The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus has been traveling for over 100 years, and even longer than that under different names before they combined. It still travels, two shows on two trains, populated by performers who carry on the family business for generations and for the final time, elephants. The elephants will be retired to a Florida sanctuary next year, along with some of their handlers. But the show must go on, tow to town, in the trains called the red unit and the blue unit.
There are more than 300 people in the blue unit, representing 25 different countries and speaking everything from Russian to Arabic to Guarani. A few travel in cars and trailers, but a majority, 270, live on the trains. Only about 100 of them are actual performers; the rest are support staff like trainers, teachers, animal minders, carpenters. (One of the show’s publicists lives on the train, too.) Most come from multigeneration circus families, to the extent that collectively, the circus staff represents thousands of years of circus history. They spend 44 weeks of the year traveling an average of 20,000 miles from coast to coast on a train that is 61 cars — a full mile — long. In total, the train comprises four animal stock cars, 32 living coaches, two concession storage cars, 19 equipment cars, a generator car, a shop car, an auxiliary shop car and, of course, the pie car, which is the train’s diner, open whenever the train is moving.
The New York Times talked to the owners and employees of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus about how the circus has changed over the years, and how it will continue to change in order to survive.