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Votes

Overseeing Circus Empire

Kenneth and Nicole Feld say that in the circus business, no two days are the same.

Kenneth Feld, a Potomac resident of 30 years, is chairman and CEO of Vienna, Va.-based Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and the Disney on Ice productions as well as stage shows and other entertainment ventures. It is one of the world’s largest live entertainment companies.

The company has 2,500 employees and regional offices in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Hong Kong, and Amsterdam.

In 2000, Forbes Magazine ranked Feld among the nation’s richest men, with a personal fortune of $775 million — mostly grown from the circus that the company acquired for just $23 million in 1982 after selling it to the toy company Mattel during the 1970s, according to the magazine.

Feld and his wife Bonnie Feld have three daughters — Nicole, 27, Alana, 25, and Juliette, 21 — all of whom grew up in Potomac and attended Holton Arms. Juliette is a senior at the University of Chicago while Nicole and Alana have both joined the family business, after stints working elsewhere.

Kenneth Feld’s father Irving Feld bought the circus in 1967 and mentored his son in the business. Kenneth Feld took the reins following his father’s death in 1984. Nicole Feld came on board in 2001 and Alana Feld joined in 2003.

The 134th Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus is at the D.C. Armory April 6-17.

Q: Is it still every bit as exciting for you every time that the circus comes as it was the first times that you did it?

A: “It’s always exciting. And one of the things about the live entertainment business, and particularly the circus business — it’s so dynamic. Every day is different. You don’t exactly know what’s going to happen. And the acts themselves are different because it’s people, so it is going to be a little different. And every venue we play is different, so the show looks a little different.

“It’s about the people. But really, at the core of the circus, is the circus people, the performers. If you think about it there are very few people that dedicate their lives, and actually risk their lives in some cases, to provide seven minutes of perfection for the audience’s satisfaction and pleasure.

“They’re all athletes and they’re really well trained athletes and I think a lot of it is — you know in the Olympics you sort of gear for that one moment. These people have to have this perfection and this consistency eight, 10, 12 times a week.  … People on the high wire can never have a bad day.”

Nicole Feld: “Even for me, and I’ve seen it millions of times, it’s exciting every time. … It’s really inspiring for people and it’s inspiring for me. I’m at the show and I’m always in the audience among audience people who are coming and seeing the show for the first time. I’m usually watching their reactions. Three generations of people will come to a show and they’ll all get something different out of it.

“The body of the circus is still the same. People still want to see elephants. And there’s no place in the world you can go to get that.

“There really aren’t that many opportunities where the entire family can spend the day together and every body can have a good time. The parents leave loving one thing and the kids leave loving something else.”

Q: Do you have a lot of interaction with the performers?

A: “I do. I know them all. As corny as it may sound, we are a family business. It’s about families who come to see it, but families participate in it to provide the entertainment.”

Nicole Feld: “They’re not as mysterious as people think. While they do these unique things, they’re like you and me. They cook dinner from the family. What they do everyday is so extraordinary but at the end of the day they’re just like the rest of us. They care about the same things.”

Q: What is running the circus like on a day-to-day, or week-to-week basis?

A: “I don’t have any day or week that is ever the same. We’re in the touring business, so this time of the year we have the circus here, other times of the year we have our ice shows here. But right now we have 12 touring shows all over the world. … We have one in Mexico. Right now we have ice shows in Brunei, in Puerto Rico, in Worcester, Mass., in Miami, in Grand Rapids, Mich.”

Nicole Feld: “What’s so great is every day is different. Every day I’m surprised by something. To me that’s the greatest part of this job. No two days are the same.”

Q: Can you talk about the history of the company, and your involvement? It belonged to your father?

A: “My father actually started, he was born in Hagerstown Md. He grew up in Baltimore then he came here when he was 18 to Washington and started with a drug store on 7th Street, actually where the convention center is now, and that slowly converted into a record store and then he went into the live entertainment business by taking the recording artists and touring all over. That’s how I learned about the arenas and really how to tour shows. So it was this concept in 1957, to take the circus from the tent and put it into arenas. That was sort of the genesis of how we know Ringling Brothers today.

“He was able to [buy the business] in November of 1967. I was a student at Boston University and so my summer jobs for ‘68 and ‘69 were going all over the world looking for talent which was a really incredible experience. And then when I graduated in May of ‘70 I started to work full time, started to really learn the business. We grew the business and acquired an ice show and then I came up with the concept of Disney on Ice in 1981 and started with one show there.

“My daughter Nicole joined the company in November of 2001 and she’s co-producing the circus shows with me. And then my daughter Alana joined the business in November of 2003, and she’s working in sales and marketing. It’s wonderful because they’re third generation.”

Nicole Feld: “My father never put any pressure on any of us to go into the business.

“If you truly love something you’ll be successful in it. While I grew up around the circus and loved it, I just went and did something else for a while. … I realized ‘what am I doing?’ I have the greatest opportunity in the world. I started to really miss being around the circus. I really decided that I missed my circus family.

“On weekends or on winter break when other kids were skiing with their families … we were in winter quarters rehearsing the show. My father would drop us off with the clowns in clown alley and my sisters and I would do projects with the clowns. It was like those were our baby sitters.

“I got this other education of just being able to meet people from all over the world, getting to meet people with my father.”

Q: One of the negative things people think of when they hear about the circus is that there have been stories in the media about unethical treatment of animals — the animals are abused or treated poorly. Is there any truth to that?

A: “It really flies in the face of all logic, because, I mean, they’re an integral part of the organization. It wouldn’t make any sense. If you just took it from a logical standpoint it would make no sense to do that. But the other side of it is, I mean, we love animals and we do something about them. And it’s very easy for people with, you know, a political agenda to criticize, to protest, to file lawsuits, to do that kind of thing. But I mean, are they really helping animals? To say, OK, they don’t believe in eating animals, they don’t believe in animals for medical research, entertainment, to wear clothing. That’s their agenda and they are highly organized and they are a vocal minority and we are a very visible target and part of their agenda is just to get publicity, which they can do with us, because every week we’re in three different cities with the circus.”

Q: Does the circus still hold the same sense of wonderment for people, even as we are surrounded by television, Internet and culture of media saturation?

A: “I think the biggest competition today is for people’s time more than anything else. The business is vibrant and is doing extremely well … It’s interesting because I think as there is more and more of what I call two-dimensional entertainment — which is the Internet and television and all of this stuff, the video games — that we become a lot more important because there’s fewer and fewer places to go see this kind of live entertainment. At the end of it, it’s really about people doing something extraordinary. I think the difference is the reactions are sort of funny. … On TV, a hot show is ‘Fear Factor.’ They rig up these stunts where you say, ‘oh yeah, I’m afraid of heights’ and there’s a helicopter and all of this stuff and it’s dragging people around. But as a viewer you really know that nothing can happen — it’s very safe. At the circus everything is very safe but these are people that are really skilled at taking the risks that are very real. And people today are less believing. They think there’s always a gimmick, when in fact there really isn’t.”

Nicole Feld: “There’s still something for everybody.

“We’re still always looking for ways to excite and surprise the audience. Every year that is a challenge because every year kids are exposed to more and more and more. I will go to farther ends of the earth to find that. It’s really marrying traditional elements of the circus with what’s relevant and popular today. … There’s ways to get it across.”

Q: Are there any misperceptions about the circus that you wish you could correct?

A: “People tend to a lot of times to ask me these sort of deeper questions, really trying to over-intellectualize the circus. … We don’t sit around when we’re running the business or putting the show together and have really deep thoughts about those things. What we think about … is the audience. The company is driven by the audience, by what does the public want. And that is the quest. That’s why we’re always changing. The circus is evolutionary because we’ve been able to stay in touch with the audience. What is relevant today? That’s why we change it.”

Q: The circus is opening tonight. What happens at six o’clock in the morning? Or earlier in the week? There must be a whole process of setting up.

A: “We have to get the people here, so we have this huge train, that’s a mile long. Everybody lives on the train. You’ve got this town without a zip code that comes in. What makes me crazy is when the media says, ‘Oh this is a media circus’ or ‘It’s like a circus.’ The circus is the most organized event that could ever take place.

“We come to town, we unload the train in a very specific order. The equipment goes to the venues. We rig in the ceiling. We bring everything in so that we can have the whole show and basically convert the arena in 12 hours. The animals are walked from the train to the arena. They’re watered, they’re fed, that kind of thing. … There’s typically a technical rehearsal before we open. And we open.

“We do the show, and there may be eight, 10, 12 performances in a week and then we pack up, we go to the next city and we repeat the process.”