CURTAIN CALL

Ringling Bros. is closing for good. A backstage look at the end of the “Greatest Show on Earth”

After almost a century and a half, the “Greatest Show on Earth” is coming to an end. Associated Press reporters tagged along with the Ringling Bros. Circus in its final days to witness the lives of circus performers, who live and travel across the United States by train, together with animals of the circus.

Ringling Bros Leaving the Life
Clowns take a break between acts in “Clown Alley,” a private area backstage, May 5. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Backstage, performers prepare for shows and apply their make up. On the mile-long train slowly chugging between towns and cities, they socialize in the “Pie Car,” nurse their newborns, and write personal diaries. Occasionally, a toddler is baptized by a reverend from the Circus and Traveling Shows Ministry of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. (Yes, there is a ministry.)

But some train parts have been auctioned off, and a few performers have bought new homes in Las Vegas, where they will continue their careers after the circus shuts down. Animals have found new homes in sanctuaries.

Ringling Bros Leaving the Life
Rev. Jerry Hogan, left, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Circus and Traveling Shows Ministry, leads a baptism service for 6-year-old Eddie Strickland, the son of Jimmie Strickland, a crew member, May 4. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Ringling Bros Leaving the Life
High wire performer Anna Lebedeva stands next to her 3-month-old son, Amir, in his stroller while waiting to go on for the show’s finale, May 5. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Founded in the late 1800s in Wisconsin, Ringling Bros., now owned by Feld Entertainment, has seen its ticket sales slump in recent years. It has long been attacked for alleged animal abuse. One such allegation led to a 14-year legal battle with animal-rights groups, who, it turned out, had bribed a former circus producer nearly $200,000 to make false accusations about the circus’s treatment of animals. The groups ended up paying Feld a total of some $25 million in settlement costs.

But even after Ringling Bros announced in 2015 that it would phase out its herd of elephants, it couldn’t stem the decline. It seems that the audience’s taste has moved on from the kind of circus act that many grew up watching.

Ringling Bros Leaving the Life
The Desert Goddesses perform on camels during a show, May 4. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Ringling Bros Leaving the Life
Ringling Bros. boss clown Sandor Eke, left, and Ivan Vargas put on makeup as Eke’s 2-year-old son Michael watches videos on a phone before a performance, May 5. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Ringling Bros Leaving the Life
Clowns with the Ringling Bros. circus red unit wait backstage for the start of the show, May 5. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Ringling Bros Leaving the Life
Clown Ivan Vargas speaks on a video call with his parents during the intermission of a show, May 5. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Ringling Bros Leaving the Life
(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Ringling Bros Leaving the Life
Beth Walters, left, and Stephen Craig, both clowns with Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Circus talk during the clowns’ final group breakfast, May 4. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Ringling Bros Leaving the Life
Boss clown Sandor Eke dusts his face with powder before performing in a show, May 5. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Ringling Bros Leaving the Life
Ringling Bros. boss clown Sandor Eke carries his 2-year-old son, Michael, on his shoulders as he walks to the bus that will take them to the arena for a show, May 4. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
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