Florida’s Historic Circus City Gets Bad News: “The Greatest Show On Earth” Will End In May

By Robert Sanchez

The surprise announcement that the venerable old Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus will shut down in May after 146 years of entertaining generations of Americans conjured up fond memories in many places across the land – but nowhere more than in my hometown, Sarasota.

From 1927 until 1959, Sarasota was the winter home of the Ringling circus, which headed south when the weather up north made travel a challenge and tent shows impractical. The winter hiatuses continued even after the circus abandoned the canvas in 1956 and instead booked large indoor arenas in major cities and college towns.

The circus used the time off to let the cast members rest and revamp their routines. For Sarasota, especially during the Great Depression, the circus’s winter quarters were a welcome tourist attraction that helped sustain the economy in the years before the region began to boom after World War II.

Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Poster. Courtesy of Boston Public Library.

Ringling Brothers Circus Poster, ca. 1899. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Long before Florida had Disney World or even a modern zoo, winter visitors and locals alike enjoyed gawking at circus’s menagerie of tigers, elephants, and the lowland gorilla dubbed Gargantua. The 435-pound beast, billed as the world’s largest and most famous gorilla, was a major attraction from 1937 until his death in 1949.

Some circus historians even credit Gargantua for saving the business from a brush with bankruptcy following the tragic fire in Hartford, CT, in 1944. Authorities reported that 167 people died in the conflagration when the tent caught fire. Lawsuits dogged the circus for several years thereafter.

In 1959 the Ringling circus moved its winter quarters from Sarasota to the nearby town of Venice, a short drive south down the Tamiami Trail. By then, however, frequent changes in ownership and management, plus fierce competition from TV and other forms of entertainment, had begun the circus’s long slow slog toward this year’s abrupt announcement that it will close.

Ironically, the announcement of the closing came just a month after the circus’s highly touted announcement that Tallahassee native Kristen Michelle Wilson would become the first-ever woman to serve as its ringmaster.

Souvenir of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Ideals publication cover of famous Ringling Circus clowns in Sarasota, Florida. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Earlier in the decade of the 1950s, however, the future had looked much rosier — and never more so than in 1952. That’s when Hollywood came to Sarasota. Famed director Cecil B. DeMille filmed much of his Oscar-winning movie “The Greatest Show on Earth” in Sarasota.

My brother, David, was then an 11-year-old fifth grader at Sarasota’s Southside Elementary School. He was among the hundreds of schoolchildren bused to the big tent that was the site of the filming. No doubt some of the kids thought they were participants in a miracle: getting out of school for a day to serve as extras in a circus movie’s crowd scenes.

(Two years later, of course, DeMille would produce a greater cinematic miracle in his epic film, “The Ten Commandments.” Long before filmmakers could rely on computer-generated images (CGI) to create special effects, DeMille managed to part the waters of the Red Sea to allow Moses and his followers to escape from the pursuing Egyptians en route – as the witty Israeli diplomat Abba Eban once quipped – to the only place in the Middle East without oil.)

For many years before and after the peak of the circus’s popularity, a circus-y motif permeated Sarasota, and the city — now much larger and more diverse — is still the home of an elaborate circus museum, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, and Ca’ d’Zan, the Ringlings’ palatial home.

 Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Winter Quarters in Sarasota, Florida. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Ringling Circus Clown Lou Jacobs. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

During Sarasota’s long reign as the winter quarters, many circus performers made their homes there. A miniaturized house on Bee Ridge Road was the home of the Dolls, a family of “little people.” My classmates at Sarasota High School included Mario Wallenda, whose family’s act, The Flying Wallendas, became famous for their daredevil stunts … and tragic falls.

In 1949, Sarasota High School even started its own circus – the Sailor Circus – so named because “Sailors” was the nickname of the school’s sports teams. The Sailor Circus’s shows under a big-top tent included students’ trapeze acts, Spanish web, high wire walks, juggling, gymnastics, and lots of clowns – but no animals other than the students. Once billed as “The Littlest Show on Earth,” the Sailor Circus continues to this day, although no longer under the auspices of Sarasota High School.

Among the most famous of the circus performers who called Sarasota their home was Emmett Kelly. He portrayed the sad-faced clown known as Weary Willie, whose act infused pathos into the humor.

Emmett Kelly died in Sarasota in 1979 at the age of 80. Had he lived to see the circus’s demise, with hundreds of folks losing their jobs, no doubt he would have shed yet another tear – this time for real.

John and Mable Ringling Art Museum. Courtesy of Florida Memory

Inner Court of John and Mable Ringling Art Museum. Courtesy of Florida Memory

Archway along the courtyard of John and Mable Ringling Art Museum. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Featured Image: Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Poster. Courtesy of Boston Public Library.