Two broad-backed houses canter steadily around the inside perimeter of the ring. On the lead horse stands Petar Avramov, of the Slavovi Troupe. He tenses for the somersault that will send him backward through a hoop onto the horse behind him. He springs -- he's into the roll and through the hoop and, oh God, he missed the horse. Nine thousand eighty-six people gasp as his head hits the ring curb with a sickening thud. But wait. Surrounded by a gaggle of concerned Slavovis, he shakes his head and, dazed rises slowly to his feet. The audience sighs and then breaks into applause. He tries it again. Again he misses. A collective groan. The third time he makes it. He stands balanced on the second horse, hands raised in triumph, acknowledging the cheers, the applause -- tributes to courage, skill, and derring-do.

Forty-eight hours ago, in another city, 375 miles away, Petar performed the same act, striking his head in precisely the same spot. Five nights from now he will do it again in still another town before 10,000 more people. At year's end he and nearly 300 other performers in two traveling units will have given 1,000 shows in 82 cities for more than 7 million people, all of whom come to marvel at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the Greatest Show on Earth.

Petar's talent is formidable. Yet what he does looks almost easy compared with the job of developing the show, putting it on the road, pitching it anew in each town, and turning a profit on the whole unwieldy, capitaland labor-intensive operation. For 27 years this task has been both challenge and reward for 64-year-old Irvin Feld, who, now with his 34-year old Kenneth, owns and runs the circus.

Tonight both Felds are in the audience, as one or both are perhaps 100 times a year. Unlike the other spectators, of course, they both know that Petar is going to miss the horse. Yet their applause is not merely polite; they know the real dangers each act holds. "Even though we know what's supposed to take place," says Irvin, "every performance is different. Anything can happen at any time. That's one of the thrills of the circus, and a lot of people go because of the danger, because they may be there when something happens. So we strive to control what we can control. We strive for perfection in the rigging, the whole manner in which the show is set up and taken down. It's a well-oiled machine. I don't feel there's anything in the whole entertainment world that is as polished or precise." Irvin Feld is a proud man.

"I'm an absolute fanatic about what I want to offer the public," Irvin says. "This is a freak business, the one and only of its kind. There isn't a second, and the reason is that there's no chance of survival unless you have a life of total dedication, and that's what Kenneth and I have. It's what motivates me, what keeps me alive, and it's what I want to do."

It was always what he wanted to do. "From the time I was five," he says, "I told my mother I would own the circus." But the road to Irvin's goal had more than a few twists and turns. For more than 20 years he honed his skills as a promoter, waiting for his opening. Then he waited 9 more years to apply all his talents to his first love. Within 2 years of realizing his dream of ownership he sold out, first to a willing public and subsequently to a corporate giant. Only last March, when he and Kenneth reacquired Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey from Mattel Inc., was the odyssey complete.

The journey began in Hagerstown, Md. "Poor is not the word" to describe his childhood, he says. "We had nothing." So when Feld turned 13 he hit the road, along with his brother Izzy, selling snake oil at carnivals. "I was a great salesman " he says, and the numbers prove it: The two made $8,000 in their first summer. By the time he was 21, Feld owned a drugstore in northwest Washington, D.C. Being in the drugstore business seemed "a fate worse than death," so he added phonograph records, which brought him a little closer to show business. The drugstore became a chain of record stores, which in turn helped him discover and then promote emerging musical talents, at first gospel and jazz stars, later such rock-and-roll luminaries as Chuck Berry, the Platters, Bill Haley and the Comets, nnd Fats Domino.

"I was a pioneer," Feld says, "an innovator. I was fortunate enough to figure trends in entertainment, in music, all my life." By the early 1950s, he has running an 80-city national tour called the "Biggest Show of Stars," booking his rock-and-roll acts into the new indoor arenas that were springing up around the country. Then came his chance.

In 1956, John Ringling North, heading an organization that was sagging under $1.8 niillion in debt, declared that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey had given its last performance under the big top. He was right -- up to a point.

Feld went to see North the next day. North, Feld says, was willing to sell the circus to him for $250,000 in cash and absorption of all the debts. Feld thought he could raise the cash but knew he wouldn't be uble to repay the debt. Not then. Instead he told North he had a plan for getting the show back on the road.

At that time the circus carried a permanent work force of 2,000 roustabouts and 80 work elephants. "You are in every business except the circus business," Feld pointed out to North. "Every night you erect a tent with 12,000 seats, and every night you tear it down. You're in the construction business." To feed all the roustabouts meant North had "the biggest restaurant business in the world," not to mention the plumbing and sanitation businesses.

Feld also pointed out to North that his promotion methods were passe. It was all very nostalgic, he said, to paste up a big poster in some alley and hope people would happen upon it. But television had arrived, and North wasn't taking advantage of it. All in all, said Feld, he had a better idea.

He proposed that North let him do with the circus what he had been doing with his rock-and-roll shows -- book it into indoor arenas. North agreed. North's people would produce the show and deliver it wherever Feld said. Feld would market it, advertise, rent the buildings, and plan the itinerary. Each of the men would get a percentage on every dollar.

Without the tents nnd traveling work force, the organization was able to save $50,000 the first week. Since weather was no longer a consideration, it could also tour longer. There was only one problem, says Feld. "The entertainment was no good. It was the same show every year -- they never changed a face, they never changed anything." And North refused to let him touch the production. Feld decided he had to buy the circus. "It became a total obsession," he says. "In 1967 I made a New Year's resolution. I said this is the year I buy the circus or I give up my association, because what I'm selling is garbage and I don't want to sell garbage."

So Irvin and Izzy -- still his partner -- raised $8 million in cash, borrowed a baby lion, and had a picture taken. The photograph shows Irvin Feld handing over a cashier's check for the circus to John Ringling North in the Coliseum in Rome. Along with 15 railroad cars, he acquired lions, tigers, bears, and elephants, 12 clowns, who ranged in age from 50 to 75, several aging showgirls, more than $1 million in debt, and a fistful of lawsuits. "Nothing survives the closing," North told him, which meant, says Feld, "I inherited everything I didn't know about." But he had hardly bought a pig in a poke; he had a plan.

Feld began spending money. What he purchased, he says, "was old hat. It was an antiquated form of entertainment, but the word 'circus' made people interested in looking into it." He signed on new acts and invested in new costumes, lighting, and music. He snapped up the pacing. To help him find new talent he founded Clown College (see sidebar, page 104). He cut the average age of the performers from 46 to 23. And he created another circus.

If there were two circus units instead of one, he reasoned, he could produce an entirely different show every other year. No city would ever see the same show twice, and he could amortize the cost of the new production over the two years. To start a new unit, though, required a nucleus. He found it in Gunther Gebel-Williams, Europe's most famous wild-animal trainer. But Gunther's employer, Circus Williams, didn't want to sell his contract. So in 1968 Feld bought the entire German circus for $2 million. With his second unit, he extended the season; instead of paying performers for the three or four days a week they worked, he put them on salary and put them to work six days a week. To meet his rapidly expanding payroll and expense base, he planned not to raise his ticket prices but to increase attendance -- literally making it up on volume. And, except for a slight dip in attendance the first few months of 1981, he claims he has increased the gate each year.

"I think if anyone else had bought the circus," says Elvin Bale, who came to Ringling Bros. as a child with his parents and is now billed as "The World's Greatest Daredevil," "it would have closed. Mr. Feld was not a circus man, but a promoter, and he promoted it. The others let it rest on its name, and that wasn't enough." Feld also brought to the business his personal, unflagging attention. "When John Ringling North was here," says Bale, "he'd make a couple of notes and that would be it. The Felds are so involved with everything it becomes a pain sometimes. They're involved right down to the color of my tights."

Bale's use of the plural when referring to his bosses is important. The circus is very much a father-and-son act and has been since Kenneth joined the company after graduating from Boston University in 1970. (Izzy died in 1972.) Of all Irvin Feld's remarkable acts, says longtime employee Allen Bloom (Ringling Bros.' senior viee-president for marketing and sales), his success in bringing Kenneth into the business is his greatest triumph. "I was worried that Kenneth would either become impatient or that his father would give him too much too soon, or too little at the wrong time," says Bloom. "It was never preordained that Kenneth would be in the business, but from the first time he said he wanted to be there he was exposed to everything. He crawled before he walked, and he walked before he ran. And when he ran not only was he given the responsibility, but also the authority. Irvin has never said, 'Kenneth, I'm overruling you.' It's turned out to be a true partnership arrangement."

Corporate headquarters of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Combined Shows Ine. sprawls over the third floor of a spanking new three-story brick building, tucked between a gourmet shop and a trendy restaurant in Sutton Place, a small shopping center located on the fringes of Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown. Besides the two circuses, called the Red and Blue Units, the business includes two traveling ice shows -- Walt Disney's World on Ice and Walt Disney's Great Ice Odyssey -- and Beyond Belief, a production show based in Las Vegas. The Felds refuse to discuss finances, but Irvin says reported earnings of $5 million on $70 million in revenues are "approximately correct.'

As soon as you step out of the elevator, you know you are in no ordinary corporate office. First there is the red Plexiglas wall on which is mounted a glittery feIt circus wagon carrying a snarling tiger with rhinestone eyes. Then there is the ballroom-size reception area whose mirrored back wall reflects a giant Ringling Bros. poster with a lion and tiger facing off. Circus memorabilia is everywhere.

Seventy-three employees make Washington their base, aIthough at any one time 25% of the staff is likely to be overseeing operations on the road. (The company has a total of about 1,000 employees, including performers, laborers, and traveling promoters.) The Washington office houses an educational-services department, a liaison with Sells-Floto Inc., the company that handles concessions for the shows, and the accounting and marketing departments. A purchasing and transportation department in Venice, Fla., arranges for supplies needed on the road and negotiates with railroads to pull and store the two 42-car trains on which each circus unit travels.

The staff people smile a lot. It is a disciplined but informal organization, the way Irvin Feld wants it. "I don't believe in bureaucracy," he says. "I believe in having people at the head of every division who know what they're doing. It may not look like it's structured, that it's come down from here to here to here to here to get it done. I don't want it that way."

"I like to think of ourselves as more of a family than an organization," says Allen Bloom. For the 47-year-old Bloom, the statement is no eliche. He threw his lotin with Irvin Feld when, as a boy, he joined his mother and brother in the Feld drugstore. Feld gave him his first marketing assignment, selling programs for a Guy Lombardo concert, 36 years ago. Eventually Bloom helped promote and manage the rock-and-roll shows. The family atmosphere prevails throughout the organization, says Bloom. Once, he points out, when the train was late getting into Memphis, he flew down and helped rig the show. "If you have to go out and sweep floors, you sweep floors," he says. "I think that's part of the circus aura -- there's nobody in this company who will tell you that's not their job."

Today both Felds are in their offices. Kenneth, president and chief operating officer, studies a sheet of paper. The performance director of the Blue Unit phoned in his information about the previous night's show from the current stop in Rosemont, Ill. From the report Kenneth learns that Elvin Bale's mechanical monster failed. Miguel Vazquez, the trapeze artist who made circus history earlier in the year by completing the quadruple somersault, scraped his side in his flying act. One performer broke a leg; another couldn't perform because he had the flu. The sheet also tells Feld the precise timing of the show. He looks at another sheet. This one gives him attendance figures, gross and net dollars for each performance, the previous year's numbers for that town, and projections for the current year. It also shows what checks were written on the road the previous day, for what items. The performance director of the Red Unit and managers of the ice shows and the Las Vegas show have phoned in similar reports. At a glance, he can see how the shows, and their people, are faring.

"My father comes across as much more dynamic and flamboyant. I'm more the nuts-and-bolts guy. I know, after he makes a great deal, exactly how to make it work," says Kenneth. "But it's less formal than you might think. Nobody says, 'You're doing the circus this month,' or 'You're doing the ice shows.' Because we travel so much somebody may call in for me and get my father, or the other way around." As far as the content of the shows goes, he adds, "there's no performer hired that either my father or myself doesn't audition personally, and either he or I will negotiate the contract."

Across the hall, in an office that is twice as large as Kenneth's, Irvin Feld is speaking on the telephone with the Red Unit's performance director. Irvin is a small man, impeccably dressed, his eyes sparkling behind thick bifocals. As he talks, he lights up one of his little Ritmeester cigars. Both he and Kenneth speak to the directors of each show at least three times a week. Irvin reads every review of every show. "I don't keep track on a daily basis with the purchasing agent who says, 'I got meat for3cents a pound less today,' or, 'Meat is costing 10 cents more,' " Irvin says. "What I keep abreast of is the health and welfare of each of the performers -- how are they, how are they performing, are they injured, are they ill, and how was everyone individually in yesterday's performanee and how were they collectively?"

"We're not in the manufacturing business," says Kenneth. "We're in the people business. Not many of our situations are black and white. You have a problem with an elephant trainer and you say, 'We ought to get rid of this trainer,' but tomorrow you wake up with 20 elephants and I surely wouldn't know what to do with them. So you have to modify your thinking. You can't treat performers like you treat factory workers. You have to treat them with a little more love and a little more care, because they are doing things that factory workers don't do. When a guy goes into a cage with 18 tigers 500 times a year, he deserves a different kind of attention."

Irvin and Kenneth pay attention to all their employees, not just the lion tamers. "I know the first name of everyone we have out there, workingmen included," says Irvin. "And they never know when I'm going to show up. That keeps them on their toes." Tomorrow he and Kenneth will attend the Red Unit's performanee in Boston and then take time to audition new acts, including a homegrown one of which Kenneth is particularly proud.

"At the beginning of the year I was talking to two of our Red Unit showgirls," Kenneth says, "and they told me they didn't want to be showgirls anymore." Kenneth told them they should try to put together an aerial act, that they would be the first all-black female aerial act and that it would be a sensation. So they got a couple of other performers to help them train, and a couple of musicians to work with them. All of this was after hours, in addition to the two or three shows they were doing each day.

The first week in September, they auditioned for Kenneth in Milwaukee. "It was an extremely good act," he says, "and you could see it would only get better, so I hired them. Tomorrow my father will see the act for the first time. It's so much more satisfying than to go out to a little town in Italy and see a good act and buy it. And this is as good as any aerial act around. And besides, now they're no longer showgirls, they're performers."

The odds are that Irvin will like the act. "I'd say we agree on 95% of everything you see in the circus," says Kenneth. "Once in a while you hire an act that looks great when you see it in Poland. Then you get it here and it doesn't work out. And I'll sit through performances with my father and he'll say 'I never would have bought that act.' I get a kick out of it. It's an amazing relationship. I know a lot of people who are in business with their fathers, and it's not as calm and peaceful as our give-and-take. My father made it that way. From the very beginning he always backed up decisions I made. If it wasn't a great decision I would catch hell in his office but never in front of anybody. His philosophy was that 'you're going to make right decisions and you're going to make wrong ones, but the key thing is to make decisions. Through the bad decisions you'll learn the right way.' "

The Felds spend most of their time worrying about what the show will look like; Bob MacDougall spends all of his making sure that their creation runs like a finetuned engine. Today he and the Blue Unit are in Denver. The 47-year-old MacDougall, a bear of a man, wears a conservative bluesuit. He joined the Felds in 1975, after an 18-year stint as a mechanical engineer with Borg-Warner Corp. His wife, Pauline, a former secretary with Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co., signed on as the unit's wardrobe mistress. As the Blue Unit's general manager, MacDougall is in charge of "the whole ball of wax," tearing the show down, putting it on the train, moving it, and setting it up. Now he leaves his office, wagon February, 1983 16, for a final look around.

This morning at 8 he saw rows of empty seats and a bare floor. Now, at 4 p.m., the rigging, made up of miles and miles of steel cable, is suspended from its massive steel frame. The heavy green mats, which prevent animals and humans from slipping, are in place. The sound system is set up, and three workers are touching up the outside of the ring curbs with red, white, and blue paint. Everything is nearly ready for opening night, when Charly Baumann, the performance director, will take over, making sure the show functions exactly as it did when the Felds approved it months ago in Florida.

Six days and 13 shows later, it will be move-out day; right after the last performance, everthing will be torn down. The rigging, the sound system, $2 million worth of sequined and feathered costumes, bejeweled elephant blankets and props such as Captain Christopher's giant rocket and the smallest man in the world's stagecoach will be loaded into wagons and pulled by tractors to the train, which in this town is only a few blocks away. In all, 70 pieces of equipment will be loaded onto 11 flatcars. The whole procedure, says MacDougall, rarely takes more than an hour and a half.

Then, nearly 150 performers, 125 laborers, 60 to 70 vendors, and 21 elephants, 20 tigers, 18 camels, two llamas, 35 horses, one goat, and an assortment of dogs will board the train, which is both freight carrier and traveling hotel. By 3 a.m. three hours after the last show, the train will take off for Rosemont, Ill., the next city on the tour. There the entire procedure will be reversed.

"We have a plan of attack for each building," says MacDougall. Every piece of equipment has an assigned place, each person an assigned task. There is an exact order for both loading and unlonding the wagons, so laborers can get to critical items immediately. If things weren't so precisely organized, he says, "you'd have a snafu here you'd never straighten out."

MacDougall's crew is organized into seven departments. There is the animal department, which is subdivided into elephant and everything else (the ring stock); the inside wardrobe, which takes eare of production costumes; outside wardrobe, which takes care of props; and the prop department, which handles not props, but rigging. There are crews to maintain the train on the road and a staff to oversee the Pie Car, the unit's traveling restaurant. There is also the labor department, "basically, five guys who shovel the manure," MacDougall explains. It is a highly specialized environment. Each of the three rings, for instance, is headed by a prop boss who oversees the placement of equipment in and above that ring.

For the 125 workmen each unit carries, says Irvin Feld, "it's an education process. For a month we instruct them until they get it down, and we rehearse without the performers doing the acts, just the erection of the rigging time and time again, as many as half a dozen times a day. Tear the whole thing down. Put the whole thing up. If I were to try to save money and go in with a skeleton crew of 10 people and pick up 115 locals, first of all I would be taking chances with my performers' lives. Second of all, it would take me two to five times as long to rig the show, if I could ever get it rigged with those kind of people. So it costs you extra money to carry these people, but it is worthwhile. With the circus what it is, no expense should be spared. They might fall off the high wire, but the wire is rigged right."

"If I ever slipped up on what I was offering the public," says Irvin, "I'd bail out. It's really more than what the bottom line is. It's crazy, crazy serious pride. It's almost a religion with me. I would never compromise with quality. If I want to do something with the show and it cost $400,000 extra, I'll take that cost and amortize it and say what do I need in extra people in the course of a year to get me out of that $400,000. I don't have to become a multimillionaire. Yes, I like to keep my head above water, to make a profit, but it does me a lot more good to look around and see 17-or-18,000 smiling faces and feel like I've done something for humanity."

What is most important, agrees Kenneth, is the show. "It has to function right. And it can't stop for any reason. It hasn't for 113 years."