Before many board games, television, computers, video and computer games, cell phones, and movie theaters, the only major form of entertainment for many communities was the circus. It was a very big deal when the circus came to town by train. They set up and performed sometimes only one show in smaller communities before they were on to the next destination. Towns declared the day circus came to town a holiday which meant no school for the children and no work for the adults so that everyone could attend the show.
At one time in the United States, there were one hundred companies that owned circuses that traveled all over the country. Just like today in the age of mergers and acquisitions, smaller outfits were bought out by bigger more successful circuses. One of the most successful was the Ringling Brothers Circus which eventually purchased the Barnum and Bailey circus in 1907. At first they operated and traveled as two separate circuses but when the business become too much for John & Charles Ringling to handle after three of his otherbrothers were no longer involved with the family business, the names and the shows were combined into one, The Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1919. John’s dream of performing in Madison Square Garden in New York was finally fulfilled. Previously only the Barnum circus performed there.
In the early twenties John Ringling purchased 67,000 acres of land in Sarasota and Long Boat Key, Florida. At the time, John was said to have been one of the wealthiest men in the United States. In 1927 he moved the winter quarters of the circus to Sarasota, attracting famous circus performers from all over the world and Sarasota became known as Circus City USA. By 1929 Ringling had acquired and owned all of the traveling circuses in the United States including Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
John and his wife Mabel loved Sarasota so much they built their winter home there on the Gulf of Mexico. The home named Cá d’ Zan (House of John in the Venetian Dialect” ) is in the Mediterranean Revival style and was inspired by the architectural styles of Mabel’s favorite Venetian hotels.
Avid collectors of art from the 1920’s to the early 30’s, they amassed a collection of over 600 paintings, sculptures, and decorative objects, from the 14th through the 18th centuries, works by Rubens, Van Dyk, Titian, and others. Their dream was to build an art museum on the property with the home to preserve and house their extensive art collection. Work began in the 1920’s on this incredible complex built in the Italian renaissance style. To save on labor John hired many circus employees and used the elephants to move heavy construction materials in place. A new wing was constructed a few years ago to house, a number of temporary shows and exhibitions.
Unfortunately after the great depression, and into the 40's, the circus business started to dry up and other forms of entertainment started to captivate audiences. When John Ringling died at age 70 in 1936, he only had a few hundred dollars in his bank account. However, he bequeathed many of his assets including his home and art museum to the state of Florida.
If you visit there is much to see and do. You could easily spend two full days. On the property you can tour John and Mabel's mansion, Cá d’ Zan which is situated on the Gulf. There are two Circus Museum buildings. The original built in 1948, houses the privatePullman rail car that John and Mabel traveled in with the circus, vintage circus wagons and an interesting exhibit on when Cecil B. DeMille filmed the Oscar Award winning movie The Greatest Show on Earth in Sarasota.
The other Circus Museum, The Tibbals Learning Center opened in 2006. The highlightin this facility is the world’s largest miniature circus model, which was constructed by Howard Tibbals, also the benefactor of this museum. He constructed the entire model in a 50 year span. This model is absolutely mind boggling in two aspects. One, the model itself is a work of art. Every little detail is conveyed from the circus arriving on the train, the big top, side show and menagerie upon entering the main tent, plus all the backstage supporting elements: commissary, living quarters, quarters for all the animals, repair and machine shops, etc. Secondly, it conveys in no other way unless you had been there, the logistics, and all the elements, and inner workings of this huge entertainment venue.
In addition to the mansion, art museum and two circus museums, is the Asolo Theatre, which is an actual 18th century theatre purchased from Asolo, Italy and reassembled on the Ringling grounds. It is the only state theatre in Florida and features performances by the Asolo Theater Repertory Company.
The Ringling Museums are a true treasure in the state of Florida and definitely worth a visit!