- Associated Press - Sunday, January 29, 2017

HUGO, Okla. (AP) - Sending home the nation’s most famous clowns presents an opportunity for three Oklahoma-based family-owned businesses.

Hugo-based circuses can step in to fill the vacuum left after Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus closes in the summer, said David Rawls. The Choctaw County economic development director and former circus owner said he’s advised the three local circuses to pursue the opportunity, The Journal Record reports (https://bit.ly/2kuY3hW ). But those in the industry should avoid the biggest blunder Ringling Bros. made: getting rid of the animals in the show.

Ringling Bros. told employees recently it would close, the Associated Press reported. The company cited rising costs, falling attendance, increased pressure from animal rights groups and stricter federal animal welfare laws as why it struggled. The circus retired its elephant performers in May after settling a lawsuit with animal rights group the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA. Rawls said Ringling Bros. suffered afterward.

“I think it was a huge mistake,” he said. “They caved in to PETA and the zealots at the USDA and it caused (Ringling Bros.) a serious financial problem.”

Rawls, who owned and operated the Kelly Miller Circus for a half-century, said audiences come to see the animals and interact with performers. His company switched to a one-ring circus years ago, and it helped create a livelier performance closer to audience members.



He sold the company eight years ago after his grandchildren were born and his children decided not to continue in the business. Kelly Miller Circus is one of the three that still winter in Hugo.

Kristin Parra said she and her sister plan to keep the animals, and even add an unusual attraction: dinosaurs. She and her sister and their husbands are fourth-generation owner-operators of Carson & Barnes Circus. She said she was heartbroken to learn the iconic Ringling Bros. business couldn’t survive.

Her one-ring circus is a bit more flexible than Ringling Bros. Carson & Barnes’ 70 employees travel by truck, rather than by rail, so they’ve got more options on which cities they can visit. Her family’s circus often visits cities that don’t have zoos, which can help attract audiences that have never been close to exotic animals.

Parra said she also faces challenges of reaching children who grew up with electronics and computer games. She’s trying out a new act this year, in hopes of drawing a younger crowd: Large animatronic tyrannosauruses, a woolly mammoth, and deinoychuses will perform alongside Asian elephants. The prehistoric performers will include humans in massive, robotic costumes. Horses, llamas and miniature zebus will also perform.

“We’ll bring the extinct and the endangered under one big top,” Parra said.

Parra said she’s still working to improve social media marketing. Advertising her circus in the newspaper has given way to Facebook promotions, and she said she hasn’t captured the digital market to its fullest extent.

Rawls said marketing has always been an important route to capturing the circus sector’s audience.

Hugo’s three circuses, which also include Culpepper & Merriweather Circus, can fill the void near where Ringling Bros. toured. Smaller companies might not be able to fill Oklahoma City venues, but smaller, outlying cities like Norman, Moore and Chickasha are great potential places to stake their tents.

Rawls said though he played in Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit and other major metros, he never enjoyed it as much as small-town America.

“These new markets will be advantageous if you want to search for them,” he said.

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Information from: The Journal Record, https://www.journalrecord.com

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