Kenneth Feld didn't have to run away from home to join the circus. It was already there.
His father, Irvin Feld, became an executive of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the mid-1950s, when Kenneth was a kid. In 1967, Irvin Feld bought the circus -- and now Kevin, 36, runs the family business.
"To think that you own the Greatest Show on Earth -- the feeling is incredible," Kenneth Feld says.
Since the death of his father in September, Kenneth Feld has been the head ringmaster at Ringling Brothers' New Mexico Avenue headquarters, juggling jugglers, balancing balancing acts and lionizing lions to create the two versions of the circus that tour the United States 11 months out of the year (one unit currently is playing at the D.C. Armory; the other is ensconced at New York's Madison Square Garden for a two-month run).
The Ringling Brothers empire also includes two "Walt Disney World on Ice" shows and a Las Vegas act featuring magicians Siegried and Roy.
Washington goes a long way back with both the Felds and the circus. Irvin Feld operated a record store downtown for many years before joining Ringling Brothers, while the Bailey's Crossroads area was for many years the winter home of the circus (the Virginia neighborhood gets its name, in fact, from the same Bailey whose name is part of the Ringling Brothers agglomeration).
In this, its 115th year, the circus will, as always, range far afield, the two units playing 85 cities in all and being seen by 12 million people of all ages. Feld will not discuss the circus' finances, except to say that it's profitable; but at an average price of around $8 a ticket, plus the take from peanut, popcorn, cotton candy and souvenir sales, the circus probably has annual revenue well over $100 million.
Ringling Brothers is by far the biggest circus in the United States, if not the world. The dozens of small-tent circuses that travel the country each summer hardly offer any competition -- that comes, instead, from such events as rock concerts and other big-ticket forms of entertainment that can blow a family's mad money the month that the circus happens to be coming to town. The gargantuan Michael Jackson tour, for example, with its $30 tickets, dried up some of Ringling Brothers' business last year.
"The competition is for the family entertainment dollar," Feld says.
Feld's duties are a bit different from those of the ordinary chief executive. They include searching the world over for new acts and oddities to present at each year's edition of the extravaganza.
"I see everything," he says, launching into a description of some Kabuki theater players he saw in a recent trip to Japan who gave him ideas for future shows. "The fun part of my business is trying to think of what I can come up with this year that's different from what I did last year," Feld says.
This year's find is an alleged unicorn -- appearing in the edition of the circus that is now playing in New York -- that has brought with it a large amount of controversy. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States have attacked the circus for showing the animal, which they say is nothing more than a malformed or modified goat. Feld insists that Ringling Brothers found the "unicorn" as is, and has not tampered with it in any way.
Besides, the beast is packing them in. "Every city I've played with that show, my business has gone through the roof. . . . This is what my circus is all about -- something that gets the press all pumped up," Feld says, sounding increasingly Barnumesque. "These are the fun kind of controversies that are harmless but create excitement for the circus -- that's why I'm in this business and other people are accountants."
Feld says he has something even more spectacular up his sleeve for next year's show, although he won't say what. He will allow, however, that next year's version of the circus will include a space shuttle recreation in which not one, but two, performers are catapulted across the arena.
"Every year I will have a hook," he says. "I have something really incredible for next year."
Such spectacles are increasingly important to the circus in these days of "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" movies, thrilling Michael Jackson music videos and action-packed television shows. It takes more and more all the time to excite audiences.
"For me to create special effects that happen every day when you go there live, that's a much tougher thing," Feld says. But how can you beat a little personal danger? "When you see an act where a guy gets in a cage with nine white tigers and nine gold tigers -- he's got it all over Indiana Jones," Feld says.
The crowds that troop into the arenas where the circus plays are, indeed, children of all ages. That demographic has not changed much over the years. What is changing is the ethnic mix. Ringling Brothers is reaching out to broaden its audience by advertising heavily among black, Hispanic and other ethnic populations, according to Feld. "The circus is not white entertainment, it's not black entertainment -- it's entertainment for everybody," he says.
Also changing is the ethnic mix of the circus' performers. Many of the aerialists, jugglers, lion tamers and others once came from Europe, but Ringling Brothers' troupe is becoming increasingly Americanized, Feld says. The edition at the Armory has a tiger tamer from North Dakota and a contortionist from Florida.
While circus folk once had an aura somewhere just below that of gypsies, Ringling Brothers is now promoting circus performance as a respectable profession. Feld recently went to a national convention of guidance counselors to pitch the circus' Clown College as an alternative for high school seniors who want to go into show business careers.
By growing much of its own talent, and searching the world for the rest, the circus may endure another 115 years, Feld hopes. And Feld plans to keep the business in the family as long as he can. His father sold the circus to toymaker Mattel Inc. in 1971, but the Felds bought it back -- lock, stock and barrel full of clowns -- in 1982.
"The good Lord never meant for a circus to be owned by a corporation," Irvin Feld proclaimed at the time. And indeed, his son says running the Greatest Show on Earth requires unusual, if not peculiar, talents.
"It's not an orthodox-type business," Kenneth Feld says. "If everybody understood it, there would be more circuses."