Betty and I were invited to Florida in the dead of winter by our old friends Donna and Mike, so one frozen Sunday morning we happily flew off to their beautiful home in Venice and those 70° temperatures.
I was especially taken with the "pool cages" that everyone seemed to have erected around their patios and pools. It keeps out the local bugs and critters so that you can enjoy the out of doors anytime, day or night. Their "local critters" included an alligator (about 6 foot?) living in the retention pond in their back yard.
Donna and Mike, our gracious hosts, couldn’t imaging living anywhere else.
Since our mutual longtime friends Cathy and Joe were escaping the snow in the next town over, we were able to all get together and plan a couple of outings over a glass or two of wine.
The next morning, we boys (Me, Joe, and Kenny and Richie, who were traveling with Joe), pulled up at the Museum in Sarasota, which was surprisingly large and crowded. We had to park about a half mile from the entrance and follow the parade of older folks to the ticket office.
(As an aside, one reason Florida is cool is it’s one of the few remaining places where I can feel I’m not so old, if only relatively. I will refrain, however, from any snotty remarks about walkers, canes and oxygen bottles as you never knows what the future will bring, do you?)
The opulent estate, with its mansion and art museum, was built over about twenty years in the early 20th century. This was the the tail end of the "Golden Age of the Circus" when Ringling Brothers owned every travelling show in America and John was rolling in dough. After the Crash of 1929, his fortune was gone, the circus’s heyday was past and he gave the entire estate to Florida in 1936 when he died with $311 to his name. Sounds like the state may have exerted a bit of tax leverage on John but he fooled them by dying.
But the best part of the museum was their ginormous diorama of a 1920s circus visiting a mid-sized town.
Now if you know me, I’m a total sucker for scale models of virtually anything and the sheer scope and meticulous detail of this layout just blew me away.
Looking at the spectators behind the glass to the left and right will give an appreciation of the size of the model. This is about one eighth of the total presentation.
The circus, with three trains totaling 120 rail cars, would do 150 or more shows per year. Only about 20 of those shows would run for more than one day, so the entire entourage, with several thousand staff, would reach town after midnight, unload and set everything up, hold a parade around noon, shows in the afternoon and evening, tear everything down and repack onto the trains and be gone overnight. An almost completely self-contained (they prearranged for local food and fuel) traveling extravaganza.
Often, schools would be empty on the days the circus came to town as parents took the kids to the once a year spectacle. I can now understand the old trope about "running away to join the circus". The temptation to trade an ordinary life in Podunk for an exciting life on the road as part of something like the traveling circus must have been hard for the small town adolescent to resist.
Oh and the mansion was pretty cool, too.