Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

With laughter, hugs and tears — and the requisite death-defying stunts — the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus received its final standing ovation Sunday night as it performed its last show.

“We are, forevermore, the Greatest Show on Earth,” boomed Johnathan Lee Iverson, who has been the ringmaster since 1999. His son, who also performed, stood by his side. The show was held at the Nassau County Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of New York City.

It was an emotional 2 1/2 hours for those who worked on the circus. Many of Ringling’s employees are second, third and even fourth-generation circus performers, while others met their spouses while touring. All spent months on the road, traveling from city to city in Ringling’s train cars and describing themselves as a giant family, albeit one with many clowns.

But it also was the fans who felt like family.

Elaine Bario, a 57-year-old usher at the Nassau County Coliseum, said she’s seen the circus every time it’s been on Long Island — some years as a child with her father, who also was an usher at the same venue.

“The animals, this is where we fell in love with them,” she said. “We got to see animals here and the Bronx Zoo. We don’t go on safaris.”

Bario cried as she watched the final big cat act with its leopards, tigers and Alexander Lacey, the handsome animal trainer.

“I’ve always had a crush on the lion tamers,” she said, laughing through tears.

But it was those animal shows that led to the circus’ eventual demise.

Over the years, animal rights activists had targeted Ringling, saying that forcing animals to perform and transporting them around the country amounted to abuse. In May 2016, the company removed elephants from its shows, but ticket sales continued to decline. People, it seemed, didn’t want to see a circus without elephants. Ringling’s parent company, Feld Entertainment, announced in January it would close the show, citing declining attendance and high operating costs.

A handful of protesters stood outside the venue on Sunday, with signs that said “compassion always wins,” and “the future is animal free.”

Feld Entertainment CEO Kenneth Feld said that “we all have to embrace change.”

Feld’s father and uncle bought the circus in 1967. It was sold to Mattel in 1971, but the Feld family continued to manage the shows. The Felds bought the circus back in 1982.

Earlier Sunday, a group of retired and former circus performers sat across the street at a hotel bar, laughing and hugging and sharing memories of tours past.

“There’s a lot of mixed emotions, said Rev. George “Jerry” Hogan, Ringling’s circus chaplain. “It’s a reunion, but it’s bittersweet. I’m seeing people I haven’t seen in years.”

Once a mainstay of entertainment in small towns and big cities across the country, Ringling had two touring circuses this season, one of which ended its run earlier this month in Providence, Rhode Island . That show was the more traditional, three-ring circus, while the one performing this weekend had a narrative storyline. Called “Out of This World,” it was set in futuristic outer space.

In the end, though, Feld executives said they knew the circus couldn’t compete with iPhones, the internet, video games and massively branded and carefully marketed characters. Their other productions — Frozen on Ice, Marvel Live, Supercross, Monster Trucks, Disney on Ice — resonate better with younger generations.

But that didn’t stop the circus from giving the performance of their life, one last time, to one last crowd. (AP)

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Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus clowns stage their final farewell on May 21, 2017 at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondaele, New York.
The circus has entertained crowds for 146 years with its “Greatest Show on Earth.” (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Alexander Lacey and his big cat show was a crowd favorite today. -After a 146 year run, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will end with an evening performance at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Sunday, May 21st. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

The final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus begins, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Performers from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus stage their final farewell performance May 21, 2017 at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, the circus that has entertained crowds for 146 years with its “Greatest Show on Earth”. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

A child in the audience watches a show on the last day of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, May 21, 2017. (Lucas Jackson /Reuters)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson performs during the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Gymnast Tatiana Tchalabaev performs during the last show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, May 21, 2017. (Lucas Jackson /Reuters)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Davis Vassallo performs during the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Clowns perform on the final day of the Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey Circus on May 21, 2017 in Uniondale, New York. Known as “The Greatest Show on Earth”, the circus performed its final act after a 146 year run. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Performers stage the final farewell presentation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus on May 21, 2017 at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, the circus that has entertained crowds for 146 years with its “Greatest Show on Earth.” (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Acrobats perform during the last show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, May 21, 2017. (Lucas Jackson /Reuters)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Members of the King Charles Troupe perform on the final day of the Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey Circus on May 21, 2017 in Uniondale, New York. Known as “The Greatest Show on Earth”, the circus performed its final act after a 146 year run. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Ringmaster Jonathan Lee Iverson performs on the final day of the Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey Circus on May 21, 2017 in Uniondale, New York. Known as “The Greatest Show on Earth”, the circus performed its final act after a 146 year run. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Despite trying to be fresh with a space-themed show, the circus chose to shut down as attendance dwindled, especially since the elephant act left the show last year.- After a 146 year run, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus ended with an evening performance at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Sunday, May 21st. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

A child in the audience watches a show on the last day of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, May 21, 2017. (Lucas Jackson /Reuters)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

A gymnast performs during the last show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, May 21, 2017. (Lucas Jackson /Reuters)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

The stunts involving horses (called the Cossack Riders) feature dramatic moves as the horses race at up to 25 miles per hour in a ring.
-After a 146 year run, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will end with an evening performance at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Sunday, May 21st. ( Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Acrobats perform during the last show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, May 21, 2017. (Lucas Jackson /Reuters)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Big cat trainer Alexander Lacey performs during a show on the last day of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, May 21, 2017. (Lucas Jackson /Reuters)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Performers from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus stage their final farewell presentation on May 21, 2017 at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, the circus that has entertained crowds for 146 years with its “Greatest Show on Earth”. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Aerialist Paulo dos Santos seems to be flying in space during his act. -After a 146 year run, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will end with an evening performance at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Sunday, May 21st. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Cast members perform during the last show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, May 21, 2017. (Lucas Jackson /Reuters)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Big cat trainer Alexander Lacey hugs one of the tigers during the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. Ringling’s circus began its final show Sunday evening after 146 years of wowing audiences with its “Greatest Show on Earth.” (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

A kangaroo performs on the final day of the Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey Circus on May 21, 2017 in Uniondale, New York. Known as “The Greatest Show on Earth”, the circus performed its final act after a 146 year run. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Trapeze artists perform on the final day of the Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey Circus on May 21, 2017 in Uniondale, New York. Known as “The Greatest Show on Earth”, the circus performed its final act after a 146 year run. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Performers from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus stage their final farewell presentation May 21, 2017 at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, the circus that has entertained crowds for 146 years with its “Greatest Show on Earth”. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Acrobats perform during the last show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, May 21, 2017. (Lucas Jackson /Reuters)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson stands with members of his family after the last show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, May 21, 2017. (Lucas Jackson /Reuters)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Two performers kiss at the end of the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Davis Vassallo, center, hugs a member of the trapeze troupe as he holds his daughter Adriana after the final show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Uniondale, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus: The final performance

Big cat trainer Alexander Lacey performs during the last show of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, May 21, 2017. (Lucas Jackson /Reuters)

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