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Closing of 'The Greatest Show On Earth' marks end of an era

NEW YORK  Circus folk never bid each other "goodbye," according to tradition. At the end of each show, when scaffoldings are dismantled and animals and performers board the mile-long trains they call home, there's always a next stop in another town. Circus folk prefer to say: "See you down the road."

Things will be different when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus performs at the renovated Nassau Coliseum on Sunday, May 21. That show will be its last. For the Ringling circus, which has spent 146 years entertaining people across the country and around the world, there is no more road.

The closing marks not only the end of an American institution but the end of an era. For generations, Ringling's famous slogan  "The Greatest Show on Earth"  seemed indisputable. During the 19th century, Ringling traveled by train across a still-expanding America, bringing world-class spectacle to small towns, often shutting down local streets as acrobats and exotic animals paraded toward the showgrounds.

During the 20th century, Ringling survived as movies, television and personal computers competed for the public's attention. In the 21st century, however, it was the loss of the circus' most emblematic performers  the elephants  that proved too much for Ringling to overcome.

"There have been points in time when fans mourned the loss of the circus parade, or the horse-drawn wagons," says Gary Payne, president of the nearly century-old Circus Fans Association of America. The removal of Ringling's elephants, though, was a far greater blow.

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