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Sarasota “Circus City”, USA: Where Fine and Performing Arts are in the Center Ring

A century or so ago, nothing else compared to the sights and sounds of the grand parade when circus wagons came to town. Anticipation built for weeks, sparked by advance cars and a profusion of posters.

These were simpler times and there were promises of wonders never seen, horses and elephants, armies of clowns, bareback riders, and trapeze artists flying through the air. Human and animal entertainers became household names.

Circus work was done by horse, elephant, and human muscle, and it took over 1,000 men to unload. Few cities had zoos back then, and the sight of exotic animals was breathtaking.

How it all began

After the harnesses German-born immigrant August Ringling of Iowa made were replaced by cheaper versions, his sons put on shows and played musical instruments in their yard for penny. They added comedy acts, contortionists, jugglers and tumblers and became a traveling circus.

The circus had been shunned by religious people. The Christian Ringlings banned gamblers and profanity and fired people for misconduct, earning them the name “The Sunday School Circus”.

Rail travel replaced animal-drawn wagons in 1890. Theshow grew to nearly 100 cars and admission soared to fifty cents.

John Ringling, the ultimate showman, made the business deals and planned the route. He was impressed by people like Stanford White, architect of Madison Square Gardens, and wanted to travel internationally and acquire a similar knowledge of art and culture.

Armilda “Mable” Burton grew up in the farm community of Moons, Ohio, and shared John’s goals. They married in 1905 and honeymooned in Europe, where they looked for new circus acts and acquired fine art.

The Ringling brothers bought their biggest competitor, Barnum and Bailey, in 1907 and became kings of circus world. Otto died in 1911, then Al in 1916, and the circuses were combined.

After patriarch Alfred Ringling died in 1919, the circus’ winter quarters were moved to Sarasota, Florida, where Charles and John had been investing in land.

John and Mable bought a house and twenty bayfront acres from Charles Thompson, manager of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. By 1923, with the economy and real estate boom in full Roaring Twenties swing, John owned about a quarter of Sarasota– 67,000 acres–including most of the keys.

Circus elephants hauled huge timbers to build his Ringling Causeway. When it was complete in 1926, Ringling rode across it in his green Rolls-Royce. His Circus Band played in St. Armands Circle.

Ringling’s grand plans included a Ritz Carlton on Longboat Key and a winter White House for his friend, President Harding, on Bird Key. He planned residential lots and fine shops arranged in a circle at St. Armands Key, which he called Harding Circle, and ran hourly buses across the bridge for prospective buyers.

The Circus King builds a palace

 The Ringling’s Ca’ d’Zan, Sarasota, Florida
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The Ringling’s Ca’ d’Zan, Sarasota, Florida

The Ringlings loved all things Italian, and with their fortune from the circus and other business ventures–rail, oil, Madison Square Gardens– replaced the original Sarasota house with a Venetian Gothic style palace, Cà d’Zan, which means “House of John” in Venetian. John and Mable filled their thirty-one rooms with grand furnishings– Venetian statues and furniture from the estates of New York City tycoons.

There were palms and flowering plants, colorful windows, a 12’ high entry door, and a crystal chandelier from the original Waldorf Astoria. Cà d’Zan cost the then staggering $1.5 million to complete. Another $400,000 was spent on furnishings and art.

Their art collection, acquired during frequent trips to Europe, included paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, Velàzquez, Poussin, van Dyck and other Baroque masters. Their guests included Will Rogers, Flo Ziegfeld, New York City politicians, and Governor Al Smith.

After Charles died in 1926, John held circus performances here that became one of Florida’s top tourist attractions. Circus families–animal trainers Clyde Beatty and Gunther Gebel-Williams, the Zacchini Human Cannonballs, clowns like Lou Jacobs and Emmett Kelly, and the Wallenda highwire-walking family–lived in “Circus City”.

The Ringlings had no children, and planned an art museum on their property to perpetuate their names. Then the Florida land boom went bust. Construction on the Ritz Carlton stopped. The art museum was put on hold. On June 8, 1929 Mable died at age 54. The stock market crashed on October 29, 1929 and the Great Depression hit hard.

courtyard of the Ringling Museum of Art
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courtyard of the Ringling Museum of Art

John Ringling remarried hastily in 1930, battled creditors for his art collection, and, feeling he owed it to Mable, designed a twenty-one gallery museum, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, which resembles the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

He suffered a stroke in 1932, divorced, and was deep in debt. He died of pneumonia in 1936 at age 70 in his Park Avenue home with $311 in his bank account.

Ringling saved the museum by willing his estate, including a $1.2 million endowment, to the State of Florida. There were lengthy battles with creditors, but the state won out, but the estate had fallen into disrepair. Control was transferred to Florida State University.

By 2007, with state and private funding, all the buildings had been restored and new buildings added–the Tibbals Learning Center, the John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion, the historic Asolo Theater, the Education/Conservation Building and The Ulla R. and Arthur F. Searing Wing.

Asolo Repertory Theater, Sarasota, Florida
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Asolo Repertory Theater, Sarasota, Florida

The Circus Museum

 Zacchini's Cannon, The Circus Museum, Sarasota, Florida
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Zacchini’s Cannon, The Circus Museum, Sarasota, Florida

The Circus Museum celebrates the history and grandeur of the The Greatest Show on Earth and John Ringling, the Circus King. There are elegant parade wagons, colorful costumes, posters, circus artifacts, and details on the lives of top names in circus history.

clown, Circus Museum, Sarasota, Florida
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clown, Circus Museum, Sarasota, Florida

This was not part of Ringling’s bequest. Much of the memorabilia was donated by circus families whose names are some of the best known in the world. Ringling’s private railway car, the Wisconsin, built in 1905, is on display

The Circus Museum’s Tibbals Learning Center opened in 2006 with seed money donated by businessman and master model builder Howard C. Tibbals of Tennessee and Longboat Key, Florida.

Tibbals spent over fifty years creating a miniature version of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as it was in its heyday in the1920s and 30s. Ironically, since Ringling would not allow use of his name, Howard Tibbals used his own and called it Howard Brothers Miniature Circus.

The Howard Bros. Circus, Circus Museum, Sarasota, Florida
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The Howard Bros. Circus, Circus Museum, Sarasota, Florida

Tibbals collects photographs to ensure the accuracy of his work. There are eight main tents, 152 wagons, 1,300 circus performers and workers, 3,000 circus visitors, food, 900 sets of silverware and dishes, over 800 animals, a big top, and a 57-car train.

The model shows the excitement of the biggest free show–seeing the circus set up. There was a procession of wagons, exotic animals, and brass bands. There are side shows– the big money makers since they were open all day. It is so finely detailed that even the money drawer hidden inside the ticket wagon has tiny dollar bills.

This work of just one man covers 3800 square feet and is the largest miniature circus in the world. At full-size it would cover about twenty acres. Yet it is still unfinished. Tibbals continues to search for new ideas.

There are also interactive exhibits, circus artifacts from the earliest times to the present, and circus posters–some big enough to cover the side of a barn. There is an exact replica of Tibbal’s workshop.

Circus Sarasota: More than just clowning around

Circus Sarasota was founded in 1997 as a nonprofit performing arts educational organization by circus veteran Pedro Reis and his wife the internationally acclaimed aerialist Dolly Jacobs, the daughter of the legendary clown Lou Jacobs.

Dolly Jacobs and Rafael Palacios, Circus Sarasota
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Dolly Jacobs and Rafael Palacios, Circus Sarasota

This showcase for circus arts that attracts talent from around the world is also known for its contributions to the community. About 80% of ticket revenue goes to outreach programs for children, the elderly, and those in care facilities.

One such program is Laughter Unlimited, a year-round human therapy program for people in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and adult care centers.
Professional clowns, entertainers, musicians and trained volunteers combine their talents to use the humor as therapy.

Big Top Education is a program in which specially trained clowns with advanced degrees teach students of all learning levels and styles the importance of science, technology, and math in the circus arts. Circus Sarasota Teaching Artists also work with classroom teachers in Sarasota and Manatee County schools to help students build a circus performance held at school or at the Sailor Circus Arena.

Sailor Circus, named for Sarasota High School’s mascot, is a training program that began in 1949 as part of a high school gymnastics program. Now for 4th through 12th grade students, The Greatest “Little” Show on Earth is run by coaches, volunteers, and international circus performing artists like the Platchov Duo, Trio Moscow and daredevil high-wire walker Nik Wallenda.

 Asolo Repertory Theater, Sarasota, Florida
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Asolo Repertory Theater, Sarasota, Florida

The Ringlings’ Italian theme and appreciation of the fine and performing arts has been perpetuated with the Asolo Theater, America’s only 18th-century European theater painstakingly reconstructed in a 20th century building. Performances include theater, music, dance, film, and lectures.

See the Ringling website for more information on touring the mansion, museums, and grounds or to attend a performane at tha Asolo Theater.

Trivia: Did you know that Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 Academy Award-winning movie The Greatest Show on Earth was set in the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus and filmed in Sarasota?

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