07/15/2013 11:20 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Circus Is in Town. Hurrah?

I am a circus nut... have been all my life. Growing up in the small town of Beacon, New York, I can remember going to every one-ring circus which hit our town and parked itself in a field on the outskirts of the city. When I grew up (yes I did) and became a movie producer, I spent many months trying to do a film about the Ringling Bros Clown School in Sarasota, Florida. I visited it and then rode on the train with the circus people to 'get background.' It never happened, much to my regret. (The clown school was founded in 1968 when new management realized that there were only 14 professional clowns in the circus and most were in their 50s.)

My favorite clown with a joyous little girl during the pre-show.

A cafe full of tigers doing their tricks to a ringmaster's cracking whip.

My Huffington readers may recall a recent review of Paul Anka's biography, My Way, in which I told about my close friendship with Paul's longtime manager, Irv Feld. Feld-with his brother Izzy- had a chain of drugstores in Washington D.C. selling records, which led to their touring rock shows and talent management. In 1967 Irv and Izzy Feld joined with Judge Roy Hofheinz of Texas to buy the Ringling circus from the family and John Ringling for $8 million. Imagine my joy, guys whom I knew buying the world's most prestigious circus. Irv Feld immediately split the show into two touring units, a "Red" and a "Blue," which could tour the county independently, enabling audiences to see both shows. Irv's son Kenny joined the circus in1970, but in 1971 they sold the company to Mattel for $50 million in stock, retaining production control. They bought it back from Mattel in 1982 for $22.8 million, continuing their 26-year reign. They took over the 1,200 performers and employees, 500 circus animals and 98 railroad cars. Irv died in 1984 and Kenny has run the circus since. In 1994 Disney co-produced a video which featured Mickey Mouse and friends taking a trip through the Ringling Circus, and two years later Feld Entertainment was created as a parent company for the circus and a skating-themed show, "Disney On Ice. " The company also produces several large-scale Broadway and Las Vegas productions. Yes, Kenny Feld is smart; the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. (I remember going to his bar mitzvah, then over the years watching the young man grow into the confident manager of this business despite family turmoil) Today the circus maintains two train-based shows and a truck-base smaller one. Each train is a mile long with about 60 cars, 40 passenger cars and 20 freight. Each train produces a full three-ring show all year long except December, when they are off. Ken's daughter, Nicole, controls the Blue Train tour; she is obviously training for her dad's job.

Horses on display for the audience during the pre-show.

The author with a clown. Which one is the clown?

I have been concerned about animal welfare in the circus ever since I walked out of a Moscow circus some 30 years ago when I vehemently objected to their treatment of its bears. (I was actually ejected from the arena.) Just this week, July 11th, the New York Times had a long article about how Russian circuses allow trainers to take and sell photographs of little children with wild animals in their care. A photo with a full-grown Siberian tiger at Moscow's Nikulin circus taken at intermission costs the parents $18 and one with a bear costs $15. Everyone admits that it is a dangerous practice but it is still allowed. According to the newspaper, placing children beside carniverous beasts for a moment of photography illustrates the Russian proclivity for taking crazy risks. "Of the roughly 90 species of animals used in Russian circuses, a dozen or so are deemed by administrators to be particularly dangerous: monkeys, tigers, lions, lynxes, pumas, bears, sea lions, walruses, eagles, kangeroos, hippos, rhinos, and elephants." Yet the paper notes that the 100 or so private circuses still allow trainers to sell photos of these animas to foolish parents. Madness.

This elephant lumbered around during the singing of the National anthem.

The sign proclaims it is "The Greatest Show onEarth."

Today's American circuses are oh, so careful about this whole subject, They believe that promoting animal-human interaction is vital to increasing public awareness of the need to protect and preserve animal species. Ringling has publicly stated: "Captive animals play an important role as Ambassadors - teaching people about the animals' needs and challenges and about our responsibilities to ensure their future survival." Some years ago I wrote about their Center for Elephant Conservation, which the circus opened in 1995, a 200 acre, $5 million center in central Florida for the breeding, research and retirement of the Asian elephant herd. (All circus visitors today get a card about this center, which says their herd of Asian elephants is the largest in the Western hemisphere. They note that they have had more than two dozen elephant calves born there.) All dogs in the show are from animal shelters, and I am told the circus has an active breeding program for endangered species used in the shows, ie the Bengal tigers and elephants. They told me that their tigers are retired to Big Cat Rescue. (When ASPCA sued the circus years ago for its treatment of elephants, they lost a $9.2 million judgement to Feld.) All circus employees who work with animals must undergo training regarding compliance with animal welfare regulations within 30 days of when they are hired.

Penny McTaggart with our favorite clown.

The pre-show penguin comedy act.

Yes, I am still bothered by the use of animals in the circus, but then again I can't envision a circus which is animal-free, no horses, dogs, elephants or tigers. This circus uses lots of rabbits and a snake as well as the above. So I bite my tongue and attend. All of this flowed through my mind on Thursday evening as I entered the Staples Center downtown for the premiere here in L.A. of the 143rd edition of the Greatest Show on Earth, Ringling Bros Circus' "Built to Amaze." It was a long way from that one-ring circus I attended in a field outside of Beacon eight decades ago.

So what did I think of the show? First, one very positive note: at 6:30 pm, when the doors open, they encourage the audience to visit the floor of the arena, where the kids can meet and be photographed with the clowns and acrobatic performers. They bring out some horses, a few elephants, and make it s a hands-on experience for the kids and their parents. For me, that was the highlight of the evening.

Acrobats during the pre-show.

(One of the most disastrous element of the evening was something I ate... I wanted a hot dog and bought one at the concession stand for about six bucks. It was a thin dog twisted inside of a thin ribbon of dough which was highly inedible, cold and tough and card-boardy. The hot dog itself was flabby and almost tasteless. As opposed to last night where, at the Concern Cancer benefit, I ate a juicy, garlicky Pink's Hot Dog inside of a soft, delicious bun with mustard and sauerkraut. Mr. Staples Center meet Mr. Richard Pink, you two should know each other.) Interestingly, the audience at the circus was mainly ethnic: Hispanic, Black, Asiatic, and I felt like I was in the vortex of a giant marketing machine. Literally hundreds of vendors running up and down the aisles all night long selling popcorn, lemonade, and lighted toys...and none of them are cheap. The concession stands loaded with toys and games all over the arena are breathtakingly expensive, and at $15 I decided to forego a program book. How these large families could afford a visit here was beyond me.

You see, I think there is a fatal defect in today's circus....and it's called Cirque de Soleil. In the past decade we here in America have been inundated with a half-dozen great shows created by that enterprising, ambitious Canadian group, and if you have been to Las Vegas or visited one of their touring performances here you have seen a new-form of circus which builds on the original and has taken it far into the next dimension. Add to that the amazing development of video games and kids today are far different and more mature than in my day. Not that they are jaded, but they are far more sophisticated in their tastes. So the prancing, dancing dozens of performers working energetically for two and a half hours to a throbbing musical beat is so...old-fashioned. The 12-year old boy seated next to me watched for a few minutes and then resumed texting on his phone, while his 6-year old brother yelled and hooted with enthusiasm at the stage. I thought it was mostly sound-and-fury with little real 21st century showmanship. Yes, I was caught up with some of the aerialists, but after 12 million of us saw on TV a man walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon, watching some guys on a bicycle is child's play. There was a long sequence of some Harlem Globetrotter would-be's on unicycles tossing basketballs...which quickly got boring. The performing six horses brought memories to my companions, Penny and David and me, of our visit last month to Cavalia, a stunning exhibition of horsemanship...with 62 horses and a spectacular set. Yes, I was gripped with awe at a cageful of a dozen full-grown tigers performing stunts, mainly rollovers, at the crack of the ringmaster's whip. But watching these majestic animals having to walk on their hind legs was also heartrendering. I love watching elephants...knowing that within their massive heads is a brain probably equal or better than my own. They plod on, seemingly docile but not really, and I wonder if they are as bored as me. Watching a girl climb into a long cannon and be shot sixty feet across the arena brought back memories of that same stunt in the one-ring circuses, always a stalwart of the show. We left at half-time, paid $20 for parking in a lot a half-mile away, and went home for me to sleep fitfully and dream about those captive animals in cages. Yes, the circus is in town! Hurrah.

To subscribe to Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter ($70 for twelve monthly issues) email him at