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 & 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 region's big-top history.
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.
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 current 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. But Sarasota remains home to at least a half-dozen smaller circuses.
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 ever 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 a traveling circus of the 1920s and '30s. The project was a 50-year labor of love for the 72-year-old Tibbals, the retired head of a flooring company. His $6 million donation to the Ringling museum ensured a permanent home for his creation.
Built in 3/4-inch scale and sprawling over 3,800 square feet, it 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 astonishing.
"There are so many retired circus people in the area, they get tears in their eyes when they see this," said Larry Kellogg, a former Ringling circus publicist who helped develop the circus heritage trail map, 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. *