Ladeeeees aannnnnd gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus has been sold.
Braced by a blaring band, a ponderous pachyderm, caterwolling clowns, The World's Smallest Man and The World's Greatest Animal Trainer, Washington showman Irvin Feld announced yesterday that he and his son, Kenneth, have repurchased The Greatest Show on Earth from Mattel Inc. for $22.8 million.
"The good Lord never meant for a circus to be owned by a corporation," Feld proclaimed beneath a rainbow of balloons while surrounded by a bevy of beauties outside Ringling Brothers' executive offices on New Mexico Avenue NW.
Mattel bought the circus from the Felds in 1971 but kept Irvin and his late brother, Israel, on as managers. For more than a year, the family has been working to regain control of the 112-year-old show, said Kenneth Feld, who oversees day-to-day operations.
The Ringling empire now includes two circus companies, three ice shows--Ice Follies, Holiday on Ice and Walt Disney's World on Ice--and "Beyond Belief," an elaborate illusion event that's been playing Las Vegas for three years running.
The Feld families bought back all six shows, including 500 animals, two circus trains and all the greasepaint, tan bark and costumes needed to keep 1,200 acrobats, skaters and elephant tenders on the road. Mattel's Circus World theme park in Florida was not part of the deal.
The Felds announced their acquisition with fanfare worthy of the show's legendary founder, P. T. Barnum. Media events are everyday fare in Washington, but this press conference was a real circus:
The elephant yawned, shivering show girls strutted and, as a cloud of balloons floated aloft, the entire Feld family hammed it up with the stars of the two circus companies, lion tamer Gunther Gebel-Williams and 33-inch-tall Michu, the biggest dwarf in the circus business.
The Felds paid cash for the circus, arranging financing through Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco, Ken Feld said. His father said the circus "has been profitable ever since we've been associated with it," but neither Feld would say how much money it takes in.
More than 11 million people went to the circus and ice shows last year. Industry estimates are that Ringling Brothers made about a $5 million profit on $40 million worth of tickets, programs and peanuts, while the ice shows barely broke even on $20 million in business.
The younger Feld said the 200 headquarters workers who keep the shows on the road will continue to be based in Washington, where the Feld family has been in the entertainment trade for four decades.
The Felds built the area's first record store chain (the long-gone Super Music City) and booked concerts at the Carter Baron amphitheater before joining the circus almost 25 years ago.
Irvin Feld persuaded John Ringling North to fold his tents and book the big top shows into cheaper, more comfortable indoor arenas in the late 1950s, then purchased the circus in 1967 for $8 million in partnership with Judge Roy Hofheinz, builder of Houston's Astrodome.
Two years later, the circus sold stock to the public. In 1971, the Felds arranged to swap the whole outfit to Mattel for stock then worth $48 million.
As just another toy in an $800-million-a-year Mattel empire, the circus had to share the corporate center ring with Barbie dolls and Intellivision, and never was a big money maker for Mattel.
"The circus was a turkey and the ice shows an albatross," for Mattel, said Ed Atorino, the investment analyst who follows the toy business for Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co. "Selling it was a terrific move." illustration: The Felds Buy Back The Circus! (Produced by Gail McCrory for TWP; Photo by Craig Herndon)