Tears of a Clown: A Circus Takes a Final Bow

Ringling Bros. has been performing in New York since 1968, but now it’s all over but the crying

Clown Joseph Desoto (Nadeem Shad/ NY City Lens)

Joseph Desoto  in his clown costume (Nadeem Shad/ NY City Lens)

 

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, a staple of the New York entertainment scene for nearly 50 years, planned a dramatic final bow to the city. Multicolored florescent clowns, Cossack riders, and flying trapeze artists were preparing to grace the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Friday, creating an enchanting scene for spectators for the last time at its final show, “Out of this World.”

The 146-year-old travelling circus company—billed as the “The Greatest Show on Earth”— announced its decision to close its tent flaps for good on January 14. In four short paragraphs on its website, the circus explained that, due to high costs and declining ticket sales, its business was no longer viable.

Ringling Bros. is not the first circus to find itself struggling in the 21st Century. The Big Apple Circus, also situated in New York, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in November of last year. In January the circus was seeking bids for the sale of its assets and had cancelled its 2016-2017 season. However, a last minute buyer, Compass Partners LLC, a Florida based investment company, saved the circus after paying $1.3 million dollars in an auction. Its lawyer, Alison Bauer, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that the company does plan to hold an event in New York for the 2017 holiday season.

Ringling’s last show on Friday was closed to the media. However, NY City Lens was allowed access to a special community event at Barclay’s Center on Wednesday to celebrate the circus’s final performances. Ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson, wearing a sparkling studded jacket and top hat, kick-started celebrations at 11 a.m. A single spotlight fell on him, creating a stark contrast between the darkness and his glittering tall figure. Iverson was all that could be seen, save for two purple neon lights guarding the performers’ entrance. He faced a crowd of 300 children, teachers, and parents who had been invited to the show by Community Mayors Inc., a Brooklyn-based organization.

Iverson provided a short history of the circus. Vacant rows dominated the 19,000-seat arena, but laughter and clapping filled the empty spaces, echoing from end to end. A look up at the ceiling revealed circus lights bouncing off retired jerseys of the resident NHL team, the New York Islanders.

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Ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson (Nadeem Shad/ NY City Lens)

Some children leaned forward on their seats, others jumped up and down as they watched performers from the show’s famous Clown Alley. Among them was Davis Vassallo, a fourth- generation clown, working with two sidekicks and riding a cycle-powered “rocket.” Other performances included aerial contortionists and a display by some unicycle riding basketball players called the King Charles Troupe.

Dia Rountree, a 40-year-old teacher from Cobble hill, was in the crowd. Rountree had taken her special needs students from school PS 368 to the event. “We came because we wanted the kids to have a good time,” she said. “We’re very sad to see it go. And I wish we had been able to see some the animals.” 

Animals had been synonymous with the circus for much of its existence. However the circus has been accused by PETA, the animal welfare organization,  of failing to care for elephants properly. PETA accused the circus of using bullhooks, electric prods, and beatings on the elephants, and providing poor living conditions for them. PETA even has a dedicated website for the circus, called ‘ringlingbeatsanimals.com’ and calling the circus “The saddest show on earth.” Finally, after almost a hundred years at the circus, Ringling removed the signature act last March, moving the mammals to Ringling’s Elephant Conservation Center in Central Florida.

The Elephants may have their future sorted but for their human counterparts, it’s not so clear. “Someone better be filming me” said Iverson at the community event, “because I’ll be out of a job in two months.”

“You’re not hiring are you?” said Dave Honigman, a 30-year-old clown from Los Angeles. He was dressed in bright orange and blue dungarees, a lime green polka dot shirt, and a golden yellow hat that resembled the head of an alien. The Chicago native said that he’d been involved in theatre since he was child. Honigman started his stage career at the South Coast Repertory, before later attending the Clown School of Los Angeles. A clown for five years, Honigman got the position with Ringling after a colleague suggested he audition.

After Ringing, he’s hoping to get into the film and television scene in Chicago. He also sounded optimistic on his colleagues’ futures. “Not one person on this show is concerned of getting work.”

“The circus’s closing is sad of course. This is the end of an American Legend,” he said. “However, circus is not in a decline. There will always be this kind of art, and audience will continue to flock to see it.”

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