It felt something like a funeral, sitting alongside fellow clowns, tiger trainers and tightrope walkers when the news broke that America’s famed traveling circus — a circus DJ Weiss considers home — would soon end its 146-year run.
Minutes before the companywide meeting, glitter filled the sink as Weiss, a Stillwater native, scrubbed his face clean of makeup and peeled off his red nose, still euphoric from that day’s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performances.
The 24-year-old has toured as a clown and lived on the mile-long Ringling train since 2012 — a dream come true, he said. Silence, then tears, followed Saturday’s announcement. Come May, workers were told, “The Greatest Show on Earth” will close.
“You don’t think you’ll be the one to see it end,” said Weiss, who has wanted to be a Ringling clown since he was 6. “It’s been around longer than Coca-Cola and baseball.”
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus no longer comes through Minnesota, but former performers in the area recall how it saved them — from domestic abuse, from discontented parents, from aimlessness. Life lived on the train, they say, is a treasure from a bygone era.
Two shows, Circus Xtreme and Out of This World, are now making stops in towns scattered mostly in the Southeast and on the East Coast. Several Minnesotans, including Weiss, are on these tours. They heard firsthand when the circus’ parent company, Feld Entertainment, informed crews about the decision to fold in a tearful meeting Saturday night.
Plummeting ticket sales — especially since the elephants left last year — coupled with high operating costs made the circus an “unsustainable business,” CEO Kenneth Feld said in a statement.
The storied circus had weathered body blows in recent years from animal rights groups critical of using wild animals in performances. Groups like PETA and the Humane Society praised the decision to end the tour in separate statements.
After the announcement, Weiss sat beside his fellow clowns in disbelief. The clown bosses, he said, told them they still were part of the greatest show on earth, which must go on. And on it will go, at least through spring.
“We’re a circus family,” Weiss said. “My full intention is to stay until the end.”
Life on the train
For some, joining the circus offered salvation.
It took Chimgee Haltarhuu away from years of domestic abuse in Mongolia. Haltarhuu came to the United States with her 5-year-old son after Ringling recruited her in 1991. She raised her little boy for more than five years on a train that also carried props and animals.
“The circus saved my life,” said Haltarhuu, an aerial acrobat who now teaches at Circus Juventas in St. Paul with her son, Tamir Bayarsaihan. She also met her husband, a musician, in the circus.
Tales of Ringling romance abound. Take Sean Emery and Meg Elias-Emery, the clown and aerialist who fell in love in Philadelphia while on tour in the early 1980s.
For Emery, jumping on the Ringling train meant displeasing a widowed mother back home in North Carolina. It also meant enduring a parade of spiels from neighborhood men, and even the family insurance salesman, sent by his mother to talk him out it.
He went anyway, full of swagger, ready to tour the country. That’s when he first saw Elias-Emery, a confident dancer from Mendota Heights. He knew he could outlast others for her attention.
“He charmed me,” Elias-Emery said.
They now live in Roseville. Elias-Emery runs Xelias Aerial Arts, a Minneapolis school with 300 students.
“I would have never met Meg” without Ringling Bros., Emery said. “Our lives changed because of it.”
‘Stages of grief’
In the days since the news, a committed cadre of fans have voiced their support, including a robust troupe of circus folk in Minnesota.
“We’re a community in mourning,” said Tricia Manuel, who once toured as a clown with Ringling Bros. “It’s the end of a special era.”
Manuel runs Mooseburger Clown Arts Camp, a training program of national repute, as well as a costume shop in Maple Lake. Her daughter, Julia Bothun, 22, just returned home in December after also touring with the circus as a clown. They’re one of many circus families.
Bothun speaks of the train, the lights and the arenas with wonder. Her hope, she added, was to one day take her kids to the circus for a peek into her former life — just like her mom did with her. “I can never do that now,” Bothun said.
Aspiring circus artists often imagine life with the Ringling Bros. from childhood. Gregory Parks, a Minneapolis performer, first thought about it when he was 9 and toured as a clown with Ringling, once considered “the best of the best,” from 2000 to 2004. News about the circus left Parks feeling like he was going through “the stages of grief,” he said.
The pending closure has been the talk of the town in Baraboo, Wis., hometown of the Ringling brothers. Greg DeSanto directs the International Clown Hall of Fame in Baraboo and has been fielding concerns from worried clowns. DeSanto toured with Ringling, where he met his wife, also a clown.
Young clowns, DeSanto said, are anxious about the future, which some had dreamed would be with Ringling. He reminded them of the numerous circuses still surviving and stressed that the craft of clowning will go on.
Hundreds of employees will be looking for work come May, including Weiss and fellow Minnesotan Kenny Short, a BMX performer from Blaine.
The lucky happenstance for Short is that his time on tour was ending anyway, giving him a head start on next steps. Short understands the business rationale in folding, he said, and intends to keep on performing.
The Circus Xtreme train pulled into Jacksonville earlier this week, carrying Weiss to his next batch of shows. And when the lights dim for the final time, Weiss said he plans to be there.
“I’m heartbroken,” Weiss said, “but I’m just so thankful to have been a part of it.”