Is Ringling Bros. still the 'Greatest Show on Earth' without lions, elephants or clowns?

The self-proclaimed "Greatest Show on Earth" is back. Only without the snarling and trumpeting beasts that made the 152-year-old American circus famous.

Which begs a few existential cultural questions. Is a circus a circus without the indelible spectacle of a lion leaping through fire or an elephant pirouetting on a ball? And is the circus a circus when, technically, it's no longer even called a circus?

Juliette Feld Grossman, daughter of longtime Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey owner Kenneth Feld, is banking on the answer coming in the form of an elated crowd's roar, despite the show's six-year hiatus.

"We didn't know what (Ringling Bros.) would become, but we just knew it had to endure," says Feld, who serves as chief operating officer of Florida-based Feld Entertainment. "The question was just, how?"

Some of the 75 performers from 18 countries that make up the new Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus appear onstage at the show's outset. The circus, once famous for its elephants and big cat acts, is returning after a six-year hiatus with no animals.
Some of the 75 performers from 18 countries that make up the new Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus appear onstage at the show's outset. The circus, once famous for its elephants and big cat acts, is returning after a six-year hiatus with no animals.

Is the Ringling Brothers circus coming back in 2023?

Ringling Bros. is returning to the national landscape − the first show in its two-year run is Sept. 29 in Bossier City, Louisiana − with a totally revamped circus that replaces its controversy-generating menagerie of performing animals with 75 wildly talented humans from 18 countries.

So families will no longer gasp when a man puts his head into a lion's mouth, or cheer as an elephant dunks a basketball. Instead, they'll be asked to react to a family of Mexican tightrope walkers who are pushing the limits of their craft; to applaud a circus-obsessed kid who keeps breaking his own record for riding the tallest unicycle; and to cheer on teen Skyler Miser, a human rocket newbie whose parents Tina and Brian also were Ringling human rockets.

Giulio Scatola, a performing veteran who is the new show's casting director, argues that the revamped Ringling Bros. show will not lack for jaw-dropping spectacle.

A group of performers from Mongolia execute their jump-rope act on an elevated platform, part of the new Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show.
A group of performers from Mongolia execute their jump-rope act on an elevated platform, part of the new Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show.

"So there are now no animals and clowns," says Scatola, the latter a reference to the circus' more modern approach to comedy. "OK, fine, but if the feeling of those animals was a wow factor, that's in the show even more as we help you get to know these amazing humans."

Scatola's global auditions included stops in cities such as Las Vegas, Buenos Aires and Paris, but also Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The search resulted in juggling comedians in Ukraine and BMX bike riders hailing from the U.S., Canada and Europe.

Scatola says the show's use of large LED screens common to music concerts will "bring you up close and personal" with performers as they walk a pinky-thin high wire or perform a drum routine hundreds of feet in the air.

"We know that today so many kids are glued to their smartphone screens, but we hope when they come to see us, they're looking up and seeing reality," he says.

Four acrobatic performers power the Double Wheel of Destiny, two wheels that rotate independently at high speeds 30 feet above the ground. The act is part of a revamped Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, which returns this week.
Four acrobatic performers power the Double Wheel of Destiny, two wheels that rotate independently at high speeds 30 feet above the ground. The act is part of a revamped Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, which returns this week.

Why did Ringling Brothers shut down?

For Feld and her family, success would be a vindication.

In the 2010s, Ringling Bros. attendance plummeted, impacted by both modern media alternatives and allegations of animal abuse. The latter was never proven, although in 2011 Feld Entertainment agreed to pay a then-record $270,000 in government fines for alleged animal welfare violations. In contrast, a 14-year suit brought by the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other groups was settled in Feld's favor in 2014.

Although that $16 million payment to Feld was redemptive, the victory was Pyrrhic. Kenneth Feld announced in 2015 that the circus would phase out animal acts by 2018. The writing was on the wall. Even Ringling Bros.' way of traveling from city to city aboard trains that stretched for miles was becoming untenable as a result of rising freight rates.

Declining sales "coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business," Feld said at the time. His company would instead double down on its other live entertainment franchises, including Monster Jam and Supercross, Marvel Universe Live! and Disney on Ice.

An Asian elephant performs during the national anthem at the last Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey performance in May 2017. Declining sales and lawsuits from animal rights groups shuttered the show, which returns now without animals.
An Asian elephant performs during the national anthem at the last Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey performance in May 2017. Declining sales and lawsuits from animal rights groups shuttered the show, which returns now without animals.

Just prior to the pandemic, the decision to return was made, anchored to a conviction that humans fundamentally will go see other humans do amazing things. In 2021, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals issued a statement on its website hailing the new approach: "The exciting announcement sends a powerful message to the entire industry, something that PETA’s been saying for decades: Cruelty doesn’t belong in the circus or in any other form of entertainment."

Feld Grossman says that for a generation "used to seeing things at the speed of TikTok, we're hoping that our giant ring in which we'll have various acts going at once will appeal to those attention spans. It's a high-energy show that also uses technology, like giant screens and spotlights that can expertly track every performer."

The retooled Ringling has a big hurdle to clear: What distinguishes it from Cirque du Soleil?

You'd be forgiven if all this sounds a bit like another popular animal-free circus: Canada's Cirque du Soleil, which presents itself as a more sophisticated circus with an emphasis on storytelling and human spectacle.

"It's interesting to see how close Feld’s new operation is to Cirque, which is really the only reasonable successor to the Greatest Show on Earth," says Lester Standiford, author of "Battle for the Big Top: P.T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus."

A Ringling Bros. elephant walks out of a train car as young children watch in the Bronx railroad yard in New York on April 1, 1963. Circus animals are no longer part of the show.
A Ringling Bros. elephant walks out of a train car as young children watch in the Bronx railroad yard in New York on April 1, 1963. Circus animals are no longer part of the show.

Standiford thinks Ringling's storied tradition and recognizable brand name will bring both the curious and an older generation that does remember the version with animal acts.

"People will certainly go once to see what it's all about, but the proof will be in the pudding, how exciting is it?" he says. "But the central appeal of the circus was always the impossible made real before your eyes. To the extent they can recreate that thrill, it won't matter if there are no elephants and tigers. If that sense of awe seeing people doing amazing things is there, it can work."

Two BMX riders leap off ramps during their act in the new Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, which returns with an emphasis on luring patrons with more modern performances.
Two BMX riders leap off ramps during their act in the new Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, which returns with an emphasis on luring patrons with more modern performances.

Show director Scatola, who spent 14 years with Cirque du Soleil, insists what Ringling Bros. has created will stand apart.

"We are very different from Cirque," he says. "Ringling Bros. is for the whole family, it's about simple joy and fun. And it's about the real people behind the performers, not having them hidden behind masks or makeup or mystical figures. We want to showcase their stories and personalities."

That's partly why the new Ringling Bros. will feature funny performers − but not traditional clowns in their iconic face paint, which have come to be synonymous with Stephen King's "It" horror franchise.

New circus aims to pick up where 'America's Got Talent' and other competition shows leave off

Over the past decade, TV programs such as "America's Got Talent" have taken over the role of presenting the public with undiscovered talent. The acts in the new Ringling Bros. show, which will run just under two hours, read like they might have come from such telecasts.

Equivokee, a comedic trio from Ukraine, mixes physical comedy and a modern take on circus classics like dance, juggling and mime in their performance. The revamped Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has no animals or clowns in traditional face paint.
Equivokee, a comedic trio from Ukraine, mixes physical comedy and a modern take on circus classics like dance, juggling and mime in their performance. The revamped Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has no animals or clowns in traditional face paint.

There's a Spanish troupe that specializes in Korean teeterboard dramatics. There's the Double Wheel of Destiny, two spinning spheres rotating side by side that performers jump between. And there's a multinational team that flies through the air on criss-crossing trapeze bars.

But what Ringling Bros. will provide that no TV show can is both the live component and the almost dizzying sense of overwhelming pageantry, with often multiple acts competing for your attention simultaneously.

Maria Lopez, a fourth-generation circus performer who married into a clan of highwire experts with five generations of big top experience, says the family's triangular high-wire act is something that has been in the works for nearly a decade. She explains that the danger level is ramped up for performers (who do work with nets) with the set-up since the vibration from one performer's wire can reverberate on a nearby wire.

"We decided to create something different, we wanted to contribute in our art form," she says. The family act also aims to show that anything boys can do, girls can do better. "In one part of the act, I'll be with my pole balance, and my partner will try and jump over my shoulders. That sounds interesting, no? To see this live is something."

Wesley Williams fell in love with the circus at age 6 and soon became determined to join it, thanks to his burgeoning unicycle skills. Becoming part of the new iteration of Ringling Bros. is "going back to where it all started for me," and he hopes to break his own record many times during the show's run − that would be riding a unicycle that's 34.6 feet high.

And if that feat isn't enough, he promises more unicycle madness: "I’ll be riding up to 10 of them, super tiny ones, one has a wheel the size of a Rollerblade wheel, there's a scissor unicycle, a six-wheel one, I'll jump rope on one." You get the picture: an avalanche of nonstop circus tricks all unfolding in the round.

Wesley Williams, who also goes by the One Wheel Wonder, rides his unicycle at record-breaking heights during his act in the new Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.
Wesley Williams, who also goes by the One Wheel Wonder, rides his unicycle at record-breaking heights during his act in the new Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.

Instead of a ringmaster, the new Ringling show has three emcees, one of whom is drummer Alex Stickels, who goes by Stix. His patter and drumming are laced into the show, which for Stickels represents a variation on his dream to play in a popular rock band.

As for the circus, he never went as a kid. The animals? He's confident they won't be missed.

"When my friends and family found out about the show, some did ask right away about the animals, but others didn't have a clue they were gone," he says. "I never saw Ringing Bros. as a kid, so for me, this is all a blank sheet of paper. I don't think about what happened before and what are we missing. And hopefully, everyone else will be willing to come along with us on this new ride."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ringling Brothers' embattled circus returns, this time without animals