."
Three years later, Feld has redeployed all of their prior properties and more. This September, they launch a new Disney on Ice show and will present the inaugural Super Motocross World Championship, but it's the imminent relaunch of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey that has Grossman most excited. "It was always our hope that we would bring Ringling out again, because it is such a special and iconic part of American culture, and it's certainly at the core and the heart of our company."
Although they've been working internally toward restarting the circus ever since 2017, the relaunch involved much more than simply "flipping a switch."
"When we closed [in 2017] there were a lot of elements of the business model that could no longer function as they had been, and there had to be a lot of thinking about how do we continue as the 'Greatest Show on Earth' with all the things that we had to reconsider," acknowledges Grossman. "We started first looking at what should the footprint of the production be, and then we spent a lot of time doing ideation sessions, doing consumer research [and] other kinds of exploration to bring forward ideas.
"We were originally slated to open in 2021, but because of COVID we postponed two years, and I think in that time it was beneficial to really develop what is now a spectacular show."
Naturally, we have to address the elephant that's not in the room: Ringling's performing pachyderms have retired to White Oak Conservation near Jacksonville, and the new circus contains no non-humans aside from a frisky robotic dog. "Our focus is on the performers, and we did an incredible global casting search," says Grossman. "We evaluated over 4,000 different submissions in terms of performers and traveled to over a dozen countries, so we're really thrilled with the talent that we have here and the show that we're bringing to life."
Finally, I was inspired by Steven Spielberg's autobiographical film The Fabelmans to ask if Grossman felt a connection between the Jewish heritage we both share and the role the circus has played helping carve a place for outsiders in American culture. Although she hasn't seen the film, she told me Ringling has "always brought together people from around the world, and this production is no different with people from 18 different nationalities, with probably about 10 different languages or more spoken here.
"It's always been a place where everyone is welcome, and where everyone can find a place as long as they have a talent. That's a pretty special element of Ringling [and] being around it growing up has led me to take a really holistic view on people and different cultures."
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