A Tour of the Ringling Museum Part 3: Building Two

The second building of the circus museum was originally the main building. Much larger items, such as full-sized cage cars, complete with painted side boards, and several more calliopes. The calliope was originally invented in the 1850s as a technological curiosity. See a picture...

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The second building of the circus museum was originally the main building. Much larger items, such as full-sized cage cars, complete with painted side boards, and several more calliopes. The calliope was originally invented in the 1850s as a technological curiosity. See a picture of this whistle-organ instrument in my last post. Not too long after their introduction, they were installed in circus bandwagons, which followed the circus parade, calling spectators to the Big Top. Calliope music has since become synonymous with circus music. The second building also had such novelties as a canon car and full-sized wooden signs for the midway freak show.

One room was dedicated to the 1952 movie The Greatest Show on Earth, staring Charlton Heston, which is set in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus. The exhibit included a miniature train that was used to shoot the train wreck in the film, posters, and original set lights.

The McGarveys

One further attraction of the main museum is The Wisconsin, John and Mabel Ringling’s private train car. However, I wasn’t able to get a good look at it because behind the car sat a couple busily making models for the Howard Bros. Circus! Donald and Carolyn McGarvey have been making circus models since the eighties, and they met Howard Tibballs at a model makers convention. In 2004, when Howard was setting up his diorama in the Tibbals Learning center, he ran into Donald again, who was volunteering on the grounds. “I have a job for you,” he said, and the rest is history.

Currently, the couple comes in at least twice a week to work on various aspects of the model. They make most of the trees and a lot of the people. While the trees are made largely from scratch, Don can buy pre-made figures like army men, heat them up, and manipulate their positions before cooling them in an ice bucket. “Although, I tell people that’s for my champagne,” he joked. Howard makes all the cars himself.

Since they are working entirely from thousands of historical photos, there are always more little details that can be added. I caught the couple working on more stock horses. Apparently, the Ringling Brothers had four hundred and fifty Percheron mares just for hauling the tent materials off the train to the set-up sites. The model does not have enough at the moment. “I counted them up,” Don said, “and told Howard we were one hundred and thirty-three horses short.” Working from photographs of the horses setting up and on “dougie runs,” when the train would stop in an open field to feed and water all the horses, the McGarvey’s have begun making up the deficiency from miniature Percherons (apparently you can buy those!) and meticulously painting them to match each individual horse from the pictures. Look for them when you next visit the museum, and keep an eye out for the McGarveys themselves; they’d love to chat about their work.

 

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