By Thomas Heath
Monday, May 3, 2010; 19
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.
"We're the people's circus," said Nicole Feld, Kenneth's eldest daughter and executive vice president and the producer of Ringling's Zing Zang Zoom edition, one of three separate Ringling circuses touring the country. "Sometimes people say, 'Oh, no, you didn't do some artsy-fartsy thing.' But kids don't like that."
Feld Entertainment is in Washington because that's where Feld's father, Irvin, started.
Irvin was selling toiletries door-to-door in the 1930s when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People offered him funding if he would open a cut-rate pharmacy, which he did on 7th Street in Northwest D.C. When Irvin placed speakers outside the store to draw customers, they headed for the store's record-album section. So he expanded into more records, renamed the store Super Music City, and in the mid-1950s started Super Attractions, a rock-and-roll promoter, which was the forerunner to Feld Entertainment.
Ken and his sister, Karen, grew up in Northwest Washington. Ken attended Ben Murch Elementary, Alice Deal Middle and Woodrow Wilson High schools before going to Boston University. Upon graduation in 1970, he went to work for his father.
Irvin was already a legendary promoter, having graduated from rock to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which he purchased from John Ringling North in 1967. Irvin sold it to toymaker Mattel before buying the circus back for $22.8 million in 1982. After Irvin died in 1984, Kenneth took over.
"Like his father, Irvin Feld, he's a born impresario," said Las Vegas hotelier and entrepreneur Steve Wynn.
Wynn knows Feld from a big financial home run they shared: Siegfried & Roy, the exotic animal and magic show that sold out its 1,500-seat theater at Wynn's Mirage hotel for more than 13 years straight, grossing more than $1 billion and revolutionizing Las Vegas by introducing family entertainment to a city that for 50 years had relied on singers, comedians and half-dressed showgirls.
"Kenneth realized in its infancy that [Siegfried & Roy] had a chance to be the singularly most successful live spectacle in the history of Las Vegas," said Bernie Yuman, who has been Siegfried & Roy's manager for 34 years. "He saw the originality and Siegfried & Roy's uncanny ability to hit the most widest, broadest demographic spectrum in the world, which was between 3 and 93 years old."
"I bet the company on it," said Feld, who spent $32 million to outfit Siegfried & Roy's stage at the Mirage.
Wynn said Feld's own magic was in how he handled Siegfried & Roy, who were known to be brilliant but high-maintenance performers.
"Feld, as hard-nosed a businessman as he is, was able to adjust to their personalities," said Wynn. "He allowed them to grow."
Another big home run is Disney on Ice, the show Ken Feld created in 1981 when he needed a creative bump to give his ailing Ice Follies new life. He had the bold idea of putting Disney characters on ice: Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Goofy, Donald Duck et al. Disney went for it, and Disney on Ice has eight separate shows touring the world.
"Kenneth was the brain trust who figured out the Disney characters and put them all together so that Mickey Mouse had a chance to interact with Snow White," Yuman said.
Rivals speak enviously of Disney on Ice, which they estimate has profit margins of up to 50 percent.
"Obviously we make money," Feld said of his various enterprises. "But it is brand building. We are creating traditions. Everybody knows we come to Washington, D.C., the third week of March every year at the Verizon Center. People plan for it. They make plans and they come."
Feld uses that loyalty to extract deals that no one else gets. He insists that he bring his own concessions into his arenas and that Feld Entertainment keeps 100 percent of the revenues.
"I don't know many people who can come in and steal all that money from me. And I still love him dearly," said Tim Leiweike, president of AEG, which runs 55 arenas around the world.
Not everyone loves him dearly. Though he has a dry sense of humor, he is not easygoing and refuses to run from a fight. He can be distant, demanding and impersonal, whether it means making a business decision for the circus or litigating with animal rights activists over his commitment to keep elephants in the show.
"He is not exactly warm and fuzzy," said Tom Crangle, a Las Vegas consultant who once worked for Ringling. "He is pretty cold. If you sit down in a room with him, you know right away."
Former daredevil clown Bello Nock, now the star at Big Apple Circus, said Feld is difficult, but he said most performers would work for Feld in a minute.
"We used to see things completely the opposite," said Nock, who was a Ringling star for eight years. "But he would say to me that the only way you make a diamond is with pressure."
Feld has a generous side. Nock said Feld called Big Apple last year, which is a nonprofit, and inquired about the size of the circus's deficit after donations had dropped due to the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal. When a Big Apple executive supplied the number, Feld sent a check to cover the deficit.
Feld occasionally surfaces in Washington area news stories, whether it is in court battles with animal rights groups who want to shut down Ringling's animal acts or involves the two lawsuits his sister, Karen, has pending against him. One claims he failed to manage the family's trust and the other accused him of hiring bodyguards to beat her after she was removed from a relative's shiva service in 2007.
"He is a very shrewd businessman, but he does not care about people," said Karen Feld. "He is smart, and he has his pulse on what the public wants. His biggest weakness is the way he treats people. You have to be concerned about people, and he is not, except where it makes him look good."
Kenneth Feld declined to respond.
Ringling has been bitter rivals with animal rights groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for years. PETA wants Ringling's animal acts shut down. Ringling has accused PETA of distorting its record of animal husbandry. Animal rights groups and a former employee sued Feld Entertainment under the Endangered Species Act. Last year, a U.S. District Court judge found that the lead plaintiff, a former Ringling employee, had no credibility and therefore no standing to sue. He ruled in favor of Feld Entertainment and dismissed the case.
Feld will never give up the elephants, despite the negative publicity. The pachyderms define Ringling, with elephant images gracing ads, programs, toys, TV commercials and anything else related to the circus. Feld even has a saying, "bring on the elephants," which is a euphemism for any sure-thing, crowd-pleaser act -- whether it's motorcycles or Mickey Mouse -- that sends the customer home satisfied.
Feld said his company works off a simple script: "We make heroes out of parents. It's the small and memorable thing that the child goes home with. All we want to do is create a memory."
More than 12,000 Monster Jam fans are squeezed into Baltimore's aging 1st Mariner Arena on a chilly February evening. One of them is a well-dressed, serious-looking gentleman who stands out amidst the blue-collar crowd, soaking in the action.
Sitting in row H, seat 11, Feld takes mental notes as the Monster trucks race across the 80 truckloads of dirt that his company has spread across the arena floor. He watches closely as Prowler, Spiderman and other five-ton trucks flatten junk cars and leap over dirt inclines. "As this goes on, you will see some of these guys get absolutely upright," says Feld, watching closely. As Predator finishes its routine, he shakes his head. "He didn't get it right."
Feld stares as another Monster truck streaks from a tunnel and into the main arena, going vertical as it crashes over a yellow-painted Chevrolet Monte Carlo that serves as a junk car. As the audience erupts, Feld gives a thumbs up, pronouncing "the best so far." He looks around at audience members, shakes his shoulders and screams above the din of the motors, "They love it. They fall for a truck. The audience for Monster Jam is . . . the real America."
Toward the end of the show's first hour, around two dozen motorcycles, all-terrain-vehicles and conventional dirt bikes launch into a carefully choreographed ballet, zooming up ramps to do 40-foot-high spins and somersaults and crashing down onto a dirt hill.
It's vintage Feld. Fast-paced. Dangerous. Earsplitting. Full of pyrotechnics. The razzle-dazzle builds to a crescendo designed to give the audience an adrenaline rush as they break for intermission.
Then Feld follows the customers into the concourse to see what they buy.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.