After 146 Years, Ringling Brothers Circus Takes Its Final Bow

When the ringmaster, Johnathan Lee Iverson, first saw the circus as a 9-year-old at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, he could have sworn that the spangled horses that galloped there were real unicorns. At 41, after nearly two decades with Ringling Brothers, he has an awe in his voice when he speaks of the place that suggests that his certainty endures.

The world is losing “a place of wonder,” he said at an event a few days before the final performances. All around him, performers with thick makeup and saddened faces spoke to reporters about the circus’s demise. “It’s the last safe space,” he said. “It’s the last pure form of entertainment there is.”

For Ashley Vargas, 30, who worked with the animals and skated in the show, the loss of the elephants, some of which she had tended to from birth, was the beginning of the end. The elephants were retired to the circus’s sanctuary in Florida.

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