Correction to This Article
This story said Feld Entertainment Chairman Kenneth Feld wrote a check to cover the Big Apple Circus's deficit caused by a drop in donations in the wake of the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal. Feld wrote a check to cover a portion of the deficit, not the entire circus shortfall.

The man behind the 'Greatest Show on Earth'

By Thomas Heath
Monday, May 3, 2010

Kenneth Feld is sitting on a couch in the corner of his office, an office in a building as nondescript as any other in this Tysons Corner office park, and one far removed from the bright lights and bravado and big production numbers that have made his business famous.

Feld is a showman, live entertainment's auteur for the masses, the man behind Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Disney on Ice, monster trucks shows, dirt bike motocrosses and other arena staples.

His office is filled with the memorabilia of a long entertainment career. On a glass coffee table sit bronze casts of the hands of Gargantua II, the giant gorilla that was a Ringling mainstay for years. The walls have Feld family photos of Marilyn Monroe, Muhammed Ali and a gaggle of clowns. There is a Tony Award for producing the 1993 Broadway comedy "Fool Moon" and a letter co-signed by then-Disney Chairman Michael Eisner and his then-deputy, now chief executive Robert A. Iger.

They are keepsakes from a career in which he transformed a sleepy family showbiz operation into a profitable portfolio of made-for-the-family productions. Feld Entertainment these days tours 67 countries, tallying more than 5,000 performances a year. Its annual audience exceeds 30 million, generating nearly $900 million in revenue. On a big weekend, the far-flung empire is entertaining nearly 1 million patrons from Denmark to Greece to Wheeling, W.Va.

And yet, for all the beat-the-drum, here-come-the-elephants pizazz of its events, Feld is largely a behind-the-scenes ringmaster, preferring to orchestrate operations from his Tysons office, Ringling's winter headquarters near Tampa, or, better yet, from a seat in the audience.

He will personally check out some 200 shows a year. And there are rules. No act should be longer than seven minutes. Performers must interact with fans. Every first act must grab you at the start and end with a loud bang. Lighting is crucial, guiding the customer through the show and creating an intimacy between fan and performer. And at the end, everyone should feel like they stepped off a roller coaster.

Feld is a numbers junkie. He absorbs reams of customer and sales data going back years. He is an arena rat, notorious for prowling the concession stands to see what people buy. His head holds floor plans down to the minutest detail for dozens of venues around the country.

His latest addition, a $205 million medley of motorsports attractions that includes Monster Jam and Nuclear Cowboyz motocross, is designed to diversify Feld Entertainment as the 61-year-old impresario prepares to one day cede control to his three daughters.

But the last few years have been especially challenging, with the closing of Feld's long-running Las Vegas magic/exotic animal act Siegfried & Roy and the death of Ringling's star talent scout. The economic downturn has put a pinch on people's entertainment dollar. His circus is under regular assault from animal rights activists.

"They are at a critical point," said Dominique Jando of the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, who for years worked with Ringling rival Big Apple Circus. "Ringling has this incredible place in entertainment history as being sort of the comfort food of show business. Very few organizations have that sense of continuity from one generation to another. But they have tried to create something with a lot of video effects . . . trying to be cool, trying to be new, but it seems to be forgetting who you are and what you represent in American culture. And it's not the Ringling that audiences expect to see."

When Feld veers too far outside his circle of competence, he occasionally pays for it. His biggest flop was a Broadway musical based on the Tom Hanks movie "Big." His "Three Musketeers'' show collapsed on Broadway in 1984.

Those are lessons learned. While Big Apple Circus pursues intimacy and Cirque du Soleil caters to the high-end purists, Feld Entertainment puts its faith in the mass market.

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