barnum and bailey's circus

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The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has been entertaining audiences for a long time. Its history goes back 146 years — to about the time when professional baseball emerged and before Coca-Cola was invented.

But this substantial chapter in American history comes to a close on Sunday. After years of declining ticket sales and seemingly endless conflicts with animal rights groups, Ringling Bros. will stage its final show in Uniondale, N.Y.

Ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson is one of hundreds of Ringling performers and crew members with extraordinary talents who will be out of a job come Monday. Recruited fresh out of college, where he’d been studying voice performance and training to be a professional opera singer, he became Ringling’s first African-American ringmaster in 1998.

“Ironically enough, I will be the very last voice in the 146-year history of this show, so I will be the last person you hear to speak of ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ — which is a wild little paradox, to be a first and a last at the same time. I don’t know too many people who can say that, in any industry,” he says.

From The Big Top Into The Big World: A Ringling Ringmaster’s Final Bow

Photos: Marian Carrasquero/NPR

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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 ½ 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.

(Photos: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images, Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images, Lucas Jackson /Reuters, Julie Jacobson/AP, Lucas Jackson /Reuters,  Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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