Irvin Feld & Kenneth Feld Productions, Inc.
Irvin Feld & Kenneth Feld Productions, Inc.
8607 Westwood Center Drive
Vienna, Virginia 22182-7506
Fax: (703) 448-4100
Incorporated: 1932 as Ringling Bros, and Barnum &
Bailey Combined Shows, Inc.
Sales: $494 million (1993 estimated)
SICs: 3999 Manufacturing Industries, Not Elsewhere Classified; 7999 Amusement & Recreation Services, Not Elsewhere Classified
Irvin Feld & Kenneth Feld Productions, Inc. is believed to be the largest live-entertainment company in the world. It is best known for mounting the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus, but it also produces Walt Disney’s World on Ice, the Siegfried & Roy magic show, and other attractions. Concessions account for about 40 percent of the company’s income.
The circus was introduced to the United States in the late 1700s. But it reached unprecedented size and importance when the impresario P.T. Barnum joined W.C. Coup (a former sideshow manager) and Dan Castello (an ex-clown) in forming a tented show in Brooklyn in 1871 under three acres of canvas. The following year a second ring was added so that more customers could be seated, and the circus went on tour, traveling by rail. Founded under the name “Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, Hippodrome and Circus,” it was soon dubbed by Barnum, with characteristic modesty, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” His show traveled successfully for many years.
Barnum formed a partnership with three other circus owners in 1881 to create the Barnum & London Circus. This enterprise introduced the American-style circus of three rings in order to accommodate even more ticketholders. In 1882 Barnum bought Jumbo, the largest elephant in captivity, from the London Zoo for $10,000. He exhibiting the animal until it was killed in a railway accident in 1885.
James A. Bailey joined Barnum to establish the renamed Barnum & Bailey Circus in the late 1880s. He assumed sole control of the enterprise when Barnum died in 1891. The circus toured Europe from 1897 through 1902. Meanwhile the Ringling Bros. Circus, founded in 1884, had grown into a powerful competitor. A year after Bailey died in 1906, the five Ringling brothers bought a majority interest in the Barnum & Bailey Circus for $410,000. The two circuses continued to travel separately until 1919, when they were combined to form the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
During the golden years between 1910 and 1930, annual earnings often totaled $1 million or more. The company eliminated its only serious competitor in 1929 when it purchased the American Circus Corp., a consortium of five circuses, for $1.7 million. Unfortunately, during the Great Depression John Ring-ling, the sole surviving founding brother after 1926, lost most of the fortune of $100 million he had accumulated. He subsequently lost control of the circus to a mortgage company in 1932. When he died in 1936, more than 100 lawsuits contested his remaining assets.
John Ringling North, a nephew, borrowed almost $1 million in 1937, paid off the outstanding debts, and was elected president of the enterprise. Under his leadership the Ringling circus installed air conditioning and added Gargantua, a large gorilla billed as “the world’s most terrifying living creature.” The circus made a steady profit in the following years (visiting 136 cities in 1941) and paid off the bank loan. After North’s five-year contract expired, he was replaced in 1943 by Robert Ringling, a cousin. In 1944, the Ringling show suffered the most disastrous fire in circus history; 168 people, two-thirds of them children, died during a matinee performance in Hartford, Connecticut. Only a fraction of the claims for death and injury was covered by insurance and other assets, and Ringling Bros, eventually paid about $4 million in damages. Furthermore, five men went to jail for involuntary manslaughter.
Lingering recriminations concerning the tragedy and its aftermath enabled North to buy majority control of the family enterprise in 1947 and resume direction of the circus. It was under his direction that Ringling Bros., in a renowned effort, hired Igor Stravinsky to compose a ballet for elephants, and George Balanchine to arrange the choreography. By the mid-1950s, however, rising costs and antiquated practices had placed the Ringling circus into deficit. Its manager acknowledged in early 1956 that the enterprise had not been making money on the road for several years. That spring, moreover, the opening was marred by union picket lines, rail delays, and the use of inexperienced nonunion roustabouts. By July, when North closed the show, it had lost $1 million on top of another $1 million deficit in 1955.
The circus reopened for the 1957 season completely transformed. It was a tented show no longer, appearing only in indoor arenas and open-air venues like state fairgrounds. It also began traveling almost completely in trucks rather than railroad cars. The circus band was eliminated, as was (except in New York and Boston) the sideshow and menagerie of animals. These changes enabled Ringling Bros, to reduce its payroll from 1,300 to 300. The remaining employees received pay raises averaging 30 percent but were no longer provided with free room, board, and transportation.
The steady increase in the number of indoor arenas in North America also enabled the circus to extend its season. Instead of, as in the past, returning to winter quarters in Sarasota, Florida, in the first week of November, the 1957 circus continued into the following March before reopening at its traditional April home, New York City’s Madison Square Garden. In later years the season extended from the first week in January to the third or last week in November.
Despite changes, Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc. ran a deficit seven times between 1955 and 1966. In 1967, North, who had been living in Switzerland since 1962, sold the company for $8 million. Some 95 percent of the stock went to the families of Irvin and Israel Feld and the family of Roy Hofheinz, president of the association owning the Houston Astros baseball team and the lease on the Astrodome stadium. In 1963 the circus had drawn a record 162,819 visitors to a four-door Astrodome stay, including a single-performance record of 41,266.
The Feld brothers put up only $100,000 to buy their share of Ringling Bros, and were able to obtain the rest of the cash from other investors and bank loans. They had started in show business as children selling snake oil at carnivals and had long been partners in a number of entertainment ventures, including producing and promoting many of the early rock V roll acts. Irvin, the new president of Ringling Bros., had been a consultant to North and was credited with the changes that modernized the circus in the 1950s.
Soon after taking charge of the company, Irvin Feld established a second touring Ringling circus unit in order to fill more dates. The circus began operating unchanged for two years instead of one, as the units switched circuits in the second year. While the “Blue Unit” was playing Madison Square Garden in the spring of 1970, for example, the “Red Unit,” in Birmingham, Alabama, featured a cast including Gunther Gebel-Williams, a German animal trainer whose services Feld had secured in 1968 for $2 million by purchasing an entire European circus. Another addition, in 1973, was Michu, a 33-inch-tall, 25-pound Hungarian billed as the world’s smallest man. To improve living conditions for the performers, the number of (double-length) railroad cars used by the circus was increased from 16 cars to 82 by 1983.
Feld also established ancillary sources of revenue, including income from television shows, licensing agreements, and commercial ventures like books and records designed to promote the Ringling name. The company also began to handle its own advertising as part of an effort to cut costs and strengthen profit margins. Among other changes, a clown college was founded at Ringling’s winter quarters. Revenues increased from $8.5 million in 1967 to $ 15.7 million in 1969. The net profit of $ 125,318 in 1967 grew to $638,935 in 1968 and $832,414 in 1969, while company debt dropped from $5.5 million to $1.8 million in the same period.
Ringling Bros, became a public company in 1969. Sale of stock enabled Feld to finance his ambitious plans for expansion, even though the company was acquired by Mattel Inc. in 1971 for about $47 million in stock. Feld remained president of Ringling Bros, and continued to own its lucrative concessions business, Sells-Floto. The following year Ringling Bros, announced that it would spend $50 million to build “Living World,” a circus-like complex on 600 acres near Orlando, Florida. The ill-fated attempt to draw visitors from nearby Disney World ended in a multimillion-dollar loss for Mattel.
Mattel’s entertainment division earned $5.3 million in 1978 and just $2.3 million in 1980 before it lost $ 1.4 million in 1981. For $22.8 million, the company in 1982 sold Ringling Bros, back to Feld and his son, Kenneth, who had joined the circus in 1970 and had been serving as its president while his father was chairman and chief executive officer. The sale included the Ice Follies division and two Holiday on Ice shows that Feld had purchased from Wirtz Productions Ltd. for Mattel in 1979 for $12 million, as well as the Siegfried & Roy Beyond Belief illusionist act, acquired the same year. Irvin Feld said the following year that reported Ringling Bros, earnings of $5 million on $70 million in revenues were “approximately correct.”
Irvin Feld died in 1984, leaving his 35-year-old son in full charge of Ringling Bros. As his father had done in the late 1960s, he quickly replaced almost all the existing circus performers with the notable exceptions of Gebel-Williams and Satin, an aerial act. By 1987 he had doubled the company’s annual revenues to $250 million. During this period Siegfried & Roy played for six-and-a-half years at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, making their act the longest-running hit in the history of the Strip. Subsequently, they were signed by the Mirage Hotel to a record five-year, $57.5-million contract. By 1989 the company name had been changed from Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows to Irvin Feld & Kenneth Feld Productions, reflecting Kenneth Feld’s widening interests.
The focus of the ice shows changed in the 1980s from star skaters, who were demanding more money than the Felds wanted to pay, to mostly anonymous skaters portraying licensed Walt Disney characters. Circus performances were placed on videotape, and “food and taste” festivals—short-term musical and food celebrations similar to small versions of county fairs—were launched in 1986. At the same time, “Ringling Readers” circus-theme publications were developed to help children learn to read. Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus retail stores were opened in four cities in 1990, but all except one closed in 1992.
The Ringling Bros, circus was by far the nation’s largest in the mid-1990s. In 1995 it visited 95 cities in 48 states, playing to more than 11 million people and giving over 1,200 performances. Each troupe, complete with equipment, was transported from city to city on a train about a mile-and-a-quarter in length.
Feld told Variety in 1995 that the circus would add two new touring units during 1996-97; one in Latin America and the other in the Pacific. That year he created a new company. Pachyderm Entertainment, to develop and produce movies, television, and alternative media based upon the circus. Pachyderm also was charged with producing a musical adaptation of the 1988 film Big.
Walt Disney’s World on Ice started traveling abroad in 1986, touring Japan, South America, Southeast Asia, and Australia. There were six units in 1995 playing to about 15 million people a year. Feld Productions’ Super Live Adventure, created in collaboration with Hollywood producer-director George Lucas, played Japan in 1993. The company also was presenting various theatrical productions and the world’s only life-sized replica of the U.S. space shuttle, which toured South Korea in 1995. In all, Feld Production shows were being seen by an estimated 28 million people per year.
Feld Productions’ Sells-Floto subsidiary was estimated to account for no less than 40 percent of the parent company’s sales in 1993. Income from its concessions included the company’s programs, souvenirs, and edibles like cotton candy, which sold for $6 a bucket but cost less than ten cents to produce. It also included a cut of the host arena’s own sales from hot dogs, popcorn, and other items. Half of Sells-Floto’s take was estimated to be profit, before taxes. Feld Productions also owned Hagenbeck-Wai lace, a manufacturer of circus equipment.
Industry sources described Feld as a shrewd and tough manager who was able to extract top dollar from arena managers because of the high quality of his shows. He was also credited with negotiating desirable booking dates in multiyear contracts that often specified there would be no competing family-oriented attraction for periods as long as 90 days each year before or after a Feld show. Former employees contended that circus people were paid poorly and suffered miserable conditions on circus trains. Indeed, the tight-fisted Feld charged circus performers, who commonly made only about $20 a show, $10 a week to stay on the circus train and 25 cents to ride the company shuttle bus from the train to the arena.
Kenneth Feld owned 82 percent of Irvin Feld & Kenneth Feld Productions in 1994. Three company executives owned the rest. Its headquarters were in Vienna, Virginia (a suburb of Washington, D.C.). A Forbes article estimated Feld’s worth at more than $300 million in 1994.
Feld Brothers Management; Hagenback-Wallace; Klowns Publishing Co.; Pachyderm Entertainment; Sells-Floto.
Berke, Lisa, and Hindes. Andrew, “Big Top, Big Business,” Variety, July 24-30, 1995, pp. 31, 34, 36, 40.
Galle, William, “Ringling Bros. Celebrates Centennial with High-Flying Profits,” Investment Dealers’ Digest, September 22, 1970, pp. 21-22.
Kobler, John. “John Ringling North,” Life, August 8. 1949, pp. 86, 90-92. 94, 96, 101.
Langdon. Dorothy, “ ‘Lord of the Rings’ Irvin Feld Has Made a Fading Circus the Greatest Show on Earth Again,” People, May 12. 1980. pp. 49-50. 53-54, 57.
Le Franco, Robert. “The Tightest Man in Show Business?” Forbes, November 8, 1993, pp. 67-68, 72-75.
Ogden, Tom. Two Hundred Years of the American Circus. New York: Facts on File, 1993.
O’Toole. Thomas and Joanne, “The Remarkable Ringling Brothers,” American History Illustrated, April 1984, pp. 19-21.
Powers, William F., “Business Under the Big Tent,” Washington Post, July 11. 1994. Washington Business section, pp. 1. 16-19.
Recio, Maria E., “Ladies and Gentlemen, Presenting—Kenneth Feld.” Business Week, June 8. 1987, pp. 76-77.
“Ringling Wrangling,” Fortune, July 1947. pp. 114-115, 161-164, 167.
Schwab, Priscilla. “The Greatest Showman on Earth.” Nation’s Business, October 1978, pp. 52, 55-60.
Solomon, Abby, “Lord of the Rings.” Inc., February 1983. pp. 101-103, 106, 108.