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'The Greatest Show on Earth' takes its final bow amid tears and thunderous applause

Alexander Lacey and his big cat show were a crowd favorite at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus' last show, which took place in Uniondale, N.Y., on Sunday. Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson Buy Photo1 / 3
Amy Lindenbaum takes a photo of her sister-in-law Roni Lindenbaum and niece Emma. They wanted the circus equipment truck as a backdrop for a photo of the circus' last performance, which took place in Uniondale, N.Y., on Sunday. Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson2 / 3
Aerialist Paulo dos Santos seems to fly in space in his act in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus on Sunday at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y. Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson3 / 3

UNIONDALE, N.Y. - Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus took a final, bittersweet bow Sunday, staging its last three shows here after 146 years of entertaining American audiences with gravity-defying trapeze stunts, comically clumsy clowns and tamed tigers.

"Farewell, from the Greatest Show on Earth!" ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson, an 18-year veteran of the show and the first African American to hold the job, told a packed midday audience, offering one of the few signs that the circus was coming to a close. Yet many spectators said they came precisely because Sunday offered the final chance to witness a spectacle that once felt as if it might be around forever - until changing times and mores proved more powerful.

"This was her first and last time," spectator Stephanie Culff, 31, said of her baby daughter, Emily, who wore a new dress decorated with Dumbo the elephant on the top and circus-tent stripes on the skirt.

The end of this American institution came six decades after it folded its big-top tent in 1956 and moved indoors, an event that at the time was viewed as a death knell. But while Ringling's mile-long train of animals and humans continued crisscrossing the country, it ultimately could not weather another major transition: last year's exit of its most famed performers, the elephants.

"That was the best entertainment," said Culff's father, Jose Bonilla, as three generations of his family waited outside the Long Island coliseum after the 11 a.m. show. Over the years, he had taken his children to the Ringling circus as many as 25 times.

"They liked it," he recalled. "And they loved the animals."

Aerialist Paulo dos Santos in his act in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus on Sunday. Michael S. Williamson / WaPo

The animals had long been a huge draw, but they were also what contributed to the circus's demise. In 1898, when Ringling's "World's Greatest Show" first made its way to the nation's capital, some 15,000 people packed into a tent to view what The Washington Post then called "one of the finest zoological exhibits extant." It included tropical birds, a hippo, zebras, 400 horses and 25 elephants.

A century later, Ringling had become the target of animal protection groups that claimed it mistreated its elephants, and the two sides soon locked in a 14-year legal battle so cutthroat that it involved secret informants paid by animal advocacy groups and a former CIA official who was paid by Ringling's parent company, Feld Entertainment, to gather intel on activists. The litigation ended with several animal groups paying a $16 million settlement to Feld.

Although the animal activists never prevailed against Ringling in court, they were victorious outside. The allegations of elephant abuse prompted municipalities around the country to ban elephant bullhooks - a sharp metal tool used by the handlers - or to prohibit wild animal performances altogether, as Los Angeles recently moved to do. After Ringling retired its last pachyderms to a company-owned elephant conservation center in Florida, ticket sales declined much more than Feld expected, a spokesman said. In January, the company announced Ringling would close for good.

"The legislative landscape . . . made it really difficult to tour with the elephants," Alana Feld, the company's executive vice president, said Friday.

But the circus was also contending with changing public tastes and an ever-widening entertainment landscape.

In the early to mid-20th century, Ringling, which merged with Barnum & Bailey in 1919, was a much-anticipated event. In many locations it was often a school holiday, said LaVahn Hoh, a retired University of Virginia drama professor who long taught the nation's only course on circus history, a topic he also lectured on at Ringling's Clown College. Hoh said he vividly remembers waking at dawn as a boy and seeing the arriving circus train's headlights break through the fog in his home town of Appleton, Wis.

"How do we see circuses in this country?" Hoh said last week, imagining what he would ask his students to consider if he still taught today. "I'll just go out on a limb here: Maybe the word 'circus' has to change to something else. Maybe the whole definition has to change."

Although it eventually was the last of about two dozen American circuses to still travel by train, Ringling continued trying to modernize and surprise. Its outer-space-themed show Sunday featured BMX bikes, Segways and, for the first year, an ice floor and skaters. But these days, a spokesman said, the show is something on people's bucket lists - a spectacle to see once but not every year.

"We've been a part of something so magnificent . . . but if people aren't coming to the show, you can't keep having a circus," said 30-year-old Ashley Vargas, a Ringling ice skater. Disney and other entertainment companies are present in Americans' daily lives, she noted. "The circus, unfortunately, is not anymore."

Like many of the show's 300 human performers, Vargas said, she plans to take a break before seeking out new opportunities, perhaps in Europe, where many of her castmates hail from. Animal performers that are owned by their handlers - such as the tiger, leopard and 15 lions owned by big-cat trainer Alexander Lacey - will stay with them. Those owned by Feld, including a kangaroo, a camel and other tigers, have been found new homes that circus officials would not divulge.

It is all tragic to Gary Payne, a former president of the 2,000-member Circus Fans Association of America. He drove from his home in Connecticut for the final show at 7 p.m. Sunday, the last of about 350 Ringling performances he has attended. He remembers being hooked on circuses from his first, the Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus, which he saw as a 5-year-old in 1961.

Payne, an estimator for a fencing company, said his fascination was always in the military-like logistics of circus setup. And for a long time, he said, he did not believe the show could continue to go on amid rising rail costs. "If it were up to me, this would be considered like a national park, only it's on wheels," Payne said.

He arrived early for the 7 p.m. show, his Section 206 ticket ensuring him prime viewing for all the color, energy and emotion. He expected tears, including his own: "I'm sure I'll have my head in my hands a couple times."

Ashley Byrne of Brooklyn was also at the final show Sunday night, but she was standing outside the arena with about 50 other protesters holding a sign that read "Send the animals to sanctuaries!" Byrne, 39, saidshe first went to a Ringling circus as a child - and never went again. She has spent the past 10 years organizing demonstrations against Ringling as a campaigner with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The news earlier this year of Ringling's closure stunned her to near speechlessness, she said. But, like Payne, Byrne said she saw it coming. Now she is turning her efforts toward other U.S. circuses that still use animals.

"We hope that those circuses will take Ringling as an example of what not to do," Byrne said.

If there was angst over the remaining Ringling animal performers, it was not evident at the midday performance. The audience ooh-ed as Lacey coaxed two tigers into walking on their hind legs, and it ahh-ed as a 700-pound pig named Roscoe sailed with surprising grace down a metal slide. Circusgoers lined up to buy snow cones served in elephant-shaped mugs and snag leopard plush toys - one of which Culff bought for 7-month-old Emily.

"This is to tell her that she's been to the greatest show on Earth," she said.

The Ringling cast assembled in the finale of the final performance on Sunday, as it does at the conclusion of every tour, to sing "Auld Lang Syne." This time, however, was truly the end.

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