In Search of Circus

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  • February 12, 2008

by Karen Feld

When my father, Irvin Feld, and his partners purchased Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1967, it was the first time in a century that the show had been out of the Ringling family. The symbolic transfer of ownership was staged in the ancient Coliseum in Rome, where John Ringling North, who had been running the show, presented me with a tiger cub. As an animal lover, I was disappointed that I couldn’t take the cub home with me.

Instead, for my fill of all things circus, I visited the Sarasota area each December to watch the Ringling show rehearse for the upcoming season at its headquarters in nearby Venice. Not having been back in years, I returned to the area this fall. While the actual circus has moved, what I found was a place where circus lives on proudly.

Ringling’s Vision

Sarasota’s claim as the “the circus capital of the world” is undisputed. The city represents the culmination of the vision of legendary circus impresario John Ringling, who settled in the mid-1920s in what was then a tranquil fishing and farming village. His vision helped transform the area, which became associated with every aspect of the circus. His “house” would be the first stop on my visit.

When I walk through the pink Venetian-gothic gate to John and Mable Ringling’s estate, I am reminded that it takes a full day or two to explore the museum complex, which includes much more than a world-class art collection. The museum reflects the personal worldview of Ringling, one of the world’s greatest showmen, combining both visual and performing arts.

One all-inclusive ticket got me access to the restored Asolo Theater; the 21-gallery art museum (the official State Art Museum of Florida, which houses Ringling’s collection of Baroque paintings as well as traveling exhibits); the restored Ca’ d’Zan mansion (“House of John,” in Venetian dialect) overlooking Sarasota Bay; and the circus museum, which was established in 1948, all set on 66 landscaped acres. The grounds include Mable’s Rose Garden with more than 1,200 varieties.

Hearing familiar calliope music, I enter the year-old, tent-shaped Tibbals Learning Center, which is devoted to an overview of circus history. It contains original circus posters, memorabilia of historic circus moments and the centerpiece, a 45,000-piece miniature replica of the 1930s golden age of the circus in America.
Memories come flooding back when I see famed Ringling clown Lou Jacobs’ tiny car, hobo clown Emmett Kelley’s props, Harold Ronk’s ringmaster costume, the Zacchini cannon and the Wallenda high-wire platform.

The replica includes 55 railroad cars, 130 wagons, 1,500 people, 200 animals, eight tents and 7,000 individual folding chairs, providing a detailed view of the behind-the-scenes logistics of presenting a circus and moving it around the country. Once exhibited at the Knoxville World’s Fair, the interactive exhibit has lighting and sound effects, all built by circus enthusiast and historian Howard Tibbals, who donated $6.5 million to make the center happen.

Geared for families, youngsters can design their own circus wagon, and audio tours are available. Upstairs, as I trace circus history from ancient Greece and Rome to the modern-day Big Apple Circus and Cirque du Soleil, and I see how costumes, clowns and venues have changed over the years.

Next is the museum’s original circus museum building, which depicts circus history in Sarasota, including a rare collection of Fred Glasier’s vintage (1890 to 1920) photos from the Ringling back lot, shot with glass plates. I find a circus backyard filled with original wagons including “The Five Graces,” which was built in 1878 and is the oldest bandwagon still
in existence.

Exaggeration has long been a distinguishing attribute of the “Greatest Show on Earth,” but the only circus poster withdrawn because it contained an actual lie hangs on the museum wall. The 1901 poster depicts a giraffe with the words, “The only giraffe known to exist in the entire world.” This poster is one of only three known to have survived.

Memories come flooding back when I see famed Ringling clown Lou Jacobs’ tiny car, hobo clown Emmett Kelley’s props, Harold Ronk’s ringmaster costume, the Zacchini cannon and the Wallenda high-wire platform. Each one tells a personal story, as those were the circus icons and families I knew when I was growing up.

Ringling, City Planner

I drive out John Ringling Boulevard to St. Armands Circle and its Circus Ring of Fame, which was created in 1988. A short drive from downtown, St. Armands is on Lido Key, and is reached via a new bridge that gives me a sweeping view of Sarasota Bay. There, I find wagon-wheel plaques around the circle honoring Sarasota residents past and present including P.T. Barnum, the five Ringling brothers, Clyde Beatty, ringmaster Merle Evans and Jackie Le Claire. An engaging veteran of Ringling Clown Alley known as “the Ambassador of Mirth,” Le Claire was the stunt double for Cornel Wilde in the 1952 Oscar-winning film “The Greatest Show on Earth”, which was shot in Sarasota. He still lives in Sarasota, as do other performers who discovered the city when their traveling shows wintered there.

It’s appropriate that the Ring of Fame is at St. Armands, as the area was planned by Ringling. While you’re at St. Armands, make sure you set aside some time for shopping –- the circle is ringed by tony shops and one-of-a-kind boutiques. Grabbing a bite to eat is difficult only because there are so many restaurants to choose from, including the venerable Columbia Restaurant and many smaller places, from fancy to family-friendly.

Live Circus Lives

When the Ringling show closed its winter quarters in Venice in 1992 after 30 years, it was the first time the show had been out of Sarasota County since 1927. But the show was definitely not over. Sarasota is still home to the Royal Hanneford Circus, The Great American Circus, Royal American Circus, Circus Maranatha, Sterling and Reid Circus and Walker Bros. Circus. Many local circus performers are members of Showfolks, an organization that hosts an annual circus and keeps Sarasota’s circus families connected. While the Ringling is no longer in Venice, locals inspired by the life of the late trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams built a statue in his honor in 2005. It sits at the old Venice train depot, now home to the Venice Historical Society.

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