Kenneth Feld is a showman, live entertainment's auteur for the masses, the man behind Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Disney on Ice, monster-trucks shows, dirt-bike motocrosses and other arena staples.
WASHINGTON — Kenneth Feld is sitting in a corner of his office, in a building as nondescript as any other in this suburban office park and far removed from the bright lights and bravado and big production numbers that have made his business famous.
Feld is a showman, live entertainment’s auteur for the masses, the man behind Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Disney on Ice, monster-trucks shows, dirt-bike motocrosses and other arena staples.
His office is filled with the memorabilia of a long entertainment career: bronze casts of the hands of Gargantua II, the gorilla that was a Ringling mainstay for years. Feld family photos of Marilyn Monroe, Muhammed Ali and a gaggle of clowns. The Tony Award for producing the 1993 Broadway comedy “Fool Moon.”
They are keepsakes from a career in which he transformed a sleepy family showbiz operation into a profitable portfolio of made-for-the-family productions. Feld Entertainment these days tours 67 countries, tallying more than 5,000 performances a year. Its annual audience exceeds 30 million, generating nearly $900 million in revenue. On a big weekend, the far-flung empire is entertaining nearly 1 million patrons from Denmark to Greece to Wheeling, W.Va.
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Yet for all the beat-the-drum, here-come-the-elephants pizazz of its events, Feld prefers to orchestrate operations from his office, Ringling’s winter headquarters near Tampa, Fla., or a seat in the audience.
He will personally attend some 200 shows a year. And there are rules. No act should be longer than seven minutes. Performers must interact with fans. Every first act must grab you at the start and end with a loud bang. Lighting is crucial, guiding the customer through the show and creating an intimacy between fan and performer. And at the end, everyone should feel as if they stepped off a roller coaster.
Feld is a numbers junkie. He absorbs reams of customer and sales data going back years.
His latest addition, a $205 million medley of motorsports attractions that includes Monster Jam and Nuclear Cowboyz motocross, is designed to diversify Feld Entertainment as the 61-year-old impresario prepares to one day cede control to his three daughters.
But the last few years have been especially challenging, with the closing of Feld’s long-running Las Vegas magic/exotic animal act Siegfried & Roy and the death of Ringling’s star talent scout. The economic downturn has put a pinch on people’s entertainment dollar. His circus is under regular assault from animal-rights activists.
While Big Apple Circus pursues intimacy and Cirque du Soleil caters to the high-end purists, Feld Entertainment puts its faith in the mass market.
“We’re the people’s circus,” said Nicole Feld, Kenneth’s eldest daughter and executive vice president and the producer of Ringling’s Zing Zang Zoom edition, one of three separate Ringling circuses touring the country.
Feld’s father, Irvin, started selling toiletries door to door in the 1930s when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People offered him funding if he would open a cut-rate pharmacy. When Irvin placed speakers outside the store to draw customers, they headed for the store’s record-album section. So he expanded into more records, renamed the store Super Music City, and in the mid-1950s started Super Attractions, a rock promoter that was the forerunner to Feld Entertainment.
Rock to Ringling Bros.
By the time Ken graduated from Boston University in 1970 and went to work for him, Irvin had moved from rock to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which he purchased from John Ringling North in 1967. Irvin sold it to toy-maker Mattel before buying it back for $22.8 million in 1982. After Irvin died in 1984, Kenneth took over.
“Like his father, Irvin Feld, he’s a born impresario,” Las Vegas hotelier and entrepreneur Steve Wynn said.
Wynn knows Feld from a financial home run they shared: Siegfried & Roy, the exotic animal and magic show that sold out its 1,500-seat theater at Wynn’s Mirage hotel for more than 13 years straight, grossing more than $1 billion and revolutionizing Las Vegas by introducing family entertainment to a city that had relied on singers, comedians and half-dressed showgirls.
Another home run is Disney on Ice, created in 1981 to revive the ailing Ice Follies. Now Disney on Ice has eight separate shows touring the world.
“Kenneth was the brain trust who figured out the Disney characters and put them all together so that Mickey Mouse had a chance to interact with Snow White,” Yuman said.
Ice shows’ success
Rivals speak enviously of Disney on Ice, which they estimate has profit margins of up to 50 percent.
“Obviously we make money,” Feld said of his various enterprises. “But it is brand-building. We are creating traditions. Everybody knows we come to Washington, D.C., the third week of March every year at the Verizon Center. People plan for it. They make plans and they come.”
Feld uses that loyalty to extract deals that no one else gets. He insists on bringing his own concessions into his arenas and on Feld Entertainment keeping 100 percent of the revenues.
“I don’t know many people who can come in and steal all that money from me. And I still love him dearly,” said Tim Leiweike, president of AEG, which runs 55 arenas worldwide.
Not everyone loves him dearly. He can be distant, demanding and impersonal.
Former daredevil clown Bello Nock, now the star at Big Apple Circus, said that while Feld is difficult, most performers would work for him in a minute.
“We used to see things completely the opposite,” said Nock, a Ringling star for eight years. “But he would say to me that the only way you make a diamond is with pressure.”
Feld has a generous side. Nock said that last year Feld called Big Apple, a nonprofit, and inquired about the size of the circus’ deficit after donations had dropped due to the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal. When a Big Apple executive supplied the number, Feld sent a check to cover the deficit.
Ringling has long been bitter rivals with animal-rights groups. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wants Ringling’s animal acts shut down; Ringling has accused PETA of distorting its record of animal husbandry. Animal-rights groups and a former employee sued Feld Entertainment under the Endangered Species Act.
Feld will never give up the elephants, despite the negative publicity. The pachyderms define Ringling, with elephant images gracing ads, programs, toys, TV commercials and anything else related to the circus. Feld even has a saying, “bring on the elephants,” which is a euphemism for any sure-thing, crowd-pleaser act — whether it’s motorcycles or Mickey Mouse — that sends the customer home satisfied.
Feld said his company works off a simple script: “We make heroes out of parents. It’s the small and memorable thing that the child goes home with. All we want to do is create a memory.”