How Irvin Feld, Washington businessman, came to own the circus:

In 1956, learning that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus was in a bad way, he wrote a brash note to John Ringling North telling him what he was doing wrong, and how to make it right.

North was not impressed. Feld was a former door-to-door salesman, who had founded a chain of music stores and then gone on to book tours for Bill Haley and the Comets and other groups, given Chubby Checker his first job as an emcee and discovered Paul Anka at 15 in Montreal, then become his manager.

"Six months later, the circus folded," Feld recalls. "There were news stories all over about the death of the Big Top, and the phone rang in my office. It was John Ringling North. I told my secretary to let him wait for a minute or two. Finally I answered the phone. He didn't like to be kept waiting at all.

" 'Do you know who I am!' North yelled at me. " 'Yeah,' I said, 'You're the guy whose circus closed today.'

"By then he was willing to listen . . . The circus, just before it went under, had 2,000 roustabouts on its payroll, and 80 work elephants were required just to put up the enormous circus tent. I said to North, 'Do these roustabouts eat?'

" 'Sure,' he said, 'they eat three squares a day . . .

" 'So you're really in the restaurant business, and that's a pretty big restaurant. Tell me, where do they sleep?'

" 'They sleep in bunks we provide, bunks stacked four high.'

" 'Fine,' I said, 'so you're in the hotel business . . . Why do you have all these roustabouts to begin with?'

" 'Why, they put up the tent and they take it down,' he said. So he was in the construction business, too.

"I guaranteed him," Feld said, "that if he would just get out of the restaurant, hotel and construction businesses, he could stay in the circus business. He took my advice . . . The circus was back in business within 30 days, and I had the booking contract."

With the tent gone, Feld booked the circus into indoor arenas.

In 1967 Irvin and Israel Feld bought the circus, paying $8 million and assuming a $1.7 million debt. The next year Irvin Feld established Clown College in Venice, Fla., to provide a source of younger, American clowns; in 1971 he sold the circus to the Mattel toy conglomerate for $50 million in stock, but remained at its helm; last year Mattel sold it back, along with two ice shows, for $22.8 million.

Said Irvin Feld: "The good Lord never meant for a circus to be owned by a corporation." --Christian Williams