'Lord of the Rings' Irvin Feld Has Made a Fading Circus the Greatest Show on Earth Again

updated 05/12/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/12/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

They appear out of the darkness above, a matched pair of silver spaceships spinning toward earth with tail jets aflame. Trapdoors spring open and two spangled figures emerge to perform a dazzling program of midair acrobatics. The audience gasps, sirens shriek, the band strikes up, and into the arena, now blazing with light, marches the latest edition of the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus, attended by winged elephants, cosmic clowns, plumed space beauties, greenheaded Martians and even a midget Mayor of the Milky Way. "I call our style 'circus lavish,' " boasts Irvin Feld, the 62-year-old showman who has been the big top's impresario since 1967. "Las Vegas and Broadway can't do what we do. We build each year on shows we've done before, and we're always asking ourselves, 'Can we top this?' When a new show is finished, it's got to be mind-boggling."

Feld's enthusiasm isn't merely ringmaster's bombast. As president and executive producer of Ringling Bros., he has restored both luster and financial vitality to the once faltering Greatest Show on Earth. Now, in fact, he presides over not one circus unit but three—the Red and the Blue, which perform separately in 79 U.S. cities each year, and the one-ring International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo, making its debut this spring in Japan and Australia. (Feld's nickname is "Lord of the Rings.") In 1973 he opened Circus World, a 650-acre amusement park in Orlando, Fla., and last year he added both the Ice Follies and Holiday on Ice to his burgeoning entertainment empire. In addition, he has produced 10 network specials to promote his circus and ice shows, and has invested in the new Broadway musical Barnum.

At 5'7" and 125 pounds, Feld does not match his image as a theatrical giant. He is slight and soft-spoken and gazes at the world through bottle-thick eyeglasses. Despite years spent around his circus menagerie, he remains uneasy in the presence of animals and only recently arrived at a rapprochement with his daughter Karen's poodle, Popcorn. But beneath the unprepossessing exterior beats the heart of a closet flamboyant. Feld sleeps in a purple bedroom in his opulent six-bath penthouse in Washington, D.C. He dotes on screamingly loud neckties, sports a diamond pinkie ring and punctuates every gesture with a long cigar. "Irvin per se isn't as colorful as P.T. Barnum," confides a longtime friend, "but I think he'd like to be."

Whatever Feld may lack in charisma, he more than makes up for in dedication and energy. In his never-ending quest for "the unique, the first," he travels 250,000 miles a year, auditioning talent all over the world. He insists on personally signing every new act, and when the circus moves into winter rehearsal headquarters in Venice, Fla., he is on hand every day to oversee the choreography, block out the acts, look over the clowns, critique the music and approve or disapprove every new costume. "I don't want to do anything I can't be on top of," he explains. "One of my weaknesses is that I always take on more things than I feel comfortable with so I'll feel pushed. I don't want any free time."

Long ago, in his hometown of Hagerstown, Md., idleness was a luxury Feld could not afford. His father's clothing store was constantly on the edge of bankruptcy, so Irvin and his brother and four sisters were pressed into service to hold down the overhead. "I was only a little kid," he recalls, "but I hated every minute of it—every overall and work shirt." Whenever they could, he and his brother, Israel, played hooky from school to go to the movies. "I never wanted to be an entertainer myself, but I loved the idea of putting on my own show," Feld remembers. He was only 13 when he and Israel joined the carnival circuit in 1931 to peddle half-ounce bottles of snake oil. "We told people it would cure anything," he says. "It cost us five cents a bottle, and we sold it for a dollar. I looked about 9, so people felt sorry for me. We sold about $8,000 worth of the stuff that summer."

Buoyed by success, the Felds began selling door-to-door during the school year—toothpaste, aspirin, rubbing alcohol—and returned to the carnival during summer vacations. The family moved to Baltimore in 1934, and Irvin graduated from high school there. Soon afterward he opened a novelty shop in a black neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Then, in 1939, the NAACP approached him with an unusual offer: The civil rights organization would operate a pharmacy in the store and pay him rent if he would put in a soda fountain for blacks. "At that time," recalls Feld, "there was nothing for blacks anywhere else. If they went to a drugstore counter uptown, they weren't even allowed to sit down."

Though unenthusiastic, Feld saw it as an opportunity to begin selling records. "That was a business I did like," he says. "It took me a year to get ready, but I wanted to have a lot of action you couldn't have anywhere else." With customary extravagance, Feld conjured up a variety of traffic stoppers, ranging from music piped onto the sidewalk to performers doing their acts in his window. "I found one guy who sold ginseng, which he advertised as a powerful sex stimulant," Feld recalls. "He also did tricks with a Gila monster. So I had a little bit of a circus going." The Super Cut-Rate Drugstore was an instant success.

By 1941 Feld had gone back into partnership with his brother and was preparing to open a small chain of record stores. While Izzy kept an eye on the business, Irvin went scouting for talent, with the idea of producing his own records eventually. His efforts paid off four years later when Arthur Smith's Guitar Boogie, on Feld's house-brand Super Disc label, became the first independently produced record ever to sell a million copies. "I don't know whether it's a gut reaction or not," says Feld, "but I've always been very lucky in being able to pick what's a hit or a miss." By the early '50s, he says, all the major record companies were asking his advice about which songs they should release. Meanwhile he had begun packaging his own rock'n'roll tours. "I really invented rock'n'roll," he likes to boast. "I made the market. Seventy-five percent of the kids that came out during that period passed through my hands first—Paul Anka, Fabian, Chubby Checker, Bill Haley and his Comets, Fats Domino, Frankie Avalon, Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, the Everly Brothers."

Then, just as Feld's career seemed to be peaking, he experienced a harrowing succession of tragedies. In 1958 his wife, Adele, whom he had married 12 years before, committed suicide. Feld is still unable to talk about it. He and his two children, Karen and Kenneth, moved in with Izzy and his wife, Shirley. A year later three of Feld's hottest touring stars, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bop-per, were killed in a plane crash in South Dakota. Finally, in 1963, as a side effect of medicine he had been taking to lower his cholesterol level, Feld discovered he was going blind from cataracts. "I went all over the world, to every ophthalmologist I could find," he remembers. An operation at Johns Hopkins was partially successful, leaving him with perfect straight-ahead vision, but none to either side. Plagued by this and other health problems, Feld heeded his doctors' advice and retired. Then he decided to negotiate just one more deal. "It took me two days," says Feld. "Afterward I called my brother and Shirley and said, 'I'm going back to work. If I die, I die.' " His first project was to persuade John Ringling North to sell him the circus.

Eleven years earlier North had given Feld exclusive control over booking and promoting the show. "The name Ringling Bros, was magic, but in the '50s I had seen the circus deteriorating," says Feld. "The show was getting smaller, and the tour was getting shorter. They would run out of traveling money and just go back to winter quarters in Florida. And no wonder. Once I went to a show in the Midwest somewhere, and I sank up to my ankles in mud." From his experience in booking concert tours, Feld knew precisely how many indoor arenas were available in the U.S. and how many new ones were being built. He decided immediately that the circus would never again be a tent show. "I planned the itinerary, extended the tour to 10 and a half months and guaranteed that running the circus wouldn't cost more than X number of dollars," he says. "They said, 'Impossible,' but I beat the figure by $8,000 the first week."

Still, the circus was more than $1.7 million in debt by the time Feld finally persuaded North to sell, for $8 million, in 1967. The Feld brothers put up only $100,000 of their own money; the rest came from bank loans and other investors. Irvin's first objective was to restore glamor to an aging and tarnished spectacle. One problem: The average age of the performers was 46, some of the show girls were in their 50s, and several clowns were well over 70. Feld moved at once to rid the show of acts that had become routine and to retire some of its fading stars. ("A 50-year-old woman may be fantastic," says Feld, "but a show girl she isn't.") To revive a neglected craft, he founded the world's first "clown college" in Florida. Then he abolished the freak show. "I don't want to earn my bucks capitalizing on mistakes of nature," he explains. "That doesn't fit in with the kind of wholesome entertainment we want to present."

Most significantly, Feld gambled that more would be better, and created a second circus unit as big as the first. "The secret of making that work," he says, "is volume. We put as many bodies in those seats as possible. Our top-price ticket outside New York is $7.50, and we have cut-rate prices for kids during the week. That means a family can go to the circus for just about what it costs to go to the movies. The only complaint we get is that with three rings it's difficult for the audience to take in all that's going on. But I'd rather have it that way than offer too little."

To deliver on his promise of abundance and quality, Feld has not hesitated to spend money on talent. In 1968 he bought an entire European circus for $2 million just to sign its star, the animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams. "John North had been trying to get him for years," says Feld, "but I had to have him and nothing would stand in my way. Gunther was a necessity because he became the nucleus of the new show. The toughest people to get are great animal trainers. Once I had him I didn't have to get a tiger trainer and a horse trainer and an elephant trainer, because Gunther works with all those animals." Because of his importance to Ringling Bros., Gebel-Williams is the highest-paid circus performer in the world. But like all other Ringling employees, he is expected to improve his act every year. "The acts have to keep getting better," says Feld "If they don't, they won't be renewed. The performers know this, and we don't have to discuss it."

Feld is demanding, but hardly a tyrant. He prides himself on his concern for his performers ("They know they can reach me any time of night"), and agonizes over the inescapable dangers of circus life. As a result of three serious accidents, including one fatality, in the last five years, he habitually leaves the arena during the high wire acts. "Irvin couldn't have done everything he has if he didn't know how to deal with people," says a close associate. "He drives a tough bargain, but never to break somebody else." Adds Sonny Werblin, president of Madison Square Garden: "Feld is an imaginative, creative man whose gift is that he can recognize talent. The circus people have tremendous respect and affection for him."

Though Feld is no longer owner of the circus—he sold it to Mattel, Inc., the toy makers, for $47 million in stock in 1971—he continues to run it under a long-term contract. Since Izzy's death in 1972, Irvin's partner and confidant is his son, Ken, now 31. (Daughter Karen, 32, is a free-lance writer.) "Izzy was really my best friend," says Feld wistfully, "and he was a great balancer. He was more conservative, and he could always bring me back to reality. If anything," he adds with a smile, "Kenny has the best qualities of both Izzy and me." Feld senior has few close friends outside of business. Though he dates occasionally (always younger women, "because I can't stand anyone as old as I am," he jokes), he has never seriously considered remarrying. Ultimately, to him, the show is the thing. "The circus is my social life, my relaxation, my pleasure," he says. "When I entertain people, that's where I take them. The only question is, do we go before dinner or after?"

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