Photographer: Nicole Craine/The New York Times via Redux

Big Apple Circus Folds Its Tent as Wall Street Support Drops Off

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The Big Apple Circus, whose clowns, acrobats and animals performed free for disadvantaged children and the elderly, has folded the tent that has been perched behind Manhattan’s Lincoln Center each holiday season since 1981.

The circus, a non-profit organization that gave away tens of thousands of tickets a year, ran out of money as support from Wall Street backers never recovered after losses during the 2008 financial crisis. A last-ditch fundraising drive fell $1.1 million short of the $2 million goal it set last month. 

“While the response was heartening, we ultimately did not raise enough cash to go forward with rehearsals and ticket marketing in August,” executive director Will Maitland Weiss said in a statement. “Of course, our door remains open should any potential benefactor want to step forward immediately.”

“The spirit of the Big Apple Circus will stay alive through our community programs,” Weiss said.

The Big Apple Circus was created in 1977 by Paul Binder, a Dartmouth College graduate with a master’s degree in business from Columbia University, and Michael Christensen, whom Binder met while they were jugglers with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a political street-theater company. Begun with a modest tent-raising in Battery Park, the enterprise expanded to establish itself at Lincoln Center, with regular residencies in Queens and Boston. With the help of a generation of sold-out audiences and corporate philanthropy, it became one of New York’s iconic family entertainment attractions.

Jimmy Zankel, a television producer and secretary to the Big Apple board, said the circus had difficulty competing in an entertainment industry dominated by multimedia giants like Walt Disney Co.

“We are sort of an anachronism, not built around cell phones and electronic games and movies,” he said. “We’re heartbroken and feel it’s a devastating loss to New York City, a lost jewel in its crown.”

While circus shows won’t continue, the organization will use the $900,000 from more than 1,600 donors to continue community programs, including “Clown Care,” in which red-nosed -- “non-scary” -- characters visit 16 pediatric hospitals nationwide, and “Vaudeville Visits,” which connected performers with seniors in residential care. The enterprise will also offer “Circus To Go,” featuring clowns, acrobats and trapeze performers for private parties and charity fundraisers.

What made the Big Apple Circus different from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey was its non-profit status based on its mission to promote inclusiveness among families rich and poor, healthy children and those with disabilities, and individuals young and old. Dogs, horses, llamas and camels were its featured animal acts, not wild lions, tigers and elephants.

Under its 46-foot-high, air-conditioned and heated tent that seated more than 1,700, the circus offered wireless headsets with descriptions of the action for the hearing-impaired, as well as sign-language interpreters. Programs printed in Braille or large print were available, as were special “touch sessions” for blind children to feel clowns’ noses or the silky coat of a performing dog.

The circus’s struggles began after the financial crisis in 2008, when Wall Street firms and banks that had been major supporters and donors retrenched and became less likely to hire performers for Christmas parties. Weiss cited Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013 and the blizzard and ice storms of 2014 as drags on attendance that contributed to its demise.

Peter Grauer, chairman of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, is chairman emeritus of the Big Apple Circus.

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