By Jennifer Michaels
Ever since John Ringling moved his famed eponymous circus to southwest Florida in 1927, Sarasota has been synonymous with the circus. From the yearly Circus Sarasota, to a trapeze school and a circus museum, circus culture permeates the history of Sarasota.
The circus culture is so ingrained in Sarasota, this vibrant coastal city, that circus events have become a serious “don’t miss” part of any family’s visit to town.
In 1927, John Ringling moved the winter quarters of the famous Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Sarasota and forever made Sarasota synonymous with the circus. From Sarasota to Venice, the circus culture is as alive today as it was all those years ago.
Ringling’s Sarasota winter quarters opened its doors to visitors on Christmas Day, 1927. Ringling was counting on the warm Florida sunshine to draw tourists and potential real estate buyers to the slow-growing area.
His wishes came true. Hundreds of thousands of people visited the winter home, and it became the number-one tourist attraction in the state. Circus performers – Cristianis, Concellos, Merle Evans, Lou Jacobs, Emmett Kelly, LaNorma, Unus, Wallendas, and Zacchinis – made their homes in Sarasota and brought a special diversity to the area.
Sit Back and Enjoy the Show!
To keep the circus legacy alive, each February the non-profit Circus Sarasota stakes down its circus tents and puts on a fantastic show.
The tent had a snack bar, face painters, souvenir kiosks and caricature artists. Since most children have become accustomed to high-tech performances with motorcycles whizzing above their heads and theme park special effects, they immediately noticed the quiet simplicity of this family tradition.
"Each season brings new surprises and thrills for our audiences, many of whom return season after season to see some of the greatest circus acts currently performing throughout the world," says Pedro Reis, Founder and CEO of Circus Sarasota.
Your young ones will be silenced by awe, especially when they saw the Poema family working together as a team while dad Adrian Poema, a fifth-generation performer from Buenos Aires, Argentina, juggled his three children (ages 6-11) on his feet while he lay on his back.
Other popular acts in the show included elegant horse trainer Ian Garden and Circus Sarasota's own “Queen of the Air,” Dolly Jacobs-Reis.
When Pedro and Dolly Reis started Circus Sarasota, they wanted to make sure their dream was “more than a circus.” Determined to enrich the community throughout the year, they decided to keep giving by creating charities and community services. Eighty percent of Circus Sarasota’s revenues are generated through the box office. These funds help support and continue the circus’ outreach programs.
Circus Sarasota's Laughter Unlimited program uses clown-induced laughter to reach out to those living in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and adult care centers. And its Big Top Education program goes into schools to demonstrate the importance of science, technology and mathematics through the circus arts.
To answer the frequently asked question, “How did they do that?” Sarasota offers families a chance to see what it is really like to run away and join a circus. Parents can actually send their kids – or participate with the whole family – at another Sarasota circus staple, Circus Camp at the Flying Trapeze Academy.
Visitors looking for a thrill can test their own circus skills at Tito Gaona's Flying Trapeze Academy. The Academy is located in the old Ringling Winter Quarters in Venice, where circus stars performed and Guenther Gebel-Williams trained circus animals for 30 years.
Both group and private lessons are available, and instruction is offered for the flying trapeze, multiple trapezes, wire walking and trampolines. For more information, call 941-504-1552 or visit www.titogaona.com.
Learn: Circus history
For less hands-on action and more of a historic look at the circus culture of Sarasota, The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art offers a full curriculum.
Located on a 66-acre estate on Sarasota Bay, The Ringling estate is comprised of several attractions. There’s The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, which was established in 1931 as a fitting tribute to John Ringling and his wife, Mable. Recognized as the official State Art Museum of Florida, the museum offers more than 30 galleries of European paintings as well as Cypriot antiquities, Asian Art, American paintings and contemporary art, and plays host to a variety of traveling exhibitions throughout the year. it also includes "Joseph's Coat," a permanent installation by world-renowned American artist James Turrell.
Also on the estate grounds is the spectacular Cà d'Zan ("House of John"), a waterfront mansion that was restored in 2002.
Mable Ringling’s Rose Garden, completed in 1913, and meticulously landscaped grounds overlook the Sarasota Bay. You can catch a theater performance as the 18th-century Historic Asolo Theater, then dine at Treviso Restaurant.
Check out the museum’s numerous cultural and educational programs, including courtyard concerts, "Third Thursday" socials on Cà d’Zan's terrace, lectures, workshops, children’s programs, teacher training sessions and public tours. The museum also houses an art conservation laboratory, a 65,000-volume art library and archives.
If your kids want to take a pass on the Baroque art, head over to view the miniature circus models at the Circus Museum Tibbals Learning Center instead. Here you’ll marvel at the (oxymoronic) world's largest miniature circus, a stunningly intricate, 3/4-inch-to-the-foot replica of a Ringling Bros. circus. Costumes, wagons, performance equipment and other artifacts chronicling the history of the circus complete the collection.
One family trip to the Sarasota and Bradenton Beach area will show you how the city earned its title as the “Circus Capital of the World.” Whether you plan a visit around the Circus Sarasota schedule, try your own skills as a trapeze artist or visit the Circus Museums, you’ll be happy you didn’t just spend the day at the beach. After all, it’s fun to simply “clown around” with the kids in tow, especially while on vacation. The serious stuff can wait until you go back to work.