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Sarasota forever tied to Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus

| Sunday, July 12, 2009

SARASOTA, Fla. — Sarasota and the circus became forever linked more than 70 years ago when John Ringling decided to move the headquarters of his "Greatest Show on Earth" to the lovely Gulf Coast city where he spent his winters.

"No announcement ever made in Florida has meant more to the state as a whole," gushed the Sarasota Herald on March 23, 1927. News of Ringling's decision to transfer the show's winter quarters from Bridgeport, Conn., the newspaper said, created a "jubilant air" in town.

The Sarasota winter quarters of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus opened to paying visitors on Christmas Day that year and quickly became one of Florida's first tourist attractions.

One of the five brothers who turned a small traveling circus into an international entertainment empire, John Ringling already knew Sarasota well by then. He and his wife, Mable, had spent winters here for two decades and built an opulent 30-room mansion on Sarasota Bay. A museum to house their extensive art collection was in the works.

The art gallery complex — now home to the mesmerizing Museum of the American Circus — and the Ringlings' meticulously restored Mediterranean Revival homestead, are the marquee stops on Sarasota's Circus Heritage Trail, which ties together for the first time the bits and pieces of the big-top history so richly woven into the fabric of the region.

Circus aficionados also will want to see downtown Sarasota, featured prominently in Cecil B. DeMille's epic 1952 film "The Greatest Show on Earth," and the Edwards Theatre (now called the Florida Theatre) where it premiered to great fanfare. Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey performers of the day were featured in the movie alongside Charlton Heston and James Stewart, and 3,000 local residents were used as extras.

Around the glitzy St. Armands Circle shopping complex, legendary showpeople have been honored with plaques on the Circus Ring of Fame. About a third of the performers featured are still living, and many reside in the Sarasota area.

St. Martha's Catholic Church is known as "the church the circus built," as annual benefit performances by circus performers throughout the late 1930s helped finance the construction of the present building. Many circus families still attend, and a special circus mass is conducted each January.

The winter quarters of the Ringling circus moved 45 minutes south to Venice in 1960 and then up to Tampa in 1992, mostly because of issues related to the railroad lines that still carry the show around the country to this day. But Sarasota remains home to at least a half dozen smaller circuses.

The youth-oriented Police Athletic League Sailor Circus performs locally, as does Circus Sarasota, the nonprofit professional resident circus that draws audiences from all over the country for its shows every February. Showfolks, an organization of past and present circus families who live in the area, puts on a performance every December.

Visitors should pencil in the better part of a day to see the Ringling complex, especially the circus museum. Inside, there are costumes, posters and memorabilia galore, ranging from Emmett Kelly's famous "hobo" clown costume and the Zachinni human cannon to the beautiful hand-carved "Five Graces" bandwagon, which led the traditional Ringing Bros. circus parades of yesteryear drawn by no less than 40 horses. Built in 1878, it is the world's oldest existing circus wagon.

Photos and newspaper clippings commemorate significant events in the history of the circus, such as July 15, 1956, in Pittsburgh: the last Ringling Bros. show under the big-top tent. The circus has been staged in arenas every year since.

Nothing there is as jaw-dropping as the incredible miniature circus that covers much of the first floor of a new museum building. Howard Tibbals, a circus fanatic since childhood, carved by hand most of the 1 million pieces that depict the elephantine task of staging a traveling circus in the 1920s and '30s.

The project was a 50-year labor of love for the 72-year-old Tibbals, the retired head of a successful flooring company. His $6 million donation to the Ringling museum ensured a permanent home for his creation, which has been exhibited at a World's Fair, the National Geographic Museum in Washington and other museums.

Built in three-quarter-inch scale and sprawling over 3,800 square feet, the sensory overload includes 55 rail cars, 850 feet of track, 130 wagons, 1,500 circus performers and workers, 3,000 customers, 925 animals, a sideshow, midway and a 950-square-foot big top tent at the center. The detail is so astonishing, kids and adults alike will want to linger to take it all in.

"There are so many retired circus people in the area, they get tears in their eyes when they see this," says Larry Kellogg, a former Ringling circus publicist who helped develop the circus heritage trail map, which is available through the Sarasota visitors bureau or on its Web site.

Other notable stops on the self-guided tour include the Ringling College of Art and Design, the art school established in an abandoned hotel John Ringling bought for back taxes; a life-sized bronze statue in Venice of legendary animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, who made his home there; and Venice's Circus Bridge, named in honor of the circus animals and equipment that paraded across from the train yard at the winter quarters each year from 1960-92.

Additional Information:

If you go

MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN CIRCUS: At the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota; or 941-359-5700. Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Admission: $25; $20 for senior citizens; $10 for college students and children age 6-17; free for children age 5 and younger.

SARASOTA CIRCUS HERITAGE TRAIL: Web site. Sites on the self-guided tour of the region's circus history include the Ringling mansion, downtown Sarasota and the Florida Theatre, Circus Ring of Fame at St. Armands Circle, St. Martha's Catholic Church, Ringling College of Art and Design, Gunther Gebel-Williams statue and Venice's Circus Bridge. Sarasota is about 60 miles south of Tampa, served by the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and the Tampa International Airport.

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