May 21, 2017, was the final curtain call for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Dogged by animal rights issues and facing declining ticket sales, the 146-year-old circus gave its last performance.
Photographer Julie Jacobson was able to go behind the curtains at the circus’ final few shows, capturing what the last few weeks as a clown or performer looks like. Looking through the photos — as the one thing binding them together comes to an end — feels like stealing a glimpse into a high school yearbook on the very last day of school.
The circus’ clowns enjoyed their final few group breakfasts together.
Beth Walters and Stephen Craig chat over Clown Alley’s final breakfast. Photo by Julie Jacobson/AP.
They called themselves "Clown Alley," both the name of their private backstage area and their ad hoc family.
Clown Alley takes a break between acts. Photo by Julie Jacobson/AP.
Brian Wright got people to sign his "clown bible."
"Dream big!" someone wrote. Photo by Julie Jacobson/AP.
Over the last four years, he’s gathered jokes, memories, and thoughts into the book.
Nick Lambert wanted to leave a little something behind.
The cabinet in Lambert’s room, complete with graffiti. Photo by Julie Jacobson/AP.
Inside one of the cabinet doors, past clowns have been surreptitiously adding their names and years, like the graffiti on a high school desk. Lambert planned to add his name to the list.
Concessions manager Jeannie Hamilton waved goodbye to people from the train.
Hamilton helps a customer in Providence, Rhode Island. Her room on the train may not have been much bigger than her concession stand. Photo by Julie Jacobson/AP.
The circus’ train was long and slow, which meant plenty of opportunities.
A man waves as the circus’ train chugs along. Circus trains move pretty slow. He may have been there a while. Photo by Julie Jacobson/AP.
High-wire performer Anna Lebedeva trained hard to make that last performance after giving birth to her son.
High-wire performer Anna Lebedeva stands next to her son’s stroller. Photo by Julie Jacobson/AP.
For tiger trainer Taba Maluenda, the last performance was also a chance to say goodbye to the animals he’d worked with for years.
Maluenda performs with a tiger during a show in Providence. Photo from AP Photo/Julie Jacobson.
The big cats that made up Maluenda’s show are destined for a center that specializes in tigers.
Life is full of these bittersweet endings, even in the circus.
Boss clown Sandor Eke carries his 2-year-old son, Michael, on his shoulders as they walk toward what will be one of Ringling Bros.’ last performances. Photo by Julie Jacobson/AP.
Everyone can relate to a moment when you know a chapter in your life is coming to an end. For many of the performers, this may mark the end of their circus career.
That said, that doesn’t mean people should despair about the art form. As American studies professor Janet M. Davis of the University of Texas points out, Ringling Bros., with its gigantic scope and railroad caravan, represents only one specific type of circus.
"Many small one-ring shows are thriving," says Davis. "And the rise of youth circuses across the country marks a field of vitality and growth."
So while Ringling Bros. might be gone, hopefully it won’t be too long before the circus comes to town again.