Eric and Kathy were visiting from Houston. As Eric had shown us the Art Car Museum, I would have loved to have shown him Solomon’s Castle (see March 2013), but it was not open in September. So instead, we decided the rainy day called for a trip to a museum: the circus museum in nearby Sarasota, Florida.The first elephant arrived in America in 1796. In 1859 Jules Leotard performed the first known trapeze act giving his name to his signature costume. And in the 1910s, Alexander Patty entertained audiences by bouncing down stairs on the top of his head which goes to show the lengths to which some people will go for the paying public.
John Ringling, the survivor of the five original Ringling Brothers, moved the winter quarters of the Ringling show to Sarasota in 1927 where it remained for the next sixty years. Although the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus no longer winters in Sarasota, it still rehearses new shows inTampa. And the Sarasota area is home to the PAL Sailor Circus, Showfolks, Big Cat Encounter, Walker Brother’s Circus, St. Armand’s Circus Ring of Fame, Big Top Tours, Venice Arena, and Circus Sarasota.
John and his wife Mable bought the property in Sarasota in 1911. They built their home there from 1924 to 1925 and their museum of art opened to the public in 1931. Today “The Ringling” sits on sixty-six acres. It consists of the Ringling Museum of Art, The OriginalCircus Museum and the Tibbals Learning Center, the Ringlings’ home, the Asolo Theater, an education center and the gardens which surround the buildings. It was far too much to see in one day, and we just visited the Circus Museum, the Tibbals Learning Center and the Ringlings’ home.
One can see a film, have a bite to eat, and purchase tickets in a visitors pavilion before taking a short walk to the Tibbals Learning Center. The second floor of the building is devoted to displays on the history of the circus, but our focus was on the first floor where a huge model circus is displayed, Howard Tibbals’ hobby of over fifty years.
Entering the building, one first encounters The Greatest Show on Earth, a 42 by 22 foot mural depicting forty-five performers, forty five animals and seven banners. The work by William Woodward, was commissioned by Kenneth Feld, Chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, Inc., the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, for Feld’s headquarters. It was moved to the Learning Center in 1998. The people depicted were real performers with Feld as Ringmaster and Woodward as an artist.
Tibbals worked on the model for over fifty years and still occasionally makes adjustments or additions. It has over forty-two thousand individual items designed to fit into crates in the circus wagons just as they would have for a real circus.
Built at the unusual scale of three fourths of an inch to a foot, the long circus train has been mostly unloaded. Nearby is the backstage area where the performers eat, dress, and rehearse, costumes are made and equipment repaired. The detail is amazing. Workers wash dishes. In the hotel, the tent where everyone eats, the individual pieces of food on the plates were hand crafted. A rehearsing performer has fallen from a wire and others rush to her aid.One sees the parade of performers and animals being assembled for the Spec, the circus term for the spectacular grand entrance parade at the beginning of each show. Then there is the Mid-way with its barker urging people to buy tickets for the sideshow. Next comes a tent with all the cage wagons housing various animals, even one with a water tank for the seals. And finally one comes to the Big Show, the main tent. Tibbals, however, did not even forget to include restrooms on the way.
The main tent has the full three-ring circus with four stages beside them. Just as in the great old circuses, there is too much to take in all at once. There are large animal acts and small animal acts. There are tightrope walkers and trapeze artists, a band and clowns. There are individual folding chairs for reserved seats and long benches for general admission. Vendors hawk their wares.
As one leaves the big tent, one goes out of town by the other side of the rail yards. An elephant is being washed in a stream, just one of thousands of little details. There are 152 wagons, 1300 performers and workers, the audience, more than 800 animals and seven small video screens playing films of actual circus scenes. The model alone was worth the drive to Sarasota.
After a nice lunch in the welcome center, we took one of the little trams that serves the large property to John and Mabel’s home. Ca’d’Zan, or “house of John,” sits by Sarasota Bay, at a beautiful location. It may have been the “House of John,” but the architect called it “Mrs. Ringling’s house.”Built at a cost of one and a half million dollars in the 1920s, it is in a Venetian Gothic style. The front patio, made of colorful marble, has steps that lead down to a dock where the Ringlings kept their yacht.
A grand entrance leads into a large living room with an organ that has 2,280 pipes. It can be played manually or automatically with paper rolls like the old player-pianos.On one side is a ballroom with dancing couples from all over the world painted on the ceiling. On the other is an elevator, the dining room, John’s private tap room, a breakfast room by the water and the kitchen which still has its 1920s fixtures.
The second floor has their bedrooms, and baths. John had a huge marble tub and was reportedly very put out when he learned a workman had used it first. The third floor has his vault and a game room, and in good weather one can walk to the top of an open air tower for great views. In all, a very colorful home and, if a little over the top, appropriate for a circus entrepreneur.The next building on our list was the Original Circus Museum. Established in 1948, it has a film about the Ringling brothers’ careers and an extraordinary collection of original circus wagons and costumes. They have the colorful bandwagons, animal wagons and a calliope wagon. But they also have a ticket wagon, a harness repair and blacksmith shop, a generator wagon and a wagon used by the hotel. There is a cannon that was used to shoot two performers within seconds of each other one hundred and forty-five feet through the air at a speed of 125 miles per hour. They even have Ringling’s private railroad car.
The Ringling is a colorful part of another era that everyone should try to see.