“The Greatest Show on Earth” is the flagship brand Ringling Bros. and returned touring 50 American cities under the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The new show revives a circus that many thought had disappeared altogether. After a five-year hiatus, the touring Ringling production opened in September and will stop at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont Nov. 3-5. Suburban La Grange native Sammie Pearsall is part of the aerial acts, performing with dancing trapeze, aerial straps, silks and harness.
“My family was really into sports and recreation,” Pearsall said. “Watching live performances was a very natural part of my upbringing. “When I realized there were people making a living from this, my whole world changed.”
Pearsall started gymnastics at age 3 and trained at the now-closed Illinois Gymnastics Institute in Westmont, graduating from Lyons Township High School at age 18. She competed in collegiate gymnastics at Iowa State University.
“The day after I finished my last competition at Iowa State, I Googled how to get into the circus,” he said.
Ringling wasn’t an option at the time. 152 years old circus It was closed in 2017It has been hobbled by legal battles over animal acts and an antiquated model that relies on railroads to move from city to city. The new show uses neither.
“The only constant is change,” Kenneth Feld said in an interview. Feld is the CEO of Feld Entertainment, which owns and operates “The Greatest Show on Earth.” (Feld’s father, Irvin, purchased Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from the Ringling family in 1967.) In addition to the circus, Feld Entertainment operates Disney on Ice, Monster Jam and other brands.
“When we closed, we knew we would come back,” Feld said. “There was never any doubt about that.” A few years ago, they hoped to reopen on the 150th anniversary of P. T. Barnum’s Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome, which was purchased by five brothers named Ringling who owned a circus in 1907 and became Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. from themselves. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed these plans.
“Ringling has always changed,” Feld said. “Ringling was important to everyone when it started, but one of the most interesting was Thomas Edison’s light bulb. They were innovative; “You cannot establish a 150-plus-year-old business without development.”
Rumors have swirled about whether a new Ringling show would look too close to other American circus acts like Cirque du Soleil. Feld rejects this comparison.
“We are a family-oriented show, and we are on a much larger scale than any other show that exists in the world,” he said.
The new “Greatest Spectacle on Earth” features 75 circus performers, including Pearsall.
“It’s such an iconic show,” said Pearsall, who auditioned via video while working at another circus in Dubai. “It doesn’t seem realistic to me to be able to perform with them.”
Another performer, Jan Damm, specializes in rola bola (a balance board placed on a tube). He was a theater kid who started juggling at the age of 10. Like Pearsall, Damm does not come from a circus family, but her parents, a Unitarian minister and a pediatrician, were supportive of having an entertainer in the family.
“When I was 11, my mom started tuning me into magic and juggling events,” the Maine native said. “I’ve actually been on stage ever since.”
Damm was part of shows large and small and had an interest in projects that kept the circus alive in the United States. During her comeback years, she performed with the Big Apple Circus. Despite balancing raising two children, joining Ringling was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
“I have a deep investment in supporting circus culture in America,” he said. “I think the ringtone is an essential part of that.”
Like Feld, Damm said constant evolution is at the heart of circus culture. In the new exhibit, Ringling Bros. and the three rings pioneered by Barnum & Bailey in the 1870s are no longer available; Damm performs with a robot dog instead of elephants and horsemen. There are bicycles, acrobatics, seesaws and aerial stunts.
“We can’t exactly recreate the show you watched as a kid,” Damm said. “The best we can aim for is to recreate that feeling in audiences young and old; that feeling of wonder and nostalgia and something new and unexpected packed into a moment. This is the circus for me.”
Damm is a familiar name in Chicago circus circles. He lived here for about five years and started a family with his wife, Ariele Ebacher, a circus performer who specialized in tightropes. Damm and Ebacher trained and performed at Aloft Circus Arts and were part of the first circus shows. Midnight Circus The group toured the Montreal Circus Festival.
“We really love Chicago,” he said. “We found it a great place to train, create new acts, work with local companies, and also fly in-house to work.”
The couple moved to another location while waiting for their second child to be closer to family. They now live in Brattleboro, Vermont.
“We see each other in person twice a month, and I send the kids videos and photos from the show,” Damm said. “They are very excited about the size of the show and the fact that their father is involved. “We put it together one piece at a time, which is what circus performers are used to doing.”
Performing in front of a hometown crowd is “huge” for Pearsall, whose professional career before Ringling was overseas.
“It feels unreal,” he said. “This is the scene I saw and imagined myself when I grew up. Being able to perform on that stage now means the world to me.”
“The Greatest Show on Earth” runs Nov. 3-5 at the Allstate Arena, 6920 Mannheim Road, Rosemont; tickets $18-$128 ringling.com.
Lauren Warnecke is a freelance writer.