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50 years since Irvin Feld invested his company's future in family entertainment, Feld has plenty of reasons to be optimistic for decades to come, learns Eamonn Forde
By IQ on 04 Apr 2017
The canonic view of 1967 is that it represented the high water mark of counterculture, starting with the Human Be-In in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January and reaching its peak in June as The Beatles’ freshly minted Sgt Pepper soundtracked the Summer of Love.
Amid this cultural tumult, Feld Entertainment was born, with a focus not on the generation gap but rather on the enduring power and appeal of family entertainment. In November that year, Irvin Feld acquired circus companies Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey to set up his new entertainment company. Feld had cut his teeth in the live music business in the 1950s and managed Paul Anka for the first decade of his career, as well as touring with Bill Haley & His Comets, Chuck Berry and others. He, however, saw a different wind of opportunity blowing through America – and the world – in the 1960s.
“He had started so early in the music business and he saw that there was a big shift around 1963/1964 with the ‘British invasion’ – The Beatles, The Stones, Herman’s Hermits – and he ended up promoting all of them, but the business model had changed dramatically and the promoters [were squeezed] so the margins were less and less,” explains son Kenneth, who joined the company in 1970 and took over the running of it when his father passed away in 1984.
“He thought if he got into the family entertainment business, that children were born every year and were going to want to see these styles of entertainment”
“He thought if he got into the family entertainment business, that children were born every year and were going to want to see these styles of entertainment. So he moved out of the music business and into the circus business.”
Irvin had started promoting Ringling Bros in 1957 and ran this concurrently with his promotion of pop music – but, when the opportunity to buy Ringling a decade later appeared, he went full-time into family-centric events. “At that time, I was a student at Boston University and my summer jobs were touring, primarily in Europe in 1968 and 1969, looking for circus talent,” says Kenneth of how he joined the family firm. “When I graduated in 1970, I went to work with my father full-time.”
While many might idly joke about running away with the circus, that is what Kenneth literally did – but it was the fact that it was working for his father that was the main draw. “If he was selling shoes or something else, I would be in that business today instead of this one as I just wanted to work with him,” he says. “We had a wonderful relationship and he was a fabulous teacher. He was very patient and liked to listen to some young kid’s crazy ideas. He thought that [family entertainment] was the way to go and I think he was right.”
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