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'Greatest Show on Earth' to close in May

The owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus said it was time to close the curtain on the legendary show after 146 years.

Breaking the news to circus employees on Saturday night after shows in Orlando and Miami, Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment was visibly emotional.

"There isn't any one thing," he started. "This has been a very difficult decision for me and for the entire family."

The circus has two touring shows this season and will perform 30 shows between now and May.

The show has been hit by several factors: declining attendance, high operating costs, and changing public tastes, plus prolonged battles with animal rights groups have contributed to its demise, company executives said.

The show mustn't go on after all

The circus has been a staple of entertainment in the US since the mid-1800s, when Phineas Taylor Barnum made a traveling spectacle of animals and human oddities popular from his home base in Wisconsin.

"The competitor in many ways is time," said Feld, adding that transporting the show by rail and other circus quirks - such as providing a traveling school for performers' children - are throwbacks to another era.

"It's a different model that we can't see how it works in today's world to justify and maintain an affordable ticket price. So you've got all these things working against it."

After a long and costly legal battle, the company - which has about 500 people working on two touring shows - was obliged in May 2016 removed the elephants from the shows and sent the animals to live on a conservation farm in Florida.

Attendance has been dropping for 10 years, said Juliette Feld, but when the elephants left, there was a "dramatic drop" in ticket sales.

The circus was widely known by its slogan 'The Greatest Show on Earth,' which became so famous that it was often used in various slang contexts as well as for the title of the 1952 Oscar-winning film by Cecil B. DeMille starring Charlton Heston and Betty Hutton.

The online site "Newstimes" provides a chronology of the circus' history:

— 1841: Phineas Taylor Barnum buys Scudder's American Museum in New York and renames it Barnum's American Museum, which was something of a zoo, museum, lecture hall and freak show. It was filled with artifacts and items from around the world. The museum later burned down.

— 1881: Barnum partners with James A. Bailey and James L. Hutchinson for "P.T. Barnum's Greatest Show On Earth, And The Great London Circus, Sanger's Royal British Menagerie and The Grand International Allied Shows United," later shortened to the "Barnum & London Circus."

— 1882: The Ringling Brothers — Alf, Al, Charles, John and Otto — performed their first vaudeville-style show in Mazomanie, Wisconsin.

— 1884: The Ringling Brothers Circus begins as a traveling performance.

— 1887: The official Ringling touring show became the "Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals."

— 1895: The Ringlings decided to branch out to New England, which was already the territory of P.T. Barnum. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, the two circuses "agreed to divide the U.S. rather than compete head-to-head. The Ringlings established their headquarters in Chicago while Barnum and Bailey stayed in New York."

— 1907: After the death of James Bailey, the Ringlings buy Barnum and Bailey. They keep the circuses separate, and the Wisconsin Historical Society wrote that by the 1910s the Ringling Bros. Circus had more than 1,000 employees, 335 horses, 26 elephants, 16 camels and other assorted animals that traveled on 92 railcars. The Barnum and Bailey Circus was roughly the same size.

— 1919: The two circuses merged and became known as "Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows."

— 1927: John Ringling moves circus headquarters to Sarasota, Florida.

— 1967: Irvin Feld, a music and entertainment promoter, buys The Ringling circus and formally acquires it in a ceremony held at the Colosseum in Rome.

— 1985: Kenneth Feld, Irvin's son, becomes the owner of Feld Entertainment and the circus after his father dies.

— 2016: Feld Entertainment announces it will retire elephants from its circus shows. The animals are moved to its Center for Elephant Conservation in Polk County, Florida.

— 2017: Feld Entertainment announces that it will close the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

 jbh/kl (AP, Reuters)