In Search of the Circus

By: Karen Feld

When a child of the circus returns to Sarasota as a visitor, she finds that the legacy of America's circus history isn't confined to museums.

When my father, Irvin Feld, and his partners purchased Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1967, it was the first time in a century that the show had been out of the Ringling family. The symbolic transfer of ownership was staged in the ancient Coliseum in Rome, where John Ringling North, who had been running the show, presented me with a tiger cub. As an animal lover, I was disappointed that I couldn’t take the cub home with me.

Instead, for my fill of all things circus, I visited the Sarasota area each December to watch the Ringling show rehearse for the upcoming season at its headquarters in nearby Venice. Not having been back in years, I returned to the area this fall. While the actual circus has moved, what I found was a place where circus lives on proudly.

Ringling’s Vision

Sarasota’s claim as the “the circus capital of the world” is undisputed. The city represents the culmination of the vision of legendary circus impresario John Ringling, who settled in the mid-1920s in what was then a tranquil fishing and farming village. His vision helped transform the area, which became associated with every aspect of the circus. His “house” would be the first stop on my visit.

When I walk through the pink Venetian-gothic gate to John and Mable Ringling’s estate, I am reminded that it takes a full day or two to explore the museum complex, which includes much more than a world-class art collection. The museum reflects the personal worldview of Ringling, one of the world’s greatest showmen, combining both visual and performing arts.

One all-inclusive ticket got me access to the restored Asolo Theater; the 21-gallery art museum (the official State Art Museum of Florida, which houses Ringling’s collection of Baroque paintings as well as traveling exhibits); the restored Ca’ d’Zan mansion (“House of John,” in Venetian dialect) overlooking Sarasota Bay; and the circus museum, which was established in 1948, all set on 66 landscaped acres. The grounds include Mable’s Rose Garden with more than 1,200 varieties.

Hearing familiar calliope music, I enter the year-old, tent-shaped Tibbals Learning Center, which is devoted to an overview of circus history. It contains original circus posters, memorabilia of historic circus moments and the centerpiece, a 45,000-piece miniature replica of the 1930s golden age of the circus in America.

The replica includes 55 railroad cars, 130 wagons, 1,500 people, 200 animals, eight tents and 7,000 individual folding chairs, providing a detailed view of the behind-the-scenes logistics of presenting a circus and moving it around the country. Once exhibited at the Knoxville World’s Fair, the interactive exhibit has lighting and sound effects, all built by circus enthusiast and historian Howard Tibbals, who donated $6.5 million to make the center happen.

Geared for families, youngsters can design their own circus wagon, and audio tours are available. Upstairs, as I trace circus history from ancient Greece and Rome to the modern-day Big Apple Circus and Cirque du Soleil, and I see how costumes, clowns and venues have changed over the years.

Next is the museum’s original circus museum building, which depicts circus history in Sarasota, including a rare collection of Fred Glasier’s vintage (1890 to 1920) photos from the Ringling back lot, shot with glass plates. I find a circus backyard filled with original wagons including “The Five Graces,” which was built in 1878 and is the oldest bandwagon still
in existence.

Exaggeration has long been a distinguishing attribute of the “Greatest Show on Earth,” but the only circus poster withdrawn because it contained an actual lie hangs on the museum wall. The 1901 poster depicts a giraffe with the words, “The only giraffe known to exist in the entire world.” This poster is one of only three known to have survived.

Memories come flooding back when I see famed Ringling clown Lou Jacobs’ tiny car, hobo clown Emmett Kelley’s props, Harold Ronk’s ringmaster costume, the Zacchini cannon and the Wallenda high-wire platform. Each one tells a personal story, as those were the circus icons and families I knew when I was growing up.

Ringling, City Planner

I drive out John Ringling Boulevard to St. Armands Circle and its Circus Ring of Fame, which was created in 1988. A short drive from downtown, St. Armands is on Lido Key, and is reached via a new bridge that gives me a sweeping view of Sarasota Bay. There, I find wagon-wheel plaques around the circle honoring Sarasota residents past and present including P.T. Barnum, the five Ringling brothers, Clyde Beatty, ringmaster Merle Evans and Jackie Le Claire. An engaging veteran of Ringling Clown Alley known as “the Ambassador of Mirth,” Le Claire was the stunt double for Cornel Wilde in the 1952 Oscar-winning film “The Greatest Show on Earth”, which was shot in Sarasota. He still lives in Sarasota, as do other performers who discovered the city when their traveling shows wintered there.

It’s appropriate that the Ring of Fame is at St. Armands, as the area was planned by Ringling. While you’re at St. Armands, make sure you set aside some time for shopping –- the circle is ringed by tony shops and one-of-a-kind boutiques. Grabbing a bite to eat is difficult only because there are so many restaurants to choose from, including the venerable Columbia Restaurant and many smaller places, from fancy to family-friendly.

Live Circus Lives

When the Ringling show closed its winter quarters in Venice in 1992 after 30 years, it was the first time the show had been out of Sarasota County since 1927. But the show was definitely not over. Sarasota is still home to the Walker Bros. Circus, and many local circus performers are members of Showfolks, an organization that hosts an annual circus and keeps Sarasota’s circus families connected. While the Ringling is no longer in Venice, locals inspired by the life of the late trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams built a statue in his honor in 2005. It sits at the old Venice train depot, now home to the Venice Historical Society.

Sarasota has a youth circus, the Police Athletic League’s Sailor Circus, which started as a high school athletic program in 1949. Many former circus performers volunteer their time to coach circus hopefuls who perform in two shows a year.

Today, you can see tigers and other wild and exotic animals up close at Kay Rosaire’s not-for-profit Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary. I caught up with Rosaire, an eighth-generation animal trainer from England who once performed with African lions and Royal Bengal and Siberian tigers. Now in “semiretirement,” she is passionate about rescuing and caring for retired circus animals at her 30-acre natural habitat which sits west of Interstate 75.

“Performing is exciting, but the reward has always been the rapport with the animals themselves,” says Rosaire. “We consider them family members.” She and her son Clayton, brother Derrick and sister Pam do training demonstrations during the winter and spring with big cats, bears and chimps to “show the interaction, rapport and affection between handler and animal.”

Farther down the Gulf coast, Tito Gaona, star of the fifth-generation Flying Gaonas, formed the nonprofit Venice Art Center to preserve circus history and make the arts accessible to the public. Gaona, a charismatic showman (he was the first to perform a quadruple somersault while blindfolded), was always one of my personal favorites. He would bounce into the net and then surprise audiences by bouncing back up onto the trapeze.

Now he shares his passion for flying with others at the Tito Gaona Flying Trapeze Academy and Flying Fantasy Circus in Venice, housed in the arena that was once the Ringling winter quarters. During his classes, you can experience firsthand what it feels like to fly. I don’t, but interested students and Floridians can, and do.

“I’m doing what I’ve always loved − flying,” says Gaona, who put up a trapeze over Venice’s “Circus Bridge,” named in honor of the animals and equipment that traveled over it. His students, who have ranged in age from 6 to 83, begin on a small trapeze, learning how to kick back and forth. Gradually, they progress to a high trapeze. By then they’re hooked, he says.

“I remember how I felt as a kid when I first got into flying,” recalls Gaona. “First, I did it for fun, but by the time I was 12, I was deeply involved.”

Gaona tells his students “Don’t just see the circus, be the circus.” Even his 4-year-old daughter, Victoria, takes part. He also teaches circus arts to children who are vision- and hearing-impaired. “When I see a kid develop what I teach, it’s an adrenaline that never stops. Once they do the trick, that’s my thrill.”

Circus Sarasota

When the performance door closes, another door often opens for those who have made circus arts and culture their life. “We want to give back to the community,” explains Pedro Reis, who with his wife, aerialist Dolly Jacobs, founded Circus Sarasota in 1997. I caught up with them at lunch to hear about their shows, which support outreach programs throughout the year.

Jacobs, who created the aerial strap act, still performs with Circus Sarasota. “It’s not as demanding as the rings that I used to do,” she explains. The show is one ring under a Big Top. “It’s artist-driven and draws a predominantly adult audience.”

“The older generation remembers the magic,” says Reis. “I live it.” The 1,800-seat tent is pitched in the overflow parking lot at Sarasota’s Ed Smith Stadium; proceeds help support circus programs in local schools and nursing homes.

“It’s all about passion,” says Reis, who not only wants to keep the art alive, but seeks to raise the perception of the circus to the level of other fine arts such as ballet and opera. “We as Circus Sarasota represent the past, present and future. Our mission is about outreach programming and giving back to the community. The circus helps us sustain the program.”

Acts for the show change every year, but Circus Sarasota plans to introduce fresh acts never before presented in the United States. Past acts includee White Crow, a trio who perform the Russian Bar, and Crazy Flight, which takes hand-balancing with incredible choreography and turns it into an emotional spectacle.

Jacobs and Reis, who met in the Ringling show 20 years ago, were married in October at the Ringling Museum. “We both have the passion of circus art,” says Jacobs, whose father was the famed red-nosed clown Lou Jacobs. “I have my heritage, the insight as to legacy. I want to keep the memories, knowledge and history of those great artists alive.”

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