VIENNA, Va. — Nicole and Alana Feld come from a long line of circus folk, so they are well aware of the challenge of bringing a century-and-a-half old attraction to families with many entertainment choices.
Like tightrope walkers, the Feld sisters seek to maintain a balance between innovation and tradition in producing the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus.
After Ringling phased out the traditional three-ring format a few years ago so audiences could focus on one act at a time, there was some initial naysaying but the change came to be regarded as a success. But when they eliminated lions and tigers that same year in response to survey results showing that elephants were the top animal draw, fans weren't happy — and Ringling quickly brought back the big cats.
"People expect to see animals, and they expect to see clowns," Nicole Feld said. "We want to deliver on those expectations."
The circus is the flagship product for Vienna, Va.-based Feld Entertainment, a privately held family company that bought the circus in 1967. It's unclear how profitable the show is. But the sisters said business remains steady, with the circus drawing more than 10 million people a year to its shows across the country.
Still, the company remains under siege from animal-rights activists who accuse it of treating elephants and other animals cruelly. Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture imposed a $270,000 fine against Ringling — the largest ever assessed by the federal government against an animal exhibitor under the Animal Welfare Act — for a variety of violations.
The issue is a sore point for Ringling, which agreed to pay the fine but admitted no wrongdoing. A company spokesman says the violations are a byproduct of heavy regulation — in one four-month period, one of the circus' traveling units was inspected 82 times by 18 different agencies.
By most measures, the circus has come a long way since P.T. Barnum assembled a traveling troupe of freaks, contortionists and Jumbo the Elephant into The Greatest Show on Earth.
In other ways, the circus maintains the traditions that have been there for nearly 150 years: exotic animals, acrobatics and an unwavering commitment to showmanship and pleasing audiences.
The balancing act requires the Felds to keep the show contemporary in the face of increased competition for the entertainment dollar and evolving public tastes. At the same time, much of the circus' appeal comes from its tradition, and the circus ignores those traditions at its peril.
It was Nicole and Alana's grandfather, Irvin Feld — who sold snake oil at carnivals as a child during the Depression and established himself as one of the country's top rock-and-roll concert promoters in the 1950s — who acquired the circus in 1967.
Before buying it outright, though, the elder Feld made one of the biggest changes to revive the circus, which had folded in 1956. He did away with the Big Top — the fabled circus tent — and moved the show to the indoor arenas that he used to book his rock and roll shows.
The change enabled the circus to survive, continuing the traditions that dated back to "P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Circus" in 1870. Feld himself died in 1984.
In modern times, the company has endured its share of difficulties. It owned the Siegfried and Roy show in Las Vegas, which closed in 2003 when Roy Horn was mauled by one of his tigers. The family endured an embarrassing lawsuit from Karen Feld, sister of Feld CEO Kenneth Feld, who claimed her brother's bodyguards roughed her up at a family memorial service. Jurors dismissed the lawsuit.
And then there are the ongoing complaints from animal rights activists, which at least one performer takes issue with.
Alexander Lacey, who performs with lions and tigers on Ringling's "Dragons" show, said his rapport with his animals is built on mutual respect and rewarding animals for correct behavior. He says circus life for big cats is a better fate than critics suppose.
"Look at the wild. That's not necessarily a good place to be," he said before a recent show in Richmond, Va. He cited the threats from disease and human encroachment on their habitat that threaten lions and tigers in the wild.
The circus' big cats "have an opportunity to eat, sleep and reproduce in an environment that is stimulating for them," said Lacey, one of a number of Ringling performers who come from multi-generational circus backgrounds. The key, he said, is to make sure that the lions and tigers' days are interesting for the time they are awake — they typically sleep 18 to 20 hours a day. With many days containing multiple performances, the big cats have active days.
The performers say that at its core, the circus isn't much different than it was decades ago. What's changed, they say, is the presentation. Bulky costumes have gone by the wayside. Music tends to be more contemporary. And technological improvements in lighting and staging help speed the pace of the show. Acts featuring children used to be common, but now are rare.
"It's more theatrical now," said George Caceres, leader of The Flying Caceres trapeze troupe. Caceres is a third-generation performer; his mother continues to work on the Ringling show as a costume designer.
The circus has always had to balance innovation and tradition, says David Carlyon, an author and academic from Larchmont, N.Y., who has studied 19th-century circuses and was himself a Ringling clown in the late 70s.
A century ago, Carlyon said, the appeal of the circus was almost self-evident. No other entertainment of its kind was available. Performers demonstrated mastery and partnership with animals to a population that was used to working with horses and other farm animals. And there was a sex appeal as well — in a Victorian era, it was rare to see the human body so clearly on display.
As entertainment options have exploded in the modern era, the circus has worked to keep pace. Carlyon recalled a somewhat feeble effort by Ringling in the 1980s to incorporate a Menudo-style boy band into its act.
Despite the occasional missteps, Carlyon said, "the Felds, as near as I can tell, are doing a good job."
Some of the biggest changes at Feld Entertainment have been outside the circus world altogether. While the circus remains Feld's flagship operation, in 2008 and 2009, Feld acquired a variety of motor sports properties, including monster truck shows, motocross and the International Hot Rod Association. In 2010, it created a theatrical motorcycle stunt show called Nuclear Cowboyz.
Combined with long-running brands such as Disney on Ice, Feld's shows draw annual attendance of more than 30 million, meaning that the circus accounts for roughly a third of the company's business.Comment on this story
The motorsports allow Feld to target young men and teens, a slightly different audience than the family with children ages 2 to 11 who make up the primary target audience for Ringling.
Still, the Feld family is at heart a circus family. Nicole and Alana, as children, performed as clowns.
"It's an old circus saying — 'You have sawdust in your veins,'" said Nicole, who joined the company in 2001 after spending a few years out of college in other jobs. "It wasn't until I wasn't able to be around it that I realized just how much I missed it."