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.
Clowns take a break between acts in “Clown Alley,” a private area backstage, May 5.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Desert Goddesses perform on camels during a show, May 4.
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.
Clowns with the Ringling Bros. circus red unit wait backstage for the start of the show, May 5.
Clown Ivan Vargas speaks on a video call with his parents during the intermission of a show, May 5.
Beth Walters, left, and Stephen Craig, both clowns with Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Circus talk during the clowns’ final group breakfast, May 4.
Boss clown Sandor Eke dusts his face with powder before performing in a show, May 5.
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.
Sign up for the Quartz Daily Brief, our free daily newsletter with the world’s most important and interesting news.
More stories from Quartz:
- Silicon Valley has idolized Steve Jobs for decades—and it’s finally paying the price
- Solar is now cheaper than coal-based electricity in India, but the math makes no sense