The Tibbals Learning Center also houses several exhibits. The first exhibit hall took us through the history of circus advertising, chronicling its evolution as the technology changed. One of my favorite pieces was the original 1900 to 1901 Barnum and Bailey foreign press book, almost as big as a church bible. The exhibit also showcased original posters of the early twentieth century, largely lithographs in bright, primary colors, splashed with bombastic language touting such attractions as seal bands; Norma Davenport, the world’s youngest elephant trainer, and (my favorite) a reproduction of Rome’s famous Circus Maximus in which all the performers were dressed in English fox-hunting garb.
The Circus Room
This room took you through the various elements of a circus, including clowns, acrobats, the ringmaster, and animal trainers. Since many of the Ringlings’s performers ended up settling in Sarasota, the museum has quite a collection of costumes and memorabilia. Toys and promotional knick-knacks like rings of the Tallest Man Alive were set out in glass cases. We saw Emmett Kelly’s Hobo outfit, aerialist Dolly Jacobs’s velvet robe, several of her father, Lou Jacobs’s clown cars, and the “biggest baby carriage,” which was built in the 1989 season of the Big Apple Circus for the newest addition to Buckles Woodcock’s elephant show. Animal trainers such as the Rosaire and Gebbel family had their own displays with costumes and props.
One element of the circus performance I wasn’t as aware of was the “Spec show,” which usually featured elaborate themed costumes. We encountered a stilt-walker’s costume from a Romeo and Juliet Spec, complete with the traditional striped pants to make him taller, and giant papier mâché masks from a Punch and Judy show. Costume designer Don Foote, after working on shows in Vegas and Broadway, became the Ringlings’ designer in 1907 and was known for his sequins. The museum had a beautiful Georgian-style gown of his or a Toyland Spec, with Puss in Boots embroidered in sequins over the skirts.
The Second Floor
Upstairs, we found a timeline of circus history, beginning with Joseph Grimaldi and ending with contemporary circuses such as Circe de Soleil and the Big Apple Circus. It was interesting to see the difference in some of the costumes up here from the one’s downstairs. While there were, if anything, more sequins in these costumes, there was also much more Lycra and glitter. My husband encapsulated it well when sizing up one particular dragonfly suit: “There is a certain glam rock aesthetic to circus costumes.”
Several items belonging to P.T. Barnum and his wife were on display, including a blind beggar monkey calling card holder. In the Victorian era, it was customary to have some sort of ornate receptacle in which guests who missed you during calling hours could leave their card. This hilariously grotesque statue served the purpose in the Barnum’s foyer.
From upstairs, you could also look out onto the Howard Bros. Circus diorama from several angles and see a reproduction of Howard Tibbals’s workshop. On the opposite wall from this replica began a long parade of more miniature circus wagons made by Harold Dunn, former operator of the Dunn Bros. Our favorites were the fairy tale tableaux wagons and the Roman Centurion pulled by a set of lions.
Then it was on to the second building!