Feld Entertainment, Inc. History
Vienna, Virginia 22182
Telephone: (703) 448-4000
Fax: (703) 448-4100
Incorporated: 1932 as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, Inc.
Sales: $500 million (1999 est.)
NAIC: 71131 Promoters of Performing Arts, Sports, and Similar Events Without Facilities
Feld Entertainment Inc. is the largest producer of live family entertainment in the world today. Under the dynamic leadership of Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Feld, this organization is poised to become an even larger force in the entertainment industry and an innovator in family entertainment internationally. Key Dates:
- Barnum & Bailey's Circus-The Greatest Show on Earth is formed.
- Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey form combined circus.
- Big top folds.
- Under Irvin Feld's management, circus moves to indoor arenas.
- Feld and investors buy Ringling Brothers.
- Company goes public.
- Toymaker Mattel, Inc. buys the circus.
- Mattel sells circus back to Felds; holding company of Irvin Feld & Kenneth Feld Productions, Inc. is formed.
- Circus tours Japan.
- Company changes name to Feld Entertainment, Inc.
- Barnum's Kaleidoscape opens.
Feld Entertainment, Inc., formerly Irvin Feld & Kenneth Feld Productions, Inc., is one of the foremost live entertainment firms in the United States. Approximately 25 million people attend its live shows each year, drawing more customers than any other live entertainment venue except the Disney theme parks. The core of Feld Entertainment is the Ringling Brothers Circus, the legendary U.S. circus with roots in the 19th century. Feld operates two Ringling Brothers shows, a Red show and Blue show, so that audiences can see entirely different acts each time the circus comes to town. These circuses perform in indoor arenas in North America. An international unit travels to Mexico and South America. In addition, the company operates a circus called Barnum's Kaleidoscape, which uses a traditional canvas tent. Kaleidoscape is smaller than the other units, and more upscale. Feld also operates nine touring ice shows including the popular Disney on Ice, and the top-grossing Las Vegas act Siegfried & Roy. Feld has also promoted and invested in Broadway shows, and run other entertainments such as a life-size model of the space shuttle and a touring show based on George Lucas's Star Wars movies. The company's revenues come not only from its ticket sales, but from concessions, which it runs through a subsidiary called Sells-Floto.
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey
P.T. Barnum was a legendary U.S. showman who exhibited midgets and Eskimos, beautiful babies and bearded ladies. Most of his life he ran stationary or traveling exhibitions, and it was not until he was 60 years old, in 1870, that he established a genuine circus. Barnum's circus had one major rival, that run by James A. Bailey. In 1879 the competitors merged, to form Barnum & Bailey's Circus--The Greatest Show on Earth. This was a huge hit in the United States, and in 1887 it departed for a five-year tour of Europe. During Barnum & Bailey's European sojourn, another U.S. circus came into prominence. This was Ringling Brothers. The Ringlings-Albert, Otto, Alfred, Charles, and John--grew up in Baraboo, Wisconsin, where they began performing musical concerts, skits, and clown acts. By 1884, Ringling Brothers was touring out of Baraboo with an animal show and a band. Early acts featured a 'Hideous Hyena Striata Gigantum' and the brothers singing, spinning plates, and dancing in big wooden shoes. They bought an elephant in 1888, and two years later, they had become a formidable competitor to the absent Barnum & Bailey, touring coast to coast. P.T. Barnum died in 1891, and Barnum & Bailey's and Ringling Brothers eventually worked out non-conflicting tours. Then when James Bailey died in 1907, the Ringlings bought his circus for something less than half a million dollars. The two circuses operated separately until 1919, when they combined into the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Show, Inc. By 1930 this was the world's biggest circus, with 5,000 employees and a main tent seating capacity of 10,000 people. It moved by railroad, requiring 249 cars at its peak. John Ringling, the youngest of the Ringling Brothers, died in 1936, and leadership of the circus passed to a nephew, John Ringling North. The circus continued to tour, but began losing its audience to other forms of entertainment. The circus clung to its traditional marketing, putting up posters in alleys and on barnsides, though radio and then television would have been advertising options. It needed open space to set up its tents, and its shows were pushed increasingly to the edges of towns. By 1956 the circus was a decrepit organization, antiquated, outmoded, and $1.8 million in debt. John North announced that the great canvas 'big top' would fold for the last time in Pittsburgh that year.
The Feld Takeover: 1957-67
The tent folded, yet the circus reopened the next season, transformed into an indoor show. The agent of this change was a rock-and-roll promoter, Irvin Feld. Feld was born in Hagerstown, Maryland, where his father ran a clothing store. The family was always short of money, and in 1931, when Irvin was 13, he and his brother Israel joined a traveling carnival and sold the proverbial snake oil. Peddling bottles of dubious medicine netted the brothers $8,000 over the summer, and they returned to the carnival in subsequent summers. After Feld graduated from high school, he and his brother opened a novelty shop in a poor neighborhood of Washington, D.C. In 1939 the NAACP offered to pay the Felds to operate a pharmacy in the store, if they would also open a soda fountain that would serve black customers. The Felds went along with the idea, and their store became the Super-Cut-Rate Drugstore. Irvin was interested in music, and the store also sold records. Irvin soon prepared to open a chain of record stores, and he scouted for talent for his Super Disc record label. In 1945 Feld's label produced a million-record hit, Arthur Smith's 'Guitar Boogie.' In the 1950s Irvin Feld went on to become a hit-maker for his own and other record labels, and then he began packaging rock-and-roll tours. Artists he handled included many of the top acts of the era, including Chubby Checker, Fats Domino, Paul Anka, Fabian, Bill Haley, Frankie Avalon, and the Everly Brothers. Feld toured his 'Biggest Show of Stars' in 80 cities nationwide. Indoor arenas were being built across the country at that time, and Feld saw that these heated venues could create opportunities for other entertainment as well. Inspired by his youth on the carnival circuit, Feld wanted to run a circus, and when the Ringling Brothers circus announced it would shut down, Feld immediately called on its owner, John North. North offered to sell him the circus if he would also absorb all the organization's debts, but Feld had a different idea. The circus remained in North's hands, with Feld managing it as an indoor enterprise.
The change of venue made an immediate impact. The tent show had been restricted to summer months or warm-weather climates. Now it could go year-round. In addition, without the tent to put up, the circus saved vastly on its labor costs. Savings were said to be $50,000 the very first week the indoor show opened. Feld took over marketing, advertising, renting the arenas, and planning the tour, for a percentage of the revenue. This arrangement lasted until 1967. According to Feld, the problem was that the circus had become stale. The performers were old, their acts did not change, and it remained an antiquated form of entertainment. Feld wanted to do more with the circus. In partnership with his brother Israel and Judge Roy Hofheinz, builder of the Houston Astrodome, Irvin raised $8 million to buy out North. In true showman style, Feld had the consummation of the deal photographed. He handed over the check to North in the Coliseum in Rome, in the company of a rented lion cub.
Expansion in the 1970s and 1980s
Feld and his partners bought themselves an organization full of problems. Even after a decade of the cost-saving switch to indoor arenas, the circus was still $1 million in debt. Its clowns ranged in age from 50 to 75, some of its showgirls too were past their prime, and the performers' costumes, music, and lighting were outdated. Feld began investing in new equipment and seeking out new talent. He founded a Clown College in order to train new performers, and very soon the average age of Ringlings' entertainers dropped from 46 to 23. Feld also decided that he would double the circus, producing two shows, the Red and the Blue. Then if each show revamped its acts entirely every other year, he could manage tours in which no city saw the same show twice. It made the circus fresh. Eventually the two circuses between them covered 90 cities across the United States, for a total of 550 shows a year. Feld wanted the core of his new show to be a great animal act, and he decided on the most famous European animal trainer, Gunther Gebel-Williams. But Gebel-Williams was under contract to a German circus that did not want to let him go. Ultimately, Feld bought Circus Williams for $2 million, in order to get its star.
Feld and his partners paid for the new acts and equipment in several ways. They cut labor costs by putting the performers on salary, so that they were paid the same no matter how many shows they did. And they did a lot of shows, now working six days a week. Feld also extended the season for more weeks a year. With relentless promotion of the new, improved circus, Feld upped attendance. The circus brought in more money, though tickets remained modestly priced. In 1969, the company went public. Feld carried his showmanship even into the company's annual report and stock certificates, printing them in bright colors and writing a special year-end report just for children. The public offering raised a lot of cash for the company, but it also made the corporation open to takeover. Two years after going public, Mattel, Inc., the giant toy company and maker of Barbie dolls, bought the circus for close to $50 million. The Ringling Brothers Circus was folded into Mattel's entertainment division, though Irvin Feld continued to run it as chief executive officer. Israel Feld died in 1972, and Irvin's son Kenneth entered the business. They continued as hands-on managers, personally auditioning every new act as well as handling all the financial and logistical decisions. According to an interview with Irvin Feld in the February 1983 Inc., Mattel did not interfere directly with the managing of the circus. Yet it did have financial expectations that the Felds found unrealistic, such as looking for an automatic 15 percent increase in revenues annually. Mattel also suggested raising ticket prices, something that was anathema to Irvin Feld. He wanted the circus to remain affordable for everyone. Although in the Inc. article the Felds declared that the circus had been consistently profitable through the Mattel years, the Mattel entertainment division nevertheless suffered a loss of $1.1 million in 1982. Even if, as Feld insisted, the loss was attributable to other Mattel divisions, the company nevertheless agreed to sell off the circus in 1983. Irvin and Kenneth Feld raised $22.8 million--less than half what they had been paid for it in 1971--and bought the circus back. Their holding company for the circus and other units was named Irvin Feld & Kenneth Feld Productions, Inc.
Diversification in the Late 1980s and 1990s
A year after reacquiring the circus, Irvin Feld died. His son Kenneth took over as chief executive of Feld Productions, and the circus continued to grow and change. By 1987, Ringling Brothers was the only circus in the United States that still traveled by railroad, though there were some two dozen smaller circuses in the country that traveled by truck. The combined shows employed 280 performers who toured close to 90 cities to an audience total of 11 million people. Ticket prices remained moderate, costing from $6 to $11.50 in 1987, but the shows raked in money through concessions. Kenneth Feld extended the concessions offerings after his father's death, adding circus videos and other products. The circus was unusual among entertainments playing at indoor arenas, because most other shows were required to split their concessions take with the arena owners. But Ringling Brothers kept 100 percent of its concessions, which accounted for a large chunk of its profits. Total revenues for the circus doubled between 1983 and 1987, to reach $250 million.
Feld Productions also branched out into other live performances. While still owned by Mattel, the company had invested in two skating shows, the Ice Follies and Holiday on Ice. These shows soon proved to be uneconomical, because they depended on big-name star skaters who commanded a hefty percentage of the revenues. Kenneth Feld managed this difficulty by firing the stars, and instead licensed characters from Walt Disney. Walt Disney on Ice used professional skaters in bulky costumes. Within a few years, this popular show was traveling the world. By the late 1980s, Feld Productions operated three ice shows and the Las Vegas magic act Siegfried & Roy. In 1988, the circus toured Japan for the first time as a 100-animal and 160-performer act. Japanese investors paid a flat fee of approximately $11.4 million for the seven-month tour.
By the mid-1990s, the company had branched out to include a variety of entertainment projects. It owned a life-size replica of the U.S. space shuttle which toured the world; invested in Broadway shows; owned a circus equipment manufacturer and the company that managed its concessions; and had put together an extravagant live-action entertainment based on George Lucas's Star Wars films. The circuses had evolved into much more modern shows, with hip music and glitzy choreography. The company developed a third circus unit in 1994 in order to take the show abroad. Logistics had made this difficult in the past, so the company hired new managers with experience in other industries to oversee the intricate travel and equipment arrangements. Feld Productions had seven ice shows by that time, which toured Australia, Japan, and Europe regularly.
The company had grown so much domestically that international expansion seemed a logical next step. In 1996 Kenneth Feld hired a president and chief operating officer from outside the industry to help oversee the firm's future growth. The new COO was Stuart Snyder, who came to Feld from Turner Home Entertainment. He was to oversee much of the nuts and bolts of the corporation, as well as help plan for future expansion. The company hoped to become more of an integrated family entertainment company, branching out perhaps even into television. In addition, the firm saw plenty of room to grow abroad. Target areas included Central America and the Asia/Pacific region. The company changed its name that year, from Irvin Feld & Kenneth Feld Productions to the simpler Feld Entertainment, Inc.
Feld Entertainment made a large investment in the late 1990s to develop an entirely new circus. The company spent approximately $10 million to come up with a new style circus that could capture an upscale audience. Called Barnum's Kaliedoscape, the show took place in a tent, recalling the traditional circus of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. But this was a plush, comfortable tent on an intimate scale, seating only 1,800 people. Amenities included flower-decked restrooms and concessions sales of Wolfgang Puck pizza, a brand created by the famous California chef. Kaleidoscape was launched to rave reviews and took the 1999 Golden Clown Award at the International Circus Festival in Monte Carlo.
At the approach of the new millennium, Feld was a growing and dynamic company, ready for many more possibilities beyond circuses and ice skating. CEO Kenneth Feld mused in a November 8, 1999, Fortune feature about expanding the Feld brand into restaurants, television, and the Internet. 'We'd like to be there every day,' he said, rather than as a once-a-year event. Whether this dream was possible or not, the company had certainly made much out of the once-moribund circus industry. Skilled management and promotion had brought the circus back from near extinction, and it seemed likely that brand extension or a new business direction were not out of reach for the firm's capable managers.
Principal Subsidiaries:Hagenbeck-Wallace, Inc.; Sells-Floto.
Principal Competitors:Walt Disney Company; Cirque du Soleil Inc.
- Deckard, Linda, 'Fall '95 Debut for Ringling's First International Unit,' Amusement Business, August 1, 1994, p. 14.
- Fitzgerald, Kate, 'On the Circus Circuit,' Advertising Age, July 12, 1999, pp. 30-31.
- Gilpin, Kenneth, 'The Circus Is Just One of His Acts,' New York Times, March 24, 1993, p. D1.
- Gunther, Mark, 'The Greatest Business on Earth,' Fortune, November 8, 1999, pp. 228-38.
- Hirsch, James, 'Big Business Under the Big Top,' New York Times, October 4, 1987, pp. F1, F29.
- 'John Ringling North,' Variety, June 12, 1985, p. 94.
- Kobell, Rona, 'Feld Entertainment CEO Touts Evolution of Circus As Art Form,' Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, October 28, 1999.
- La Franco, Robert, 'The Tightest Man in Show Business?' Forbes, November 8, 1993, pp. 67-75.
- Langdon, Dolly, 'Lord of the Rings' Irvin Feld Has Made a Fading Circus the Greatest Show on Earth Again,' People, May 12, 1980, pp. 49-57.
- Melvin, Mary Kay, 'Feld `Outsider' Prez/Coo Snyder to Help Company Broaden Its Scope,' Amusement Business, December 16, 1996, p. 25.
- 'The Show Goes On,' Sales & Marketing Management, March 1997, p. 16.
- Solomon, Abby, 'Lords of the Rings,' Inc., February 1983, pp. 101-08.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 32. St. James Press, 2000.