The Days the Circus Came to Town

I wrote this piece for the Sarasota and Her Islands Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

Sarasota, FL–In 1927, John Ringling brought his Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to Sarasota—elephants and all—to escape the cold northern winters at its Connecticut base camp. More than 80 years later, his legacy lingers throughout the city in its architecture, landmarks, people and culture. Due to Ringling’s influence, Sarasota has earned its chops as America’s Circus City.

Ringling’s artistry reigns at his 66-acre estate, which houses the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, the Ringlings’ Ca d’Zan mansion, the Asolo State Theater and Tibbals Learning Center. The museum, mansion and theater reflect the Italian Renaissance architecture Ringling adored. The Tibbals Learning Center contains the Ringling Museum of the American Circus, the first museum to document the circus and its rich heritage.

The Tibbals Ringling Museum of the American Circus

The museum houses original memorabilia such as posters, rare handbills and written records that parallel American history. Personal artifacts from the homes of P.T. Barnum show photographs of dwarf couple General Tom and his wife Lavinia, and newspaper clippings that date back to 1816. Other displays include original circus wagons, costumes and personal artifacts belonging to clowns long gone but forever remembered. The Tumbling & Twisting Talents Under the Big Top is an exhibition of posters and ephemera that illustrate some of the fascinating feats accomplished by the circus’ ground acts.

The museum’s signature exhibit is its 3,800-square-foot miniature circus, carefully constructed over more than 50 years by master builder and philanthropist Howard Tibbals. His Howard Bros. Circus Model is a replica of The Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1919-1938. Its miniature circus grounds are built to scale and contain eight main tents, 152 wagons, 1,300 performers and workers and more than 800 animals, as well as a 59-car train.

Tour Circus Memories around the Town

The city of Sarasota and its islands bear Ringling’s mark nearly everywhere. Several streets, avenues and plazas bear the Ringling name. Having bought property off the mainland on Longboat and St. Armand’s keys, Ringling used his elephants to construct Sarasota’s first bridge across the bay. Today it bears his name as the John Ringling Causeway. St. Armand’s Circle, a collection of boutiques and restaurants, features Ringling’s statue. A Circus Ring of Fame at the center of the shopping center serves as a “Who’s Who” of circus performers, both living and dead. In January of each year, circus elite travel from all over the world to celebrate new inductees.

To get an overview of these people and places that helped shape America’s Circus City, hop aboard Sarasota’s Big Top Tours for two hours of mesmerizing “transportainment.”

Driver guide Toby “Circus” Ballantine, dressed in full clown regalia in front of a brightly colored bus, beckons the curious to climb aboard his mini-bus as circus calliope music plays in the background. Ballantine is a veritable encyclopedia of circus facts and folklore who introduces guests to such landmarks as Sarasota’s Circus Ring of Fame, the Ringling & Barnum winter quarters, the historic Sarasota Opera house where Cecile B. DeMille’s 1952 Hollywood blockbuster The Greatest Show on Earth made its world premiere, and an original circus train that includes Ringling’s private railroad car. Throughout the tour, Ballantine offers tantalizing stories about circus folk while performing magic tricks for the kids.

Two locations on Florida’s Southwest coast served as winter grounds for circus folks in need of a respite. From 1927 to 1959, the city of Sarasota dedicated 155 acres in exchange for free advertising in the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus programs. Ringling’s Winter Quarters became one of the first tourist attractions in the country, attracting 100,000 visitors per season by 1940. In 1958, Ringling moved the winter quarters just down the road to Venice. Today, the Tito Gaona Flying Trapeze Park at the Venice Circus Arena offers classes for kids ages 8 to 14 providing training in the art of the trapeze.

The Show Lives On

Two working circuses still call Sarasota home. Circus Sarasota is a resident one-ring European-style circus that performs each February under its mammoth 139-foot tent. Sailor Circus is the oldest continually run youth circus, training young performers from grades 3 through 12, who work an average of 20 hours a week after school to perfect their circus skills, which include everything from aerial acts to fire eating. Founded in 1949, the Sailor Circus performs two seasons each year, one in December and the other during the spring.

Today’s live entertainment landscape may include digital screens, laser lighting and state-of-the-art sound, but the Greatest Show on Earth lives on in Sarasota for those whose inner child yearns for the big top and its timeless charms.

Banner image by Claudio Kirner.


*Some of the information in this older article may be outdated.

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