Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus took a final, bittersweet bow Sunday, staging its last three shows here after 146 years of entertaining American audiences with gravity-defying trapeze stunts, comically clumsy clowns and trained tigers.

“Farewell, from the Greatest Show on Earth!” ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson, an 18-year veteran of the show and the first African American to hold the job, told each packed audience, offering one of the few signs that the circus was coming to a close. Yet many spectators said they came precisely because it was the last chance to witness a spectacle that once felt as if it might be around forever — until changing times and mores proved more powerful.

“It’s sad, but the memory lives on,” said David Eisenberg, a business development manager from Massapequa, N.Y., who first beheld the circus half a century ago with his grandfather. He took his daughter when she was little, and he and Rachel, now 25, returned one more time Sunday night.

“Everybody is a kid at heart,” Eisenberg said.

The end of this American institution came six decades after it folded its big-top tent in 1956 and moved indoors, an event that at the time was viewed as a death knell. But while Ringling’s mile-long train of animals and humans continued crisscrossing the country, it ultimately could not weather another major transition: last year’s exit of its most famed performers, the elephants.

(Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

The animals had long been the huge draw, but they were also what contributed to the circus’s demise. In 1898, when Ringling’s “World’s Greatest Show” first made its way to the nation’s capital, some 15,000 people packed into a tent to view what The Washington Post then called “one of the finest zoological exhibits extant.” It included tropical birds, a hippo, zebras, 400 horses and 25 elephants.

A century later, Ringling had become the target of animal protection groups that claimed it mistreated its elephants, and the two sides soon locked in a 14-year legal battle so cutthroat it involved secret informants paid by animal groups and a former CIA official who was paid by Ringling’s parent company, Feld Entertainment, to spy on activists and a journalist. The litigation ended with several animal groups paying a $16 million settlement to Feld.

While the animal activists never prevailed against Ringling in court, they were victorious outside. The allegations of elephant abuse prompted municipalities around the country to ban elephant bullhooks — a sharp metal tool used by handlers — or to prohibit wild animal performances altogether, as Los Angeles recently moved to do. After Ringling retired its last pachyderms to a company-owned elephant conservation center in Florida, ticket sales declined much more than Feld expected, and the company announced in January that Ringling would close for good.

“The legislative landscape . . . made it really difficult to tour with the elephants,” Alana Feld, the company’s executive vice president, said Friday.

Aerialist Paulo dos Santos flies through the air during his act Sunday. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

But the circus was also contending with evolving public tastes and an ever-widening entertainment landscape.

In the early to mid-20th century, Ringling, which merged with Barnum & Bailey in 1919, was a much-anticipated event. In many locations it was often a school holiday, said LaVahn Hoh, a retired University of Virginia drama professor who long taught the nation’s only course on circus history. Hoh said he vividly remembers waking at dawn as a boy and seeing the arriving circus train’s headlights break through the fog in his home town of Appleton, Wis.

These days, he wonders, “Maybe the word ‘circus’ has to change to something else. Maybe the whole definition has to change.”

Though it eventually was the last of about two dozen American circuses to still travel by train, Ringling continued trying to modernize and surprise. Its outer-space-themed shows at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum featured motorcycles, Segways and, for the first year, an ice floor and skaters. But these days, a spokesman said, the show is something on people’s bucket lists — a spectacle to see once but not every year.

“We’ve been a part of something so magnificent . . . but if people aren’t coming to the show, you can’t keep having a circus,” said 30-year-old Ashley Vargas, a Ringling ice skater. Disney and other entertainment companies are present in Americans’ daily lives, she noted. “The circus, unfortunately, is not anymore.”

After 146 years, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus ended with three final performances at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Like many of the 300 cast and crew members, Vargas said she plans to take a break before seeking out new opportunities. Animal performers that are owned by their handlers — such as the tiger, leopard and 15 lions owned by big-cat trainer Alexander Lacey — will stay with them. Those owned by Feld, including a kangaroo, a camel and other tigers, have been found new homes that circus officials would not divulge.

The circus remained unpredictable to the end. At the close of the trapeze act late Sunday, Iverson announced that performer Ammed Garcia Tuniziani would attempt to land a quadruple somersault — a highly difficult feat. The audience was hushed, the drum rolled, but Tuniziani’s right hand slipped as he tried to catch on to his partner.

Then Iverson announced a special second chance. Once more, Tuniziani slipped. A moment later, he and his partner shared a long embrace in the net before they dismounted to the ground.

Watching from Section 206 was Gary Payne, a former president of the 2,000-member Circus Fans Association of America. He’d driven from Connecticut for the 7 p.m. show, the last of about 350 Ringling performances he’d attended. He remembers being hooked on circuses from his first, the Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus, which he saw as a 5-year-old in 1961.

Payne, an estimator for a fencing company, had had prime viewing for all the closing color, energy and emotion. He expected tears, including his own: “I’m sure I’ll have my head in my hands a couple times.”

Angelica Tchalabaev, 17, gets a hug from her mother, Tatiana Tchalabaev, who plays the Intergalactic Queen in the Ringling circus. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Ashley Byrne of Brooklyn was at the same show, but she was standing outside the arena with about 50 other protesters holding a sign that read “Send the animals to sanctuaries!” Byrne said she first went to a Ringling circus as a child — and never went again. She has spent the past 10 years organizing demonstrations against Ringling as a campaigner with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The company’s surprise announcement earlier this year stunned her to near speechlessness, she said. Now she is turning her efforts toward other U.S. circuses that still use animals.

“We hope that those circuses will take Ringling as an example of what not to do,” Byrne said.

If there was angst over the remaining Ringling animal performers, it was not evident on Sunday. The audience ooh-ed as Lacey coaxed two tigers into walking on their hind legs, and it ahh-ed as a 700-pound pig named Roscoe sailed with surprising grace down a metal slide. Circusgoers lined up to buy snow cones in elephant-shaped mugs and snag leopard plush toysone of which Stephanie Culff of Bellmore, N.Y., purchased for her 7-month-old daughter, Emily, wearing a dress decorated with Dumbo the elephant. “This is to tell her that she’s been to the greatest show on Earth,” Culff said.

The 105-member Ringling cast assembled in the finale of the final performance Sunday, as it had done at the conclusion of every tour, to sing “Auld Lang Syne.” They stood in the center ring, hugging as Iverson thanked each act and members of the crew. “Shows close all the time. This is about our culture. This is about our family. This is about our home,” he said.

“Ladies and gentlemen, keep the circus alive inside you!”

Correction: A previous version of this story accurately reported the ringmaster’s announcement that a quadruple somersault by a trapeze artist would be just the fourth time for that feat in the circus’s 146 years. The announcement was incorrect, however; at least five other Ringling trapeze flyers had previously completed this move, some many times, and at least four other trapeze acts had attempted to do so.