After 146 years, the curtain is coming down on “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus told The Associated Press that the show will close forever in May.
The iconic American spectacle was felled by a variety of factors, company executives say. Declining attendance combined with high operating costs, along with changing public tastes and prolonged battles with animal rights groups all contributed to its demise.
Feld Entertainment said the circus’s existing animals — including lions, tigers, camels, donkeys, alpacas, kangaroos and llamas — will go to suitable homes following the show’s final performance on May 21.
The circus, with its exotic animals, flashy costumes and death-defying acrobats, has been a staple of entertainment in the United States since the mid-1800s. Phineas Taylor Barnum made a traveling spectacle of animals and human oddities popular, while the five Ringling brothers performed juggling acts and skits from their home base in Wisconsin. Eventually, they merged and the modern circus was born. The sprawling troupes traveled around America by train, wowing audiences with the sheer scale of entertainment and exotic animals.
By mid-century, the circus was routine, wholesome family entertainment. But as the 20th century went on, kids became less and less enthralled. Movies, television, video games and the internet captured young minds. The circus didn’t have savvy product merchandising tie-ins or Saturday morning cartoons to shore up its image.
Here’s a look back at “The Greatest Show on Earth.” (AP)
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Elephants Bonnie, left, and Kelly Ann stand during media availability before a performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, March 19, 2015 in Washington. After 146 years, the curtain is coming down on “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus told The Associated Press that the show will close forever in May. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
American showman P.T. Barnum is shown in 1882 at an unknown location. In his lifetime, Barnum was an entrepreneur, museum owner, politician, journalist, impressario and creator of his circus “The Greatest Show on Earth” in 1871. In 1881 he merged with his competitor and formed Barnum & Bailey Circus. Barnum was born in Bethel, Ct., in 1810 and died in 1891. (AP Photo)
Television comedian Red Buttons plays the part of April fool during parade of celebrities March 31 1934 during opening performance of Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)
Lulu Albertino, who claims to be the only woman clown in an American circus, makes her debut with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden in New York, April 5, 1939. Lulu says “clowning is an up and down existence,” and it’s the “downs” such as this which get the biggest laughs. (AP Photo/Tom Sande)
Circus bear “Fritz” seems none too pleased with his predicament as he pedals his “high strung” bicycle around at the opening of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden, New York, April 5, 1939. (AP Photo/Tom Sande)
Opening night performance of the “Greatest Show on Earth” in New York’s Madison Square Garden on April 5, 1939. The patrons witnessed the elephant troupe going through their regular paces as the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus opened its 1939 season. (AP Photo)
Just off the train from winter quarters in Florida, camels and zebras make their west on East 49th Street to Madison Square Garden in New York, April 3, 1942. The animals are here for the season’s opening of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. (AP Photo/John Lindsay)
An amused audience watches a clown from the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus put a trained dog through his paces at Bellevue Hospital in New York on April 23, 1942. Occasion was the annual appearance of the circus at the Hospital to do a full show for the benefit of patients, including many children. (AP Photo)
Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and his children, Jean, left, and Eric, pictured with one of the circus clowns, Lew Jacobs, as they watched the big show in Madison Square Garden, New York on April 25, 1942. A good time was had by all. (AP Photo/RW)
Robert Edward Ringling in New York on April 15, 1943. He is senior vice president of Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. (AP Photo/Bob Wands)
Flames shoot from the top of the main tent of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus during performance at Hartford, Connecticut on July 6, 1944. Shortly after, the tent collapsed, trapping many of the patrons who were still in the arena. (AP Photo)
Three-year-old Richard Caglione sheds tears as a stranger, in this case, Emmett Kelly, featured clown with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, picks him up during New York’s first circus parade in 19 years on April 9, 1945, which launched the first phase of the Seventh War Loan Drive. (AP Photo/Anthony Camerano)
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus elephants are seen on parade near New York’s Times Square, April 9, 1945. (AP Photo/Anthony Camerano)
Elephants from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus plod along Second Avenue at 106th Street in New York, April 2, 1948, after arriving by train for their annual appearance at Madison Square Garden. (AP Photo/Harry Harris)
You would never guess it, but this happy go lucky clown is none other than der bingle, Bing Crosby performing in a benefit performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus on Sept. 7,1948 in Hollywood, Calif. The benefit was held to raise an estimated $250,000 for St. John’s Hospital. (AP Photo)
“Skee Otaris’ hands are over her head as her pachyderm does a headstand during performance of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in Madison Square Garden in New York on April 9, 1949. (AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)
Monkey acts are a favorite with many circus goers so Beatrice Dante puts her chimpanzee through a tight wire number in preparation for the New York opening, April 6, 1949. (AP Photo/Ed Ford)
Men, women and children at Bellevue Hospital watch the elephants during the 48th annual performance of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus on the hospital parade grounds in New York on April 21, 1950. Thirteen acts were presented during the one-hour show. (AP Photo/Tom Fitzsimmons)
Harold Alzanas on the bicycle during the high wire Alzanas act of the big show now attracting kids of all ages at Madison Square Garden, New York, April 12, 1951. (AP Photo/Ed Ford)
Getting ready for the unfolding of the symbolic “big top” for the 1953 season, circus folk from Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus limber up at Madison Square Garden in New York, March 31, 1953, where the show makes its debut on April 1. Ann Mace, right, former Diamond Horseshoe showgirl, in street clothes, rides on the featured float, “The Spirit of Candy Land,” from the “Spectacle” number. (AP Photo/Ed Ford)
Seven of these eight costumed clowns are radio and television personalities, while the eighth (third from right) is Otto Griebling, who earns his livelihood as a clown with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Group gathered at New York’s Madison Square Garden, April 1, 1953 for opening performance of “The Greatest Show On Earth.” From left are: Al Schacht, perennial baseball clown; Garry Moore, Sid Caesar, Lauritz Melchior, Jack Carter, Otto Griebling, Herb Shriner and Sam Levenson. The radio and TV personalities participated in the opening night performance with proceeds going to United Cerebral Palsy of New York. (AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)
Arkie Scott astride his horse, Harold, leads a parade of elephants down Eighth Avenue at Madison Square Garden in New York, March 28, 1954. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus came to town for a 40-Day engagement. (AP Photo/Jacob Harris)
From left to right: Buff Cobb, Mary Sinclair, actress Marlene Dietrich, and Faye Emerson appear at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at New York’s Madison Square Garden for a benefit performance for United Cerebral Palsy of New York City, April 2, 1954. (AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)
The Rixos on their balanced ladder on a trapeze rehearse their act for Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden, New York, March 30, 1954. (AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)
Animal trainer Trevor Bale growls at one of his Royal Bengal tigers as he puts him through his paces at the opening performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus in New York, March 31, 1955. Not to be outdone, the tiger growls back. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)
Gaily costumed circus performers and animals dance their way over the Madison Square Garden tanbark in a Celestial Calendar Cavalcade, during rehearsal in New York, March 30, 1955, for opening of the 1955 edition of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. The cavalcade is one of 26 displays in the show which starts its annual tour with the current New York booking. (AP Photo/Matty Zimmerman)
Fred Johnson, 67, a banner artist of the old school, puts the final touches to huge banners on July 14, 1959 to be used in the new circus museum being installed at Baraboo, Wis. where the John Ringling Bros., circus began. Johnson still plys his art with a Chicago tent and awning firm. He began painting circus banners in 1909. (AP Photo/Edward Kitch)
A circus hand guides a big elephant down the ramp as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus arrives in Pittsburgh on July 16, 1956, before the announcement that the show will be last “under the Big Top.” Youngsters watch in background. (AP Photo)
When 17-year-old Ilonka Karoly steps into the circus ring, spectators wonder how one of her age and size can do all the things she does at one performance. Ilonka is a ballerina with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus, May 12, 1956, in New York. (AP Photo/Robert Kradin)
Finger tip on nose of Coco, the clown, one-year old Edgar (last name not available), a patient at Bellevue Hospital in New York, gets into the swing of things as members of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus entertain the youngsters on April 29, 1956. (AP Photo)
Roy Smith, left, and Harry Burman, right, two dwarfes from London, formerly with Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey Circus, get set for a long trip, maybe not to London, but somewhere for a job. They arrived aboard the train returning to circus winter quarters in Sarasota, Fla., July 20, 1956. (AP Photo)
Pickets for AGVA (American Guild of Variety Artists) parade in front of the entrance to Madison Square Garden in New York, April 6, 1956 where the circus is in its first week. Picketing, banned on April 2 by restraining order issued by justice Thomas A. Aurelio, resumed after Supreme Court Justice Aron Steuer lifted the injunction. “The situation as regards AGVA reveals a labor dispute so… no injunction can issue in advance of a hearing, “ Judge Steuer ruled. (AP Photo/Tom Fitzsimmons)
Clowns from the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, Blinko, left, and Frankie Saluto, right, lend a hand in planting tulips and other flowers in the Channel Gardens of Rockefeller Center in New York, April 7, 1960. The Spring Bulb Show is the first floral displays to be placed in the gardens that are just off Fifth Avenue. (AP Photo/Hans Von Nolde)
An elephant and a dog peer apprehensively from a freight car before debarking at the Harlem River freight yards in New York City, April 1, 1963. The animals were on the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus train arriving in New York for the opening of the Circus at Madison Square Garden on April 3. (AP Photo/Goldberg)
Elephants and dancers go through their paces in opening stages of first night of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden in New York on March 29, 1961. About 7,500 persons turned out for initial performance. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)
Three-year-old Bruce Nathan of the Bronx, New York watches elephant come down ramp of train as Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus arrives in New York on March 31, 1965. Scene was at Bronx freight yards. (AP Photo/BC)
Coco the Clown places a floral Easter bonnet on Targa’s head in preparation for a freight yard preview and parade in New York on April 5, 1966 as the circus unloaded in the Bronx yards of the New Haven railroad. Targa, 14-year-old elephant, was said to be the largest of the animals unloaded from trains for the march downtown to Madison Square Garden for opening night show later in the day. (AP Photo)
Elephants parade towards Madison Square Garden in New York City on April 2, 1968, where the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus opens the same night. The elephants were part of a herd of 17 which will appear at the Garden. (AP Photo/John Lindsay)
Lou Jacobs, center, whose face has appeared on Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus posters for the past 30 years, poses with his wife Jean, holding his dog Knucklehead, and daughters Dolly and Lou Anne, left and right, both circus show girls, before the circus’ performance, May 16, 1973. Jacobs, who had has been making smiles in the circus for 50 years is also celebrating his 70th birthday at the main arena of Madison Square Garden in New York. Dolly Jacobs is 16, Lou Anne, 18. (AP Photo/Anthony Camerano)
Former Beatle Paul McCartney samples his young daughter Stella’s cotton candy as the two sit on the sidelines at New York’s Madison Square Garden, March 30, 1974, watching the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus. (AP Photo/Suzanne Vlamis)