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Circus & Sarasota

There is no other area of North America that can compare with Sarasota in providing circus history, information and culture. John Ringling not only was responsible for this history, but for also creating much of what makes up the Sarasota area today. To have visited Sarasota and to not avail yourself to this circus history is an oversight in need of correction. For those who have experienced some of this history we hope to provide you more information and locations to visit and allow your own personal memories of the circus to be enhanced and enlightened by the following information. A recent Sarasota skywalk by Nik Wallenda a sixth generation of the famous Wallenda high-wire circus performing family.

The history of the circus predates the United States, but no other country had ever taken the circus to the level of entertainment and expertise that makes up the history of the circus in the United States and no other county in this country may lay claim to the rich circus heritage, the abundance of famed circus families, or being the home of as many circuses as Sarasota, Florida. As America's number one Circus City, Sarasota and Her Islands earned the rightful title as Home of the American Circus.
We will start our information on Sarasota Circus History by crediting John and Charles Ringling for the tremendous growth and development of the Sarasota area with their decision in 1927 to establish a 155-acre Circus Winter Quarters for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. This decision attracted circus families and circus-related businesses from the world over and was a dominant social and economic force in Sarasota County for more than a half-century. In addition I must credit the Sarasota Tourist Development Council publishing of Sarasota's Circus Heritage Guide where much of the information on this page was taken from. Additionally much credit for this brochure goes to the late Bob Ardren who was a talented reporter for the local Pelican Press and worked for the Ringling Museum for many years previous to his newspaper days. Thanks Bob for helping to make the history of the Circus in Sarasota available to all of us. Your legacy as a good reporter is no better stated than by those who are educated and informed by your endeavors after your demise. You did good Bob Ardren!

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is a wonderful place to start our online page on the circus in Sarasota. Located on the Ringling estate at the end of University Road at Tamiami Trail you will find the Ringling Museum of Art to be even more enchanting and educational if you avail yourself to a docent tour for your first visit to the Ringling Museum. One can not fully grasp the depth and Ringling history that makes up so much of this museum, the grounds and the City of Sarasota. Your docent tour will also guarantee that you will return again and again to the Ringling Museum to enjoy the Ringling's vast internationally recognized personal collection of internationally recognized collection of works by such masters as Rubens, Poussin, Hals, Van Dyck plus an extensive art library. Designed in the Italian Renaissance style, the art museum features a large interior courtyard surrounded on three sides by loggias. A bronze cast replica of Michelangelo's David overlooks the courtyard- One of only two exact replicas known to exist outside of Florence, Italy. Courtyard Concerts are regularly held on the grounds of the museum along with special exhibits that are featured at the Ringling Museum when on tour. We strongly encourage availing yourselves to the special events by subscribing to updates from the Ringling through this link. An even better idea for local residents and snowbirds along with regulars visitors to the Sarasota area is a membership to the Ringling.

The Ringling Circus Museum has on exhibition personal memorabilia from famous Sarasota-based circus artists, including clowns Lou Jacobs and Emmett Kelly, animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, the famous Flying Wallendas and the Zacchini Cannon. Also on display are circus props, wardrobe and original parade and baggage. The first floor of the Circus Museum's Tibbals Learning Center is home to the Howard Bros. Circus Model-the largest miniature circus in the world-built by master model builder Howard C. Tibbals. Also on display are over 5,700 antique circus posters. The second floor features the Circus in America, an interactive exhibit depicting the colorful history of the American Circus. You will find the Ringling Circus Museum to be a fascinating experience for all ages and all will leave this multifaceted exhibit with a true appreciation and understanding of the circus than they ever had before. Just outside of the Ringling Circus Museum is the Banyan Cafe with well presented tasty food and beverage. Lunch at the Banyon will keep your energy level charged for your full day at the Ringling.

The Wisconsin Rail Car along with actual circus memorabilia that were so important to support the ability for the American Circus to travel from town with their large staff of performers, circus workers and maintance support for both the people and the property items that make up "The Circus Coming to Town. The reality of what was and to a large extent still is involved in producing a performance will boggle your mind.

Visit the Circus Museum to view the original private train car in which John and Mable Ringling traveled, criss-crossing the country. Built during the golden age of rail when the railroad's cultural influence was at its peak, the Wisconsin car provides a unique insight into the splendid travel accommodations that the Ringling's enjoyed on their travels. John Ringling purchased the 79-foot car from the Pullman Company in 1905 and named it for the Ringling family's home state. The private car transported the Ringling's back and forth between New York and Sarasota from 1905 - 1916, The car is a true icon of a gilded age entrepreneur. Visitors at this time will be able to actually observe the craftsman performing their magic as they slowly, but carefully restore the Wisconsin to become a permanent display for all to enjoy. You will actually observe workers in their work area individually re-creating the detail to apply to the Wisconsin as you walk around on an elevated level and actually witness the meticulous restoration taking place before your eyes.

John and Mable Ringling's Cà d'Zan was built as the winter residence for John and Mable Ringling in the early 1930's and is the centerpiece of this beautiful 66-acre estate. Recognized as a showcase for the Mediterranean Revival style designed by New York architect Dwight James Baum, the opulent mansion boasts 41 rooms, 15 baths, an 8000 sq. ft. marble terrace and dock overlooking Sarasota Bay. The State of Florida has invested over $20,000,000 restoring Cà d'Zan to its original splendor and has uses pains taking detail in returning the Ringling Mansion to it's former glory and stately remembrance of a time that no longer exists. When you tour Cà d'Zan again to make use of a docent tour is an important item as the details that will be provided on the construction of this mansion and destruction of the lives of John and Mable is another fascinating history lesson that is more than interesting, but in fact spell binding.

Third Thursdays, Cocktails at the Cà d'Zan, occur on the 3rd Thursday of every month, 6:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m. These events, held on the terrace of the mansion, allow Museum visitors to enjoy beautiful sunsets on Sarasota Bay, while listening to popular regional bands.

Ringling College of Art and Design John Ringling helped establish and serves the needs of more than 1,000 art students today on it's 35 acre campus. Ringling bought an abandoned hotel for back taxes to create the art school, placing it under the auspices of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and Florida Southern College. The Ringling College of Art & Design became an independent institution in 1933. Today you will find students with easels during the school year working in different areas of the city sketching and drawing Sarasota in their eyes. The works, art and design of Ringling students have become legend with numerous awards, credits and acknowledgments.

Longboat Key, Lido Key, Bird Key and St. Armands Circle were developed when John Ringling purchased vast tracts of land on these outlying Sarasota islands. He also purchased the majestic New Edzell Castle on Bird Key in hopes of luring President Warren Harding to adopt it as his Winter White House. To make the entire area appear more presidential, Ringling named the streets after former presidents and named the circle Harding Circle (later changed to St. Armands Circle). John Ringling designed the street layout and traffic patterns for this island and they all remain the same today.

The Circus Ring of Fame is comprised of a ring of bronze plaques around the St. Armands traffic circle and honors famous circus artists, creating a virtual "Who's Who" of the American circus. About one-third of all Ring members are still living, most of them in the Sarasota area. new members are inducted and their plaques added each January.

Downtown Sarasota primarily credits Charles Ringling for it's development. He was president of the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, founded the Ringling Trust and Savings Bank, donated land for the County Courthouse and built the 125-room Sarasota Hotel that today serves as a county government building. His personal business office was located at 1927 Ringling Boulevard and the Charles and Edith Ringling Estate was built just north of the John and Mable Ringling Estate and is now the administration building of New College of Florida; their daughter Hester's home is now New College's Cook Hall.

Edwards/Florida Theatre and Sarasota Opera House became Sarasota's first performing arts house when it opened in 1926. The name was changed to the Florida Theatre in 1936. It is best remembered as the site of the premier of Cecil B. DeMille's 1952 Academy Award Best Picture of the Year-The Greatest Show on Earth. The building was acquired by the Sarasota Opera in 1979 and in 1997 served as host to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College's final session in 1996.

St. Martha's Catholic Church
200 N. Orange Avenue
Sarasota, Florida 34236

St Martha's is often dubbed as "the church the circus built." After the pastor held a special circus mass and blessed the circus train before its 1934 season, the circus returned his kind gesture with yearly charity performances on the circus grounds. From 1935 through 1941 the circus benefit performances greatly helped to raise enough money to build its present church. Many circus families remain active at St. Martha's. A special circus mass is held each January.

Showfolks and Gibsonton are both about the people and family that make up the Circus. Many active and retired circus performers belong to Showfolks, an organization created to bring together Sarasota's circus families. Social Events are held regulary and Showfolks hosts an annual circus at the Robarts arena on Fruitville Road each December. Gibsonton is a town north of Sarasota and below below Tampa/St. Pete on US 41 (Tamiami Trail) where many of the circus community have made their homes. Gibsonton became a popular winter fishing destination for many carnival and sideshow workers in the 1940s. During this time, Al and Jeanie Tomaini opened a fishing camp and restaurant called "Giant's Fish Camp." Some might call them an atypical match. Al stood at over 8 feet tall while his wife Jeanie was approximately 2 and a half feet tall and toured the carnival sideshow circuit as the "half-woman." But to Jeanie, the size difference was never an issue. Soon after the Tomaini's settled in to town, many carnival folks seeking a sense of community and acceptance, followed. As carnival folk spent more than half of the year on the road and were strangers in every town they passed through, Gibsonton was the natural choice for many carnival folks and the town embraced them, even enacting special zoning laws known as "Residential Business Zoning" which still allow for people to keep show animals and carnival rides and exhibits on their property. Roy Huston, an illusionist and Gibsonton resident says, "It's the only settlement in America classed as RSB: a Residential Business Zone which gives the locals the right to train grizzly bears or store dodgem cars in their gardens."

Venice Winter Quarters replaced Sarasota in 1960 when Ringling's Winter Quarters were moved to Venice after the 1960 season. A new Circus Arena was constructed with steel girders from the Sarasota Winter Quarters buildings and it served as the site of world premiers of each new Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus edition from 1962 through 1992, when the circus was forced to leave Venice due to deteriorating railroad lines into the city.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College was established in the Circus Arena in 1968 and held annual session until 1992, conferring diplomas to almost 1,300 students. Clown College was the world's only school solely dedicated to preserving the art of clowning. Kids can learn to "fly through the air" at the Tito Gaona Flying Trapeze Park at the Circus Arena grounds. Known as one of the greatest trapeze artists in the world, Gaonal offers instruction on the trapeze and other circus arts to kids ages 8 to 14.

On January 6, 1969, Gunther Gebel-Williams made his American debut at the Circus Arean and went on to become recognized as "the greatest animal trainer of all time." Gebel-Williams holds the performance record of appearing in more than 12,000 consecutive shows during his 20-year career. A life-sized bronze statue dedicated to Venice's favorite son is located at the historic Train Depot.

Now Performing

Today two circuses are still actively based and perform in Sarasota, Circus Sarasota and Sailor Circus.

Circus Sarasota is Sarasota's professional resident circus. Founded as a non-proit circus in 1997 by circus aerialists Dolly Jacobs and Pedro Reis to promote circus arts, Circus Sarasota holds annual performances each February, drawing audiences from all over the USA. Its year-round community outreach includes programs at nursing homes and local area schools. Circus Sarasota's calendar of events includes at least two-weeks of performances in Sarasota each year. Nik Wallenda of the famous Wallenda family is featured on the high-wire with this circus.

Sarasota's Sailor Circus is the oldest continuously running youth circus in America. Founded in 1949, Sailor Circus began as an extension of Sarasota High School's gymnastic program. It holds two performance sessions each year, with more than 150 volunteers (many ex-circus performers) donating an estimated 20,000 hours to coach the students. Visitors to Sarasota can purchase tickets to performances during spring break in March and April.

Other circuses that call Sarasota home include the Royal Hanneford Circus, The Great American Circus, Royal American Circus, Circus Maranatha, Sterling and Reid Circus, and the Walker Bros. Circus.

The Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus comes to Sarasota, Florida each year and played Sarasota on January 2nd and 3rd of 2010.