If you’re as old as I am, when you hear the word circus, you recall the sounds of the midway and the calliope; the smells of elephants, camels, and horses in the menagerie. Close your eyes and see again the aerialists high above the center ring, the midget doing tricks on horseback, and Weary Willie sweeping up a spot of light.
In my winter trip to Florida, we visited The Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, and I was again a wide-eyed, ten year old, clutching at my father’s hand (he was always trying to keep track of me) and chowing down on blue cotton candy. Circus was a part of my youth as much as it was part of America’s youth.
The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus did not emerge on the American scene as the giant it was. It was an amalgam of circuses. Remember, before TV, movies, smart phones and computers, the traveling circus was the principal form of entertainment.
In the 1840s, the John Robinson Circus toured the south. It was first leased by the Ringlings in 1898 and, after several turbulent decades, purchased outright in 1929, beginning the path to the Greatest Show on Earth.
The Barnum & Bailey Circus was unchallenged as the major American circus of the 1890s. In 1896, Bailey joined W.W. Cole and two brothers of the Sells-Floto Circus to create the Adam Forepaugh & Sells Bros Circus. Bailey acquired full ownership in 1905 but died unexpectedly a year later. Without his leadership, the remaining managers sold out to the Ringling brothers in 1908. After the Ringlings purchased the circus, they operated theirs and the Barnum & Bailey separately until 1918. The death of two Ringlings in 1911 and 1916, along with the impact of World War I, made managing two giant shows untenable.
In 1919, the two circuses were combined as the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Show — The Greatest Show on Earth. The circus traveled on two trains, made up of 40 passenger cars and 20 freight cars, from city to city. It was set up under portable tents (we know the main one as the Big Top) until 1956. After that, it played in sports stadia and arenas. In 1967, the Feld brothers bought the circus from the Ringing family. But declining audiences and high operating costs hammered away, making it impossible to maintain as a viable business.
In May 2017, after 146 years, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus pack up the big top for the last time.
But you — as we did — can relive the wonder and excitement of the circus in Sarasota at the Ringling Circus museum and the grounds that once were the circus’ winter quarters.
In 1948, Everett Austin, the first director of the John & Mable Ringing Museum of Art — Ringling and his wife were avid collectors — established the adjoining circus museum. It consists of two buildings. One, in the an octagonal shape mimicking the Big Top, houses circus memorabilia. The other contains a 3,800-square-foot model of the circus, which operated during the Golden Age of Circuses. It is the first museum in the country to document the history of the American circus.
In the first building, there are wagons, posters, costumes, and a recreation of the backlot with a blacksmith and harness maker, a dressing room, and a mess hall — promoted as “The little known world behind the magic of the Big Top.” Seeing it reminds me the magic I experienced 60 years ago was really the result of a lot of hard work by hundreds of people, who devoted their lives and energy to making it happen as flawlessly as possible.
Among the exhibits is a ticket wagon, built in 1911. From its windows, sellers dispensed as many as 10,000 tickets on a typical day. It also doubled as the office from which as many as 1,200 people were directed to accomplish the myriad tasks of stageing the circus.
There are other wagons representative of the hundreds used by the circus over its lifetime — among them the 1902 Griffin wagon with scenes of Venice painted on its sides. It served as a bandwagon.
The single largest display in the building is the private railroad car of John and Mable Ringling. The 79-foot-long car, named Wisconsin after the founding home of the circus, has three sleeping compartments, dining room, kitchen, and observation room. The Ringlings operated the circus from this car for 11 years.
Next door, the Tibbals Learning Center houses the miniature circus. It is a three-quarter scale model incorporating more than 44,000 pieces replicating the 1919 – 1938 Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows.
The model is the life’s work of circus historian and model builder, Howard Tibbals, who began construction in 1956. He used historic photos and other documents as well as meticulous measurements of original wagons to craft his model. His dedication to ensure accuracy, for example, entailed 18 years to complete the Big Top.
The Big Top model depicts nearly 100 artists performing simultaneously in 21 different acts, unlike the actual circus where only a few acts performed in three rings at any one time. A close look shows the “Great Wallendas” walking the high wire above the center ring, where Lou Jacobs, the famous clown, also squeezes out his miniature car to amazes us with his antics.
When we had absorbed all we could of the circus, we toured the rest of the estate. The art museum displays a broad collection of work by Rubens and other Baroque artists, an interesting collection of Asian art, a 19th century cast of Michelangelo’s16th century sculpture of David, and an abstract interactive piece of thousands of hanging ribbons. To my dismay, there was but one painting from the Impressionist period (my favorite) and that a Cézanne.
Also on the estate are Mable Ringling’s extensive and beautiful rose gardens with multiple sculptures and Cád’zan, Italian for House of John. This is the Venetian Gothic winter residence of the Ringlings. Completed in 1926 at a cost of $1.5 million, the 36,000-square-foot house is covered with pink stucco and terra cotta and embellished with glazed tile medallions, balustrades, and ornamental cresting in soft red, yellow, green, blue, and ivory.
By the end of the day, we were satiated with the lure of the circus and the history of the Ringlings. The large estate ensured flagging energy and tired feet, but — ensconced in the Banyan Cafe afterwards for rejuvenating refreshments — we all decided it was well worth the effort. And I was not alone in reminiscences of circus days of yesteryear.