There's a lot more snap in the circus these days

Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca may think he has it tough, but Irvin Feld just bought a business in which ''employee negotiations'' are often conducted with whips and within cages.

Sure, a lot of his workers labor for nothing but oats and hay, but have you priced hay lately? It's out of sight, especially when you buy two tons a week. And, even in these recessionary times, Washington promises to be of little help. Congress is not considering giving special tax breaks for investment in bears and trapezes, as legislation did last year for race horses and theme parks.

So why, 11 years after they sold it to Mattel Inc., has the Feld family forked over $22.8 million to buy back The Greatest Show on Earth - Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows?

''It's a very unique business, and I think we're the only people who could keep it going successfully,'' says Irvin Feld, the family's puckish patriarch, interviewed in his purple, gold, and green Washington headquarters. ''We just didn't want it to go from Mattel to Exxon, to IBM, to somebody else - and disappear because nobody cared.''

Irvin Feld's business relationship with the circus began in 1956. Ringling finances had just folded like a collapsing tent, and owner John Ringling North hired Feld to get the show back on its feet.

Then a mover and shaker in the burgeoning rock music business (''75 percent of the new kids that came along passed through my hands: Bill Hailey, Fats Domino, the Platters.''), Feld had long been infatuated with the circus. His first move was to fold the big top forever, switching bookings from tents to indoor arenas. This slashed operating costs $50,000 a week.

For six years Feld gradually strengthened the business side of the show. Then in 1967 owner North left the United States for Switzerland, and he bought the circus - lions, tigers, bears, and all - for $8 million.

At the time, says Feld, the circus had all the dash and glamour of a take-out lunch counter.

''The pacing was very slow, probably a minute between acts,'' he says. ''There were long blackouts. They didn't have enough help to do things that needed to be done. The average age was 46, double what it is now.''

Feld reworked the acts to make them snap with Las Vegas pacing. He doubled the show, creating a second unit so no city got the same acts two years in a row.

The Greatest Show on Earth became an attractive takeover candidate. In 1971 Feld sold out to Mattel for $50 million worth of stock, and he continued as manager.

Mattel added Holiday on Ice and Ice Follies to their live entertainment operations and financed a circus theme park in Florida. But the toy corporation never quite got the hang of being a ringmaster.

''This whole area - spectacles - (Mattel) has not been able to make it click, '' says Don Trott, a stock analyst with A.E. Becker.

In 1978 Mattel's entertainment division (circus, ice shows, and theme park) earned $5.3 million. By 1980 profits had fallen to $2.3 million. Last year the division was $1.4 million in the red.

Mattel does not parcel out figures for components of the entertainment division. Spencer Boise, a Mattel vice-president, insists the circus itself has remained profitable. And analysts agree much of last year's red ink was caused by weak receipts at the Circus World theme park.

Mattel has been pruning operations, concentrating on the high-growth area of electronic toys. Early this month it sold the circus, ice shows, and some miscellaneous acts - including a smash Las Vegas magic show - back to Irvin Feld and his son Kenneth for $22.8 million.

''This business needs the closer attention of the Felds,'' says Paul Rothman, a stock analyst with Advest Inc. He says the sale was a good move for all concerned.

Don Trott of A.E. Becker, on the other hand, isn't sure the circus is still an attractive property. For one thing, ticket prices have not risen as fast as underlying costs.

''Over the years our culture has changed. The novelty and glamour are no longer really there,'' says Trott. Video games, for instance, make the circus seem less exotic, and they compete for the same entertainment dollar.

Buying the circus is an emotional act, ''sort of like those guys who go out and buy a baseball team,'' says Trott.

But Irvin Feld says the circus will continue to draw well, even in a soft economy.

''When people have fewer disposable dollars to spend, they're going to wait for an event to come to the city,'' says Feld. ''We're a real event.''

Real events, however, are expensive. In a highlight of the red unit of the show, famous trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams and a tiger ride about the ring on an elephant. The claw-proof purple and gold blanket on the elephant's back cost

Each week they're on the road, four-footed ''employees'' consume two tons of Timothy hay; 5,600 pounds of sweet feed; 1,000 pounds of bran; 75 loaves of bread; and a case of lettuce, among other things.

Many animals must be fed and trained for a year before they pay dividends by appearing in the show. Gebel-Williams, for instance, is currently practicing with a brace of baby lions.

''That's 20 pounds of meat a day per animal,'' groans Kenneth Feld.

But the younger Feld says such investments must be made if Ringling is to remain a competitive spectacle. He and his father feared a bottom-line-conscious corporation would eventually curtail their spending.

A personalized ownership is apparently better able to deal with the inevitable personal problems of running a business whose 600 human employees range from the tallest man on stilts to the Flying Farfans.

''It's a family business,'' Kenneth Feld says, ''not only from the spectator point of view - but from the point of view of people in the show.''

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