Critics savaged the show, calling it “Ringless Barnum and Bailey.” The circus salespeople rioted.
“It was a big waste of money . . . an enormous mistake,” said Dominique Jando of the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, who for years worked with Ringling rival Big Apple Circus. “Everybody was appalled. You don’t go to the circus to see technology. You go for the spectacle. It was such a poor reading of what their audience was and what [Ringling] was. Without the rings, it looked like a show on a parking lot.”
Nicole Feld’s father, Feld Entertainment Chairman Kenneth Feld, whose motto is “make your mistakes early,” stepped in. A director revamped the production. Within days, something resembling the three rings returned — along with the tigers, trapezes and tradition.
Looking back, Nicole, 34, acknowledges that “we messed with expectations.” She takes blame for the show, which came after extensive marketing research.
She chalks it up to a lesson learned on the path she and two sisters, Alana, 32, and Juliette, 28, are navigating as they prepare to assume control of the family’s Tysons Corner-based, billion-dollar entertainment empire.
Observers are wondering if they are up to it. Or, if not, whether they will leave behind a company with valuable pieces to be picked over by competitors.
After all, it’s grown well beyond the big top.
Feld Entertainment shows draw 30 million customers a year across six continents and employ 3,000 associates, including daredevil drivers and trapeze artists, accountants and railroad engineers and costume makers. On any given night, more than 80,000 people watch a Feld production, be it Ringling, Monster Jam, Disney on Ice, Nuclear Cowboyz or motocross.
Even with Ringling as a national institution, Kenneth Feld, 63, knows better than anyone that the market is fickle. He’s survived public relations and business battles as well as a few flops of his own over the years. The company’s brands are strong but — as the 2006 debacle proves — must be protected at all costs.
“This is not a toy,” Kenneth said. “This is business. That’s a huge responsibility.”
In 1984, he almost lost the company when his father, Irvin, died suddenly of a heart attack at 66 and Kenneth scraped by to keep control and pay estate taxes. It took him 15 years to settle up with the IRS.
Then, as now, a family legacy was at stake. Irvin was a pioneer, bringing big-name music acts such as the Rolling Stones and the Who to the Baltimore-Washington region. He later bought, sold and bought back Ringling.