Isn’t it strange that when you live in a particular area, you never see its attractions until out-of-town company comes? I have lived in Florida, not too far from both Lake Placid and Sarasota, for the past two years and not once have I been to either until this past month when my cousins from Washington State came to visit. We decided to take them to the Ringling Museum.
When Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus were still in operation, they held their winter quarters in Sarasota, Florida, where their clown college was as well. John Ringling John Ringling was a savvy businessman who not only ran circuses and shows, but bought and sold real estate. His sixty-acre summer home, Ca’ d’Zan (pronounced cadazan) is the present home to the circus museum, his beautiful gardens, and two art museums. He willed the entirety of his estate to the city of Sarasota upon his death and it is currently under the expert oversight of Florida State University. Of course, with such a lot to see, we didn’t get to explore everything, but here are some highlights.
The Tibbals Learning Center
This building was opened in 2006, largely to house its centerpiece: The Howard Brothers Circus model, a 44,000-piece model of the combined Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circuses in their heyday from 1919 through 1938. Each piece is meticulously crafted according to actual photos of the time. At present, the model spans 3,800 square feet and is laid out in a fascinating visual story of the circus coming to town.
We began with the trains jugging toward town, met them at the station, and walked through much of the preliminary set up of such a huge production as we progressed through the exhibit. We walked with circus attendees through the midway, enjoying the sideshows featuring the Human Pincushion, the Fireproof Man, food trucks, and vendors selling fashionable pets to wear on your sleeve.
Once inside the big top, guests weren’t seated right away; many of the cage cars were set up along either side of the walkway, their colorful wooden sides taken off to reveal exotic animals like orangutans, polar bears, and macaws. For most people who came to the circus, this would be the only time they ever saw non-native animals. The model of the big top itself was bigger than my dining table. Once we entered the stands, there was so much going on in the three rings that I couldn’t absorb it all, even though no one was moving as they would have been in a real circus.
The rest of the model took us through the “backstage” area of the circus: stable tents, the cook tent, and dressing rooms, following some of the cars already on their way to set up in the next city. Truly, this was the most amazing part of the museum. We could have spent another hour in that model room and still found new details. The best part is that it’s still under construction. If you visit the Ringling Museum this September, you may see Howard Tibbals working on more pieces. There are rumors of a Wild West section in the works.
To find out more about the model, the museum, and how to get tickets, go to www.ringling.org.