When Alana Feld turned 7, her backyard birthday party included a live elephant and a one-horned "unicorn" goat, followed by a field trip for all of her classmates to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Her sisters, Nicole and Juliette, recall similar birthday extravaganzas featuring trips to see Disney On Ice with all the students in their school, personal audiences with Disney character actors and skating practice with Olympic silver medalist Linda Fratianne.
"We thought that was normal," recalls Alana, now 29; "What everybody did for their birthday parties!" adds Nicole, 31.
Then and now, what the Felds consider normal, most people would call a three-ring circusliterally.
Nicole, Alana and Juliette are the third generation of the family behind Feld Entertainment Inc. of Vienna, Va. (pop. 14,453), the largest producer of live family entertainment in the world and the owners of the famed Ringling Bros. circus, Disney On Ice, Disney Live! stage productions and Monster Jam monster truck shows, among others. On any given day, 10 Feld productions are under way somewhere in the world, providing Feld Entertainment with an annual audience of more than 30 million people in 66 countries.
"We're here to entertain familiesto help people forget their cares and concerns for a while," says Kenneth Feld, 60, the father of Nicole, Alana and Juliette, and patriarch of the sprawling entertainment enterprise. "We bring families together without pressure and to create conversation and memories."
Kenneth's father, Irvin Feld, was the original entertainment guru of the family. A producer and promoter of live rock 'n' roll concerts in the 1950s and '60s, the elder Feld bought the circus in 1967 when Kenneth was in college and, in 1979, acquired Ice Follies and Holiday On Ice. Two years later, the family partnered with Walt Disney Co. to launch Disney On Ice.
"Dad's gift really was as a teacher," says Kenneth, who worked alongside his father from 1970 until his death in 1984 at age 66. "He always invited my opinion and asked me to explain myself and my thoughts."
Kenneth continues that philosophy working alongside daughters Nicole and Alana to run the family-owned business. Kenneth is chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, while Nicole is a producer of Ringling Bros. and Disney On Ice, and Alana is a producer of Disney Live! Juliette, 26, is pursuing her master's degree in business administration at Emory University in Atlanta.
Meanwhile, Bonnie Feld, Kenneth's wife of 35 years, tries to keep the family grounded. "Even though much of our childhood was nontraditional, our mother is very much a traditionalist," Alana says. "She has always been very good about anchoring our lives as a family."
To the Felds, family extends beyond bloodline to the company's 2,800 employees, who reside primarily around the company's headquarters in Virginia and its operations center in Palmetto, Fla. (pop. 12,571).
"We know all of these people, and we know that what we do impacts about 10,000 people when you add in their families," Kenneth says. "So our family feels a great responsibility to all our associates. For us, it's customers first, associates next. That's the way it's always been."
During their childhood, the Feld daughters were introduced to their extended family of clowns, trapeze artists, animal trainers and assorted entertainers as they watched circus rehearsals in Florida during their winter school breaks. In the summertime, they got to ride in carts and sleds on the practice rink during Disney On Ice rehearsals. They also traveled the world with their father in search of new acts.
"The girls literally have sawdust in their veins," says Janice Aria, 59, a longtime Feld employee and former circus clown, describing how Bonnie brought her young daughters to the circus and placed their playpens beside the rehearsal area layered in sawdust.
Each of the Feld girls and their mother has a circus elephant named after her.
Once the daughters were old enough to decide if they wanted to join the family business, Kenneth required them to work elsewhere for at least a year and a half, then to write a paper explaining why they wanted to come aboard and how they could contribute. Nicole was a photo researcher for People magazine before joining Feld Entertainment in 2001, and Alana joined her sister in 2003 after working for a media research firm.
"This way, they come here with more than just the Feld name," Kenneth says. "They come here with expertise that helps our business and self-confidence because they know they can always work somewhere else." As for the papers his daughters wrote, Kenneth says the theme "can't be about a paycheck. You have to have a passion and love for this business every day."
The next generation
In an age of the Internet, YouTube and cable television, the Feld daughters must find ways to draw audiences to live shows while maintaining the standards of wholesome, all-American entertainment for families around the world.
Serving as the first female producer in the history of Ringling Bros., Nicole has been the force behind significant changes to the circus, most notably the elimination in 2006 of the traditional three-ring model performed for more than 130 years. "I don't think we've eliminated the three rings as much as we have broken through the rings to bring the audience closer to the action and to present even more acts to the people," says Nicole, who also helped create the Disney's High School Musical ice tour.
Alana has promoted Feld productions and helped to bring the first North American tour of Doodlebops Live! to a legion of pint-size rock music fans, in addition to producing Disney Live! stage productions. In December, Alana and Nicole will join forces to produce the 140th edition of the Ringling Bros. circus.
"This has always been such a creative and energetic place to work, but now the inclusion of the Feld daughters into the fold has simply tripled the creative forces," says Jeff Meyer, 45, a Feld executive in Vienna.
Kenneth, however, remains the company's big thinker, adding motor sports to its entertainment lineup last year, including nearly 600 annual performances of Monster Jam, IHRA Nitro Jam and similar shows.
"Dad kind of dropped that one on us at the breakfast table one day, and we've really gotten an education about trucks," says Alana, laughing.
She says the key to working with family members is no different than how a family should live together. "Respect and communication," Alana says. "We tell each other every day we love each other."
And when, on occasion, differences of opinion arise over business matters, they follow the advice that Irvin Feld once gave his son. "Dad always told me to answer the question, 'What's in the best interest of the company?' and that's how we solve any differences," Kenneth says.
"What we do in our business," Nicole adds, "is bigger than any of us."