Circus contends big cat act added by popular demand

Lord of the ring

Career epiphany leads woman to ‘family business,’ role of operating Greatest Show on Earth

By DOUG MASON, mason@knews.com
February 18, 2007

Nicole Feld graduated from New York University with a degree in photography and right away got a shooter’s job at People magazine, a weekly publication with 3.75 million readers and a deep-pocket approach to acquiring photos of the most beautiful, celebrated and interesting people.

Feld was living a dream. But somebody else’s dream.

After about a year at People, Feld realized what she really wanted was to go home and ask dear old Dad for a job.

Prior to that, “I was never going to go into the family business,” says the daughter of Kenneth Feld, whose privately held Feld Entertainment empire includes ownership of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The circus returns Thursday-Sunday, Feb. 22-25, to the Knoxville Civic Coliseum for nine performances.

Feld grew up around the circus. She and her two younger sisters were baby-sat in Clown Alley. Their playmates were the children of acrobats, gymnasts, aerialists, animal trainers and other Daredevils of Decidedly Diverse Deeds, Diversions and Derring-Do.

“It dawned on me one day,” Feld says, “This is too extraordinary, and I’m too lucky to be passing up the opportunity to work in this business. So I approached my father on Nov. 1, 2001, and said, ‘What can I do, and where can I start?’ “

She became a talent scout and still today travels the world, looking for new acts for the circus. But she’s also now, at age 28, co-producer of The Greatest Show on Earth and a senior executive in Feld Entertainment, which also produces the Disney on Ice touring shows and other live family entertainment.

Alana Feld, the middle sister, helped launch “Doodlebops Live!,” Feld Entertainment’s newest show.

Youngest sister Juliette Feld works for a public relations firm. But she could still join the circus. When we interviewed Kenneth Feld last year, he told us it was a rule that his children had to work outside the family business for a while before they were invited into the ring.

Though Nicole is co-producer with her father, she handles the day-to-day operations of the 136-year-old circus, a national institution that has belonged to her family since her grandfather, Irvin Feld, bought it in 1967. It was Irvin Feld (1918-1984) who saved the circus from bankruptcy 10 years before that, when he took over operation of the circus, folded its outdated tents and turned it into an indoor attraction.

The 136th edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus marks the first radical change in the circus’s format since Feld took it inside 50 years ago. And this latest innovation was granddaughter Nicole’s idea.

Titled “Circus of Dreams,” this new format eliminates the traditional three-ring concept, adds giant rock-arena-style video-viewing screens, and introduces a storyline that Feld says makes audiences feel more connected to the show.

At the beginning of “Circus of Dreams,” a typical American family is brought out of the audience and given a chance to live out its circus dreams. Dad becomes ringmaster, mom a trapeze artist, sister Jan a dancer, and younger brother, who can’t decide what to be, tries it all!

That’s the setup. The multicultural “family” members are actually actors, including Broadway veteran Chuck Wagner as “Dad.” Former “American Idol” finalist Jennifer Fuentes is the singing host of the show.

All the action takes place in a giant oval ring, where traditional circus acts are presented as part of the new storyline concept. There are Chinese jugglers, Russian bareback riders, a Hungarian strongman named Herkules (who gets run over by a Hummer), a dog-cat-and-bird act, clowns, acrobats, aerialists, elephants and motorcycle daredevils.

“Circus of Dreams” was launched without a big cat act, a circus staple that along with the elephant acts is a prime target of animal-rights activists who seek an end to performing animals in the circus.

But Feld says the ticket-buying public missed the big cats. So a tiger act was added to the show in October.

“We heard from enough people to make us stand up and listen,” Feld says. She insists the traditional big-cat act hadn’t been dropped initially because it is controversial.

“It had absolutely nothing to do with that,” she says. “The show is filled with animals. To be honest, we didn’t really give it (the big cats) much thought. We underestimated how crucial it was to our audience.”

There are three units of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The Red and Blue shows switch routes each year to allow each new show a two-year run before it’s retired.

The Gold show, introduced a few years ago, is a stripped-down circus designed to reach smaller towns and venues. The Gold show came to Knoxville last year, one of the few larger markets to see the show (it mostly plays in venues of 2,000 seats or less).

The revamped Blue unit made its debut in 2006. An all-new Red unit arrived this year. Though it doesn’t have the storyline concept, the Red unit has also dropped the three-ring concept for a single oval that concentrates on one act at a time.

Feld says “Circus of Dreams” reflects the need for a faster-paced, more interactive show to appeal to today’s kids.

“Every six minutes, they need a change of pace” – Feld says that’s the average time between commercial breaks on kid TV. “That’s how our show works. There’s an act for six minutes.”

Just think of the snow-cone and cotton-candy sellers as commercial breaks.

Doug Mason may be reached at 865-342-6441.

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