Ninety years ago, John Ringling, the last of the five brothers who established the family circus, made the decision to move the winter quarters of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Sarasota. This move changed the cultural climate of Sarasota by linking the town’s growth and prosperity to that great American entertainment institution—the Ringling circus.
John Ringling’s Vision for Sarasota
In 1909, John and Mable Ringling travelled from Tampa to Sarasota to visit friends. Far different from the more populated and established areas of the west coast, Sarasota boasted of 840 inhabitants in 1910.
John and Mable acquired their winter home in Sarasota in 1912. Over the next few years, John, as well as his brother Charles, began to actively acquire property on the mainland and Keys with the vision of developing a tourist resort
To promote the town, advertisements for Sarasota were included in the circus program book, which was read by millions. A specially designed Strobridge poster was distributed at the Madison Square Garden in 1924 to entice people to visit the town.
In December 1926, Charles Ringling died and, in 1927, the Florida land boom collapsed. With the economic down turn, John Ringling made the decision that forever linked Ringling, circus, and Sarasota together: he moved the winter quarters to support the local economy. The Sarasota Herald proclaimed the event as the “most startling and important announcement ever made in the history of Sarasota.”
The Circus Comes to Sarasota
On the site of Sarasota County’s fair grounds, the winter quarters encompassed over 150 acres. The City of Sarasota collected no taxes on the property in exchange for advertising space in circus programs. John Ringling envisioned that winter quarters could be more than just preparing the show for the next season—“the cocoon from which the Greatest Show on Earth emerges in its might and splendor each spring,” as the circus promoter would write— he saw it as an opportunity to create a major tourist attraction. Fred Bradna, equestrian director for the show, related John Ringling’s vision and his dreams for Sarasota:
“Mr. John expanded, ‘…I’ll lay out the quarters like a zoo, and thousands of visitors will pay to see it. I’ll build an open-air arena exactly the size of Madison Square Garden, and on Sunday the acts can practice before an audience. People will pay to watch the rehearsals – they’ll think they’re getting in on something special. Sarasota will become one of the most beautiful cities in Florida.’”
On Christmas Day, 1927, the winter quarters opened its doors and, over the years, hundreds of thousands of “children of all ages” came to Sarasota to visit the home of the “Big One.” Prior to Disney, it was one of the top tourist attractions in the state.
Staff and performers began to make their homes in Sarasota and became a part of the fabric of the community. The circus giant would take classes at the Ringling Art School and play on the basketball team. Performers practiced on the local beaches, the dwarfs and midgets would have their own bowling team, and, in the evenings, the howls of wild animals filled the night air.
After John Ringling’s death in 1936, the Ringling show was overseen by various individuals and family members. Finally, John Ringling North gained control of the family business and placed his mark on the circus by bringing in established artists – such as John Murray Anderson, Miles White, Balanchine and Stravinsky -- to create a modern look to the show.
While the suggestion of a movie about the Ringling circus had been proposed in the 1930s, Cecil B. DeMille captured the attention of John North when he expressed his interest in making a film. In 1949, DeMille travelled with the show. The result was the film The Greatest Show on Earth. Filming was done at winter quarters and the circus parade went down Main Street. Hollywood came to Sarasota. Local residents were used as extras. The entire Ringling circus provided the authenticity and performers stood in as stunt doubles. While not perhaps the greatest movie ever made, it was the highest grossing film of the year and won the Oscar for best picture.
The Circus Beyond Ringling
In December 1959, it was announced that the winter quarters would move south from Sarasota to Venice. The Sarasota quarters closed down; equipment not relocated was destroyed or donated to museums. In 1967, the Ringling show was sold to Judge Hofheinz, Israel and Irvin Feld.
In 1968, Irvin Feld established Clown College. After visiting clown alley, Feld realized that the age and the small number of show clowns had to be augmented – he commented that “I know they can fall down, but I don’t know if these guys can get up.” Clown College created the next generation of comic performers, as well fulfilling the clown needs of the two units of the Ringling circus. The program was a publicity bonanza for the show and placed Venice, Florida, on the National map. Over 1400 individuals went through the rigorous program, which ended with a 3 hour graduation ceremony that was, in fact, an audition for a place on one of the two circus units. Irvin Feld died in 1984; his son, Kenneth Feld, took leadership of the show and has grown the Feld company into the world’s largest producer of live, family entertainment.
On January 14, 2017, Kenneth Feld announced that, “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey will hold its final performances in May of this year.” This stunning announcement was picked up by media outlets all over the world. The Ringling circus that survived train wrecks, blow downs, strikes and fires, would cease after 146 years. The circus community responded to the news with shock, sadness and disbelief.
The Show Goes On!
While the greatest center ring brand will stop in May, the deep roots of the circus and its enduring legacy will remain in Sarasota– at places like St. Martha’s Roman Catholic Church. It can be seen at the Showfolks Club of Sarasota, where generations of performers gather and at St. Armand Circle’s Ring of Fame, where the great circus personalities – human and animal – are annually honored with plaques. Farms in Myakka house trained horses, bears, and elephants; the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary provide a home for big cats and other animals. There are trailer parks with names like Circus City and Karl Wallenda. There is the Ringling Causeway, Ringling Blvd, and the Ringling College. There is even a Big Top Brewery, as well as Bob’s Train – a restaurant in a former Ringling train car filled with circus memorabilia.
And there is the Circus Arts Conservatory founded by Pedro Reis and Dolly Jacobs, circus performers. Here, today’s living circus reaches into the community through outreach to children and the elderly and through educational programs, such as the Sailor Circus Academy, the oldest youth circus in America.
Another place where the relationship between Ringling, Sarasota, and the circus is celebrated is at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. The draw of visitors to the winter quarters was not lost on the first director of The Ringling, A. Everett Austin, who in 1948 established on the grounds the first museum in America to document the history of the circus.
Amidst all the present changes, the report of the circus’s “death has been greatly exaggerated”. There is a growing interest in the circus arts and its cultural connections and importance. In 2015, Dolly Jacobs was awarded the NEA National Heritage Fellowship, the first circus performer ever to be so honored. The 2017 Smithsonian Folklife Festival will feature the circus arts and youth circuses are expanding throughout the country and internationally.
The circus from its beginning has always been a changing and evolving institution. While the Ringling show will close, the circus will continue because it celebrates “the daring and indomitability of the human spirit”. It will also continue to play a part in the cultural life in Sarasota for generations to come.
--Written by Deborah Walk, Assistant Director of Legacy and Circus