The Ringling Circus Museum, Sarasota FL

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.

And yes, it was beautiful.

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.

It was determined that the girls would spend the day at the beach while the boys would head in to visit the Ringling Circus Museum on the grounds of John and Mabel Ringling’s mansion and estate.

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.

The Circus Museum was built on the grounds in 1948.

There was lots of cool circus stuff to look at.

The Zacchini’s are the pre-eminent shot-out-of-a-cannon guys in the circus world. This is their first cannon. Nah, not me, thanks.

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 train yard outside town.

Factories along the tracks.

Work horses being unloaded. They will take the equipment wagons off the 120 flatcars and pull them to the show site.

Equipment wagons in the "back yard" where the crew and performers live out of sight of the visitors.

Tents for practicing and getting ready for the show.

More "back yard".

The Commissary.

Truck maintenance tent. The trucks also travelled on the flat cars with the wagons.

The paying customers begin to arrive for the show.

The Midway

The Sideshows with the various freaks and geeks.

Filing in to the main tent. And yes, that’s a urinal you see there. The lady’s room is across the way. (With a line waiting to get in. Talk about realism.)

The performer’s entrance to the main tent.

The show.

Three rings, of course.

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.

Very "Downton Abbey" with a huge veranda overlooking Sarasota Bay. It’s heyday was about the same time, around WWI, as the PBS show.

There was a lot of money in circuses in those days, but then came the crash and the following depression washed it all away.

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1 Response to The Ringling Circus Museum, Sarasota FL

  1. Ken Sinick says:

    Jeff, Enjoyed this blog on the Circus Museum. Coincidentally the Circus just visited Raleigh and all the Sinick’s went and had a great time. No more three rings going at one time – just one and it makes it much easier to focus – especially for us /mature/ folk. Nice to be out of MA this time of the year – you’re lookin pretty smart! K

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