UNIONDALE (New York) • The lights went up on the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus on Sunday evening to reveal 14 lions and tigers sitting in a circle, surrounding a man in a sparkling suit.
It was a sight too implausible to seem real yet such an iconic piece of Americana that it was impossible to believe the show would not go on.
After 146 years, Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey is closing for good, responding to a prolonged slump in ticket sales that has rendered the business unsustainable, according to its operator, Feld Entertainment.
On Sunday, the circus glittered, thundered and awed beneath the booms and klieg lights of Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
That there was no tent over the final show, no striped eaves from which the daring young man on the flying trapeze could hang, felt fitting. The big top was packed up, this time forever.
Ms Autumn Luciano, 33, stood outside, ticket in hand. "It feels a little like a funeral today, but I'm trying not to mourn it in a sad way," said the photographer who had flown in from Michigan to see the last show. "Circus is all about being happy."
She pulled up her sleeve to reveal a tattoo of a circus tent on her wrist.
Without circuses, "we lose the ability to go and see that humans can do anything", she said. "You go to the circus and see human beings doing insane things, but the truth is, we all have the ability to do crazy things."
This circus began in 1871 as P.T. Barnum's Grand Travelling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome. Feld bought it in 1967.
After the removal of elephants from the performance last year following condemnation from animal-rights groups, already- falling ticket sales dropped further.
The circus - with its 500-person crew and 100 animals - had become unfeasible in an age in which video games and cellphone screens compete to provide childhood wonder.
When ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson first saw the circus as a nine-year-old, he could have sworn that the spangled horses that galloped there were real unicorns.
At 41, after nearly two decades with Ringling Bros, he has an awe in his voice when he speaks of the place that suggests that his certainty endures.
The world is losing "a place of wonder", he said at an event a few days before the final performances.
"It's the last safe space," he added. "It's the last pure form of entertainment there is."
All around him, performers with sad faces spoke about the circus' demise.
For Ashley Vargas, 30, who worked with the animals and skated in the show, the loss of the elephants, some of which she had tended to from birth, was the beginning of the end. The elephants were retired to the circus' sanctuary in California.
"To this day, the final performance with the elephants is the hardest performance I have ever had to go through," she said.
Beside her, Daniel Eguino, 29, clutched the handlebars of a blue motorcycle he rode inside a metal cage. The son of a contortionist mother and a father who was a trapeze artist, he said he was heartbroken. "Not because they close the show that I work in - it's that they close history," he noted.
The final show was shot through with moments in which performers reflected on the end.
As two tigers sat watching, their master Alexander Lacey turned to the crowd. "People are not really concerned with lots of wildlife until they can feel it and see it, enjoy it and love it as much as I do," he said, urging the audience to support well-run circuses and zoos.
"Sorry, boys, I don't usually do that," he added, turning back to the patient tigers awaiting their next cues. "I've confused you."
The crowd on Sunday seemed buoyed by the frivolity of the clowns and the way that a triple flip from the rafters by a young woman onto the shoulders of a young man made anything seem possible.
Many said they believed the circus would somehow return, perhaps retooled and rebranded.
Mr William Holden, 59, a hospital administrator from Delaware, said change might be good.
"It's the greatest last show on earth, but we have to live, change, adapt and keep moving. That's the beauty of America."