Saturday, January 14, 2017

APNewsBreak: Ringling Bros. circus to close after 146 years


TAMARA LUSH,Associated Press 2017-01-15T03:38:55Z

ELLENTON, Fla. (AP) — After 146 years, the curtain is coming down on "The Greatest Show on Earth." The owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus told The Associated Press that the show will close forever in May.

The iconic American spectacle was felled by a variety of factors, company executives say. Declining attendance combined with high operating costs, along with changing public tastes and prolonged battles with animal rights groups all contributed to its demise.

"There isn't any one thing," said Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment. "This has been a very difficult decision for me and for the entire family."

The company broke the news to circus employees Saturday night after shows in Orlando and Miami.

Ringling Bros. has two touring circuses this season and will perform 30 shows between now and May. Major stops include Atlanta, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston and Brooklyn. The final shows will be in Providence, Rhode Island, on May 7 and in Uniondale, New York, at the Nassau County Coliseum on May 21.

The circus, with its exotic animals, flashy costumes and death-defying acrobats, has been a staple of entertainment in the United States since the mid-1800s. Phineas Taylor Barnum made a traveling spectacle of animals and human oddities popular, while the five Ringling brothers performed juggling acts and skits from their home base in Wisconsin. Eventually, they merged and the modern circus was born. The sprawling troupes traveled around America by train, wowing audiences with the sheer scale of entertainment and exotic animals.

By midcentury, the circus was routine, wholesome family entertainment. But as the 20th century went on, kids became less and less enthralled. Movies, television, video games and the internet captured young minds. The circus didn't have savvy product merchandising tie-ins or Saturday morning cartoons to shore up its image.

"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."

The Feld family bought the Ringling circus in 1967. The show was just under 3 hours then. Today, the show is 2 hours and 7 minutes, with the longest segment — a tiger act — clocking in at 12 minutes.

"Try getting a 3- or 4-year-old today to sit for 12 minutes," he said.

Feld and his daughter Juliette Feld, who is the company's chief operating officer, acknowledged another reality that led to the closing, and it was the one thing that initially drew millions to the show: the animals. Ringling has been targeted by activists who say forcing animals to perform is cruel and unnecessary.

In May of 2016, after a long and costly legal battle, the company removed the elephants from the shows and sent the animals to live on a conservation farm in Central Florida. The animals had been the symbol of the circus since Barnum brought an Asian elephant named Jumbo to America in 1882. In 2014, Feld Entertainment won $25.2 million in settlements from groups including the Humane Society of the United States, ending a 14-year fight over allegations that circus employees mistreated elephants.

By the time the elephants were removed, public opinion had shifted somewhat. Los Angeles prohibited the use of bull-hooks by elephant trainers and handlers, as did Oakland, California. The city of Asheville, North Carolina nixed wild or exotic animals from performing in the municipally owned, 7,600-seat U.S. Cellular Center.

Attendance has been dropping for 10 years, said Juliette Feld, but when the elephants left, there was a "dramatic drop" in ticket sales. Paradoxically, while many said they didn't want big animals to perform in circuses, many others refused to attend a circus without them.

"We know now that one of the major reasons people came to Ringling Bros. was getting to see elephants," she said. "We stand by that decision. We know it was the right decision. This was what audiences wanted to see and it definitely played a major role."

The Felds say their existing animals — lions, tigers, camels, donkeys, alpacas, kangaroos and llamas — will go to suitable homes. Juliette Feld says the company will continue operating the Center for Elephant Conservation.

Some 500 people perform and work on both touring shows. A handful will be placed in positions with the company's other, profitable shows — it owns Monster Jam, Disney on Ice and Marvel Live, among other things — but most will be out of a job. Juliette Feld said the company will help employees with job placement and resumes. In some cases where a circus employee lives on the tour rail car (the circus travels by train), the company will also help with housing relocation.

Kenneth Feld became visibly emotional while discussing the decision with a reporter. He said over the next four months, fans will be able to say goodbye at the remaining shows.

In recent years, Ringling Bros. tried to remain relevant, hiring its first African American ringmaster, then its first female ringmaster, and also launching an interactive app. It added elements from its other, popular shows, such as motorbike daredevils and ice skaters. But it seemingly was no match for Pokemon Go and a generation of kids who desire familiar brands and YouTube celebrities.

"We tried all these different things to see what would work, and supported it with a lot of funding as well, and we weren't successful in finding the solution," said Kenneth Feld.

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Light at end of state budget tunnel?


Rockford casino, Rock Valley College cash, part of Senate state budget fix

Posted Jan 13, 2017 at 6:33 PM Updated at 3:47 PM

By Isaac Guerrero
Staff writer

ROCKFORD - Rockford would get a casino license, the state income tax would rise and dollars would flow to long-stalled capital projects at Rock Valley College and the city's airport if lawmakers approve a budget framework introduced in the Illinois Senate this week.

Legislators won't debate the plan, a package of 10 separate bills crafted by Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, and Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, until the week after next.

There's hope, though, said Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, that the Senate deal has a legitimate chance of passage because it contains budget and government reforms sought by both Democrats and Republicans. It's also a package deal, Syverson said.

"Each bill has a poison pill in it," Syverson said. "So if one doesn't pass, none of them do. The reason for that is that there are things in these bills that everybody hates and things everybody likes. You're not going to get Democrats to support worker compensation reforms on its own and you're not going to get Republicans to support a tax hike on its own, but if you put all these things together, the hope is that you force a vote on all of it and we can move forward."

A stopgap budget bill would give the state authority to spend money through June 30. Another bill, if approved, would allow Illinois to sell $7 billion worth of bonds to pay down its $10 billion backlog of bills.


Additionally, the Senate proposals include an increase in the state income tax from 3 percent to 4.95 percent, minor pension reforms, school funding and worker compensation reforms, a phased-in minimum wage increase, a two-year property tax freeze and a bill that would make it easier for local governments to consolidate.

Another bill would ask voters to approve an amendment to the state constitution to establish term limits for legislative leaders but not rank-and-file lawmakers. Still other proposals would make it easier for state universities and community colleges to outsource work and streamline how they buy goods and services. A tax on sugary drinks may also end up in the proposals, Syverson said.

Here is how a few items in the Senate proposals would affect the Rockford area:

Casino expansion

Syverson and Sen. Terry Link, D-Gurnee, are co-sponsors of a gaming expansion bill that is among the legislative proposals introduced in the Senate. Just like the perennial gaming expansion plans that are floated each year only to fall under their own weight, this one would give Rockford a casino license. Additionally, new casinos would be allowed in Danville, Lake County, Chicago and the south Chicago suburbs, and Illinois' horse racing tracks would be allowed to install slot machines.

The bill calls for five percent of revenue from a Rockford casino to be split among local governments as follows: 70 percent to Rockford; 20 percent to Winnebago County; 5 percent to Machesney Park; and 5 percent to Loves Park.

Rock Valley College

Expansion of gaming would provide funding for stalled capital projects, including millions of dollars Illinois owes Rock Valley College for improvements at its North Mulford Road campus. State aid is helping Rock Valley renovate and expand two classroom buildings, but Gov. Bruce Rauner froze capital funding July 1, 2015, as he and lawmakers could not agree on terms of a budget. The state owes Rock Valley $8.95 million in capital funding, said Beth Young, Rock Valley vice president and chief financial officer.

Budgetary woes also led the state to cut the level of operating cash it sends Rock Valley. The college is owed $9.4 million in state aid for fiscal 2016 and the current fiscal year. The series of bills introduced in the Senate this week, if approved, would resume the flow of operating cash and capital funding for higher education, Syverson said.

Airport cash

In 2014, then-Gov. Pat Quinn promised $16.5 million as the state's share of the $40 million jet repair and maintenance center at Chicago Rockford International Airport. Only about $1.5 million was paid to the airport. After Rauner froze the rest of the funding in 2015, several local banks stepped up to provide the airport with a bridge loan. The money ensured the project was finished on time, but the airport is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest every month. A budget deal is crucial to freeing up the state funding for the jet repair hub, Syverson said.

"Whether it's Rock Valley or at the airport, there are many important projects that have been held up," said Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford. "I expect any final budget resolution will allow these grants to be released so the state can fulfill its commitment."

Isaac Guerrero: 815-914-1171;; @isaac_rrs

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