Kenneth Feld: The Man Behind Ringling’s Big Top! INTERVIEW

Today’s Guest: Kenneth Feld, owner, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

Ringling, The Last Laugh by Michael Lancaster, Mr. Media Interviews
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(I spent a day interviewing Kenneth Feld, owner of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in January 1995. The profile—below—was for a Jewish lifestyle magazine but never published.) 

A yellow legal pad on the desk before him is packed with page after page of precise rehearsal notes, dictated in rapid-fire fashion to a secretary who must listen precisely to the impresario’s plaints above the explosive din of a circus.

Not an office circus; a real circus.

It is January in Tampa, Florida, the winter home of the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus, and master showman Kenneth Feld, 46, is continuing his late father Irvin’s tradition of producing the next edition of The Greatest Show on Earth. Not, as he likes to point out, a pretty good show, this is The Greatest Show on Earth and Feld won’t let it begin it’s 125th edition without contributing his thoughts from start to finish and top to bottom.

“You want the notes? Minute-by-minute?” he asks, surprised. “OK: The clown swing. Should make a bigger deal of holding your cape up. Loosen up. Take a fall . . . In the opening of the show, we’ve got a blue lights on the horse in ring three, but we need a faster fade out on the Moroccans and fade up on Mark in ring two . . . Lights should pulsate on the bell . . . Pick David up in brighter light when he comes out . . . Establish lights on the aerial act sooner . . .

“I see everything,” Feld says, and he’s not exaggerating. He watches movement in the three rings as if it were a tennis match, eyes sweeping back and forth, back and forth, as if taking in a Pete Sampras backhand. “I take notes because I won’t remember otherwise. My secretary sits with me, otherwise I’d be writing the whole time and I would miss everything. When she isn’t there, my daughter does it. I used to do it for my father. He had great ideas. He was the best I ever saw when a show was in rehearsal. Toward the end of the rehearsal period, he could go in and spot what was wrong and identify what ought to be fixed. It was an incredible way to learn.”

As it was with the Ringlings, the Barnums and the Baileys, so the circus continues as a family affair with the Felds. Kenneth was 19 when his father, Irvin, bought the circus in 1967; it’s the only life he’s ever known.

When other kids wanted to run away and join the circus, he says, “I wanted to run away and join a home.”

He’s kidding, of course, something they do a lot of under the big top. “I knew, probably from the time I was four years old, that I would be working with my father,” Feld says. “And I really didn’t care what he did. We just had that kind of relationship.”

When Kenneth was four, Irvin ran a pharmacy in the District of Columbia. At least it started out as a pharmacy. But as rock ‘n’ roll fever swept the country, the older Feld noticed he sold more records than prescriptions. Pretty soon he was the proprietor of a record store and then a chain of record stores. That turned him into one of the country’s premier rock impresarios. Irvin – and his brother, Israel – promoted bus tours featuring Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Chubby Checker, James Brown, Fabian and Bobby Rydell. He brought The Beatles and Rolling Stones to America. He also discovered and managed Paul Anka.

Talk about growing up in a circus!

“My father worked about seven or eight days a week, 24 hours a day,” Kenneth recalls. “As a young kid, you want attention; the only way I could get attention was on Saturdays and Sundays when he would go downtown to work and I would go with him. On Sundays, the office was very close to the ballpark, Griffith Stadium in those days, in Washington, and we’d go to work in the morning and in the afternoon we’d walk the six blocks and go to a baseball game.”

The Felds had two children, Kenneth and Karen. Irvin didn’t have time for child-rearing so he treated his son and daughter as little people instead of little kids.

“My wife always says, ‘You were born an adult,’ ” Feld says. “I think it’s because my father never treated me like a kid. At dinner time, everybody would sit around and he and my uncle would relive their day and the business. Then he would ask my opinion–and would listen to it!”

His children’s opinions could be quite influential in fact, the way the rock ‘n’ roll business once operated.

“It was very different than today,” Feld says. “The record companies would send promotional copies to certain people around the U.S.–my father was one of them–and he would sort of determine what was a good record and he would get back to them. Those were the records that ultimately would get released and promoted. He would come home and play us the records. ‘What do you like?’ and he’d listen to us. It wasn’t like asking something and not respecting the answer. There was always respect.”

Ringling Brothers: Kings of the Circus, Mr. Media Interviews
Ringling Brothers: Kings of the Circus. Order your copy today by clicking on the DVD cover above!

The elder Feld’s relationships with arenas and auditoriums around the country as a music promoter opened the door for him with the circus in 1957. That’s when he began promoting Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey for the first time in many cities. It was his suggestion that changed the circus from an outdoor spectacle under the proverbial “big top” to an indoor, arena attraction. But after several years, his son says, Irvin became disillusioned.

“The product had gotten stale,” Kenneth says. “He was doing good business but he didn’t feel he could continue unless the product was fixed up. So he made a commitment at the end of 1966, part of his New Year’s resolutions, to buy the circus or discontinue promoting it.”

It took the better part of ’67 to raise the money, get the financing and make the deal, but before the year was out, for the price of $8-million, the Felds owned a circus.

The price was no bargain. The biggest profit year the show had ever had was a mere $125,000 net. When John Ringling North, who sold the circus to Feld, produced the show, it often lived up to its legend. But he had tax problems and moved to Switzerland in the early ’60s. From that point on, the circus crept along under absentee management, which didn’t really work.

Feld saw the potential and bought into Ringling’s future, not its benign recent past. One of the first things he did was create a second unit. His idea was to tour two completely different shows year ’round in different parts of the United States and internationally. Rather than start from scratch, he went to Europe and bought Circus Williams, owned by the great animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, which became the nucleus of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s second unit in 1969.

Those were heady days for the circus, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1970 in spectacular fashion under the Felds. But it was not the last time Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey would change hands. The company went public in June 1969 and in February 1971 was acquired by Mattel, the toymaker. Mattel kept Irvin and Kenneth Feld on board as the management team and the circus thrived. It was Mattel that had problems.

“Mattel had a lot of financial problems,” Feld says. “They were producing Intellivision, a video game forerunner of Nintendo. It became an overnight sensation but they didn’t have enough inventory. They created all the inventory and the next year it was not a sensation. They got hung with it and it almost took them down.”

Like a lot of conglomerates did in the early ’70s, Mattel had gone on a binge of acquiring non-toy assets in an effort to diversify. When Intellivision crashed, the company needed to reduce debt, to divest itself of the very same acquisitions. Western Publishing was one, the circus was another, in March 1982.

“We become the logical buyer and the only buyer,” Feld says. “We bought it back for $22.8-million in cash.”

The price sounds like a good investment; Feld told a Washington Post reporter in 1994 that the company’s value was more than $400-million.

Much of the circus’ current value has been generated in the years since the Felds bought it back and took it private. Kenneth’s father added the second unit; Kenneth will launch a third for Latin America this year and a fourth for the Pacific Rim next year.

After Irvin’s sudden death on September 6, 1984, Kenneth took over as owner and producer of America’s longest running entertainment hit. He says the one thing he’s most proud of since then are the company’s accomplishments as an international entertainment entity.

“Ever since my father bought the circus,” he says, “I’ve traveled all over the world and the world is getting much smaller. CNN did that. Now I don’t even think about doing something if it isn’t going to work internationally. The U.S. is too small. Plus, when you can go international, you can beat the economic swings. That saved the ice shows. Because the ice show business in the U.S.A. starts in September, which is marginal until about November 1. From November 1 till the end of February, it is the greatest gangbusters business that anybody could ever be in. It starts falling off from March to May. Then we close. Europe is the exact same as the U.S. The day after Easter, you’re sorry you’re still open in that business. Its amazing. Now I go till May in the U.S., then I take that show to Korea and to Japan all summer, which is the biggest time there because of school vacation. I then can take a show to South America and another to Australia. So I beat the cycles.

“I will have a separate business just for Latin America. We already do huge Latin business in this country. We have Spanish speaking performances and we do Spanish TV commercials, Spanish posters. It’s a big part of our business. We go after all the ethnic audiences, something most people don’t. They exploit Anglo business. But you look ahead, who’s going to be a majority, who’s going to be the minority in 15 or 20 years?”

He has also diversified the makeup of Irvin Feld & Kenneth Feld Productions, Inc., which is headquartered in Vienna, Virginia. In addition to the circus, Feld operates eight “Walt Disney On Ice” shows touring annually in 36 nations on five continents, plus illusionists Seigfried and Roy’s show at The Mirage Resort in Las Vegas. He took a first step into Broadway production with Fool Moon, which just closed in Munich. He’ll soon return to Broadway with a musical version of the Tom Hanks hit movie, Big.

“Our business, if you think about it–producing the circus, up to three different ice shows a year (performed by eight casts)–it’s like putting out five movies. The only difference is, I always have to have a hit. I can put out some that are bigger hits than others, but I can’t put out a flop,” Feld says.

Pachyderm Entertainment is another new venture, Feld’s next step in TV, film and theatrical productions. Fool Moon and the Big adaptation fall under Pachyderm, as does a proposed “Clown College” weekly television series. His goal is to “extend the product lines. Same as it is for Disney. No different.

“Live entertainment–all of a sudden everybody’s so interested in it. Disney is on Broadway. All the major corporations–Disney, Sony, Viacom–they all are now getting into the live entertainment business. Well, we’ve been doing it for 125 years. What they’re finding out is, just because you can make a movie and you have that distribution system doesn’t mean you can do live entertainment and have that same degree of success. My feeling is, we have the pipeline out there. We self-market in every country that we operate. I’ve got the people in place, the whole marketing organization. Now all I have to do is put more product through that pipeline out there,” Feld says.

The thing is, he can’t overdose people on it. How many times a year will you bring your family to an arena to see a family show?

“I know once, with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey,” Feld says. “I know twice, with Walt Disney World On Ice or another unique kind of family entertainment that I’ll create. I don’t know that the marketplace can take more than that, realistically. You’ll always have something that’s the fad of the day kind of thing, like Barney, but I don’t base my business on fads. I usually turn down those things because if you’re not right at the peak of the wave, you get killed. And it’s so easy to be late on these shows. You just can’t get out there overnight. It takes planning. And I want to do a good job. So I want to deal with institutions. Or something I think I can create into an institution.”

In his next new show, which puts The Wizard of Oz on ice for the first time, Feld starts with an established, international institution of family entertainment. On the other hand, he has no interest in licensing fad-of-the-moments such as the X-Men or Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

“I have to do something that I’m gonna like, that I’m going to sit there and watch,” Feld says. “If I don’t enjoy it, how can I enjoy putting it together? Take the Power Rangers. I wouldn’t do it. It deals with violence, it’s very controversial. Why would I go and do Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and Walt Disney World On Ice and The Wizard of Oz and then take on the Power Rangers? There’s no logic in it. It’s a contradiction of everything we want to do as a company with family entertainment. Fortunately, I don’t have to do it for the money. Not that I don’t do things to make money, but I don’t have to do things I don’t want to do.”

Another new Feld production is a live show based on the films of George Lucas: Willow, Tucker, the three “Indiana Jones” films, American Graffiti and the Star Wars trilogy. The show ran for six months in Japan last year and is now being restaged for a permanent home in the United States.

This fall, Feld will also send Disney’s The Lion King on tour in an all-new ice show, a successor to recent adaptations of Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But despite his obviously profitable connection with Disney empire, Feld has thus far resisted hooking up with a Walt Disney World or Universal Studios theme park because he doesn’t think a permanent circus will work. “We create an event for a period of time,” he says. “It’s pretty tough to sustain this year-in and year-out. If you see it in your hometown, you won’t come to see the same thing. (A theme park attraction) couldn’t be anything related to what you get when you see the show in your hometown.”

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has developed other ways of maintaining contact with its customers throughout the year, including the Three-Ring Gazette newsletter and a marketing data base of 2.8 million customers. To develop future business, Feld launched a free ticket program in 1993 for newborns. The one free admission offer is good at any time during the child’s lifetime.

“We thought we were going to get 150,00 responses and we got 780,000,” he says, grinning. “So we said, OK, we’re not going to let this die. In ’94 we tracked 720,000 responses. This our future. It’s the ultimate frequent flyer program!” At this, he laughs.

Over the last decade, each new edition of the circus has typically meant the introduction of a sensational new lead attraction. Over the years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey has starred Romeo & Juliette, the first elephant babies ever born to this circus; Jumbo; Gargantua; The Living Unicorn; the mighty King Tusk; animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams; and the flying Wallendas.

Feld says it’s not absolutely necessary to have an exotic main show, that he could draw just as many folks putting on a great, all-around, traditional circus extravaganza, but the extraordinary touches are nice, too.

“It’s nice to have some kind of attraction or hook and it makes it easy for my marketing department,” he says, laughing again. “It gets them very lazy, in fact. But is it necessary? No. Sometimes it’s dangerous, because the reality is, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is this institution and the important thing is not that I have one special act, but that I create an event that everybody wants to go to. That’s a little more difficult to sell because it’s not quite as focused. The experience of going to the entertainment is what should be sold because not every year do you have a guy who puts his head in the mouth of an alligator.”

Does he worry about topping himself from season to season?

“I always think about it,” Feld says, “but I never worry about it because I figure we’ve got enough talent around here that we’ll always come up with that good idea.”

This year, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is focused on a clown for the first time, 37-year-old Italian David Larible.

“Five years ago I hired this clown, David Larible,” Feld says. “And everybody said, ‘You can’t have a single clown working 18,000-seat arenas! He’s going to stiff out!’ Even David doubted it. But I knew this guy would have success. He’s unbelievable. He captivates everyone. The ideas he comes up with, his ability to work with the audience–he’s a genius.”

New to the 125th edition of the circus–and one of its leader’s favorites–is what Feld calls his “Russian Bar Act,” actually three teams of acrobats, two Russian, one Chinese. They do acrobatics on a Fiberglas pole that is about four inches in diameter. Two men hold the pole while a third person balances on it. The holders flip the third person high in the air. One does a triple somersault; another completes a triple pirouette, both successfully landing back on the bar. They go up 15 to 18 feet in the air. And they do all this while synchronized with one another and Gershwin’s classic “Rhapsody in Blue.”

“It’s amazing!” Feld raves. “We had an act like this in 1969 and it was so classy looking. But these acts are light years past that one because the technology is better and what people can do is better.”

Two animal acts remain favorites of Feld’s from his first 25 years with the circus. One was a polar bear act starring an East German woman and her 10 polar bears. The bears stood as high as 12 feet; the trainer was no more than five feet tall. “It was incredible,” he says. “A very, very dangerous act. But spectacular. Everybody who saw that act remembered it.”

Another favorite was the work of legendary lion tamer Gunther Gebel-Williams. “He used to, every two years, come up with a brand new live animal act, which is unheard of because he had to train it on the road. When he trained an act with 20 leopards, that was the most incredible act you’ve ever seen,” Feld says.

Animals have always been an important part of any circus and Ringing Bros. is no exception. But growing public interest in the treatment of performing animals and the protests of organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has caused Feld and his circus to be more forthcoming about the care Ringling’s animal stars receive.

“We’ve always taken very good care of the animals; they’re our livelihood,” Feld says. “What we’ve done, since the activists have become more visible, is become more proactive in dealing with them and trying to let the public know the truth about what really goes on. We have an animal management program and training videos for our people. We’ve cleaned up the look, and started an elephant breeding program. They complained that the elephants are chained all the time. We’ve created an area so they go out every day in an electric fence, like horses in a corral. They get all their exercise. We believe humans and animals have to live together in harmony. We don’t take any animals out of the wild. They’re bred here. We create an interesting life for them. Would you rather be bored or be active and do something?

“Gunther, for example, looks at new horses and says, ‘I can tell this will be a good hind leg horse, because the horse has a tendency to rear up.’ So we train that horse so it does that on cue. It’s a natural behavior. Same thing with an elephant act. The trainers see which elephants do what, naturally, and it will become the learned behavior,” Feld says.

It takes more than a little controversy to ruffle Feld. Growing up in show business–first rock ‘n’ roll, now the circus–gives a man that kind of grounding.

But after a quarter-century in the business, Feld knows he doesn’t want his three daughters to think the only way to get a piece of his time is to follow him down to the office on weekends. And they definitely don’t have to follow him into the family business.

“As a business, it’s very different than when I grew up,” he says. “I’m lucky, I have great kids. But I don’t want to create a pressure, that they feel they have to do something. This is an awful business if you don’t love it. I’m trying to restructure and get us out of that ‘mom & pop’ thing. I’ve seen a lot of family businesses; they’re fraught with all kinds of unique problems and different dynamics. It can be a great thing or it can be awful. I’ve seen it tear families apart.”

Feld seeks to instill Jewish traditions at home. Each of his two older daughters are bat mitzvahs; the third will be. The eldest has also been confirmed, and his middle daughter spent the winter holidays in Israel on a student trip led by the Rabbi of Washington Hebrew Congregation. (Feld is a former board member.)

Sometimes, Judaism is not an easy religion to maintain on the road with the circus. “There are not a lot of Jews in the circus business, I can tell you that,” he jokes.

Asked what impact Judaism has had on his life, Feld’s first thought is of ethics.

“I was brought up to be very ethical,” he says. “My father would always say, ‘You can have winners and losers, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is your reputation.’ That’s what I live by. We’ve got 2,500 employees. We’re tough but we’re very fair with everybody. We’re consistent. Business can be good, business can be bad; we operate the same way with all of our employees. They know that. That’s why we can get anybody in the world who wants to work here.”

In the end, the success or failure of the circus–or any of Feld’s other ventures–is based on emotion, he says. The basic notion of the circus has been around thousands of years. A good circus should hit every emotion. If it does that, Feld has a successful show. You should laugh. You should almost feel a tear watching the sympathetic clown. You should feel danger, and you should feel excitement.

“Then,” he says, “you have a great show.”

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