The circus inheritance
John Ringling built an empire whose beneficiaries perform, too: music, dance, fine art, circus arts
From Longboat, Lido, and Siesta keys, south to Venice and Manasota Key, quartz-sand beaches run like white fingers along the Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota Bay. My plan was to plunk down on one of them for a February break, but the lodgings in my price range were booked. By a stroke of luck on CouchSurfing.com, I found an artist in Sarasota’s Flower Streets district who had a spare room. The neighborhood of Orchid, Rose, and Oleander streets lies minutes from the beaches and downtown. I ended up with a great tan and an added bonus: being captivated by the circus.
In the day when the marriage of Tom Thumb could bump the Civil War from the front page, John Ringling and four of his seven brothers launched a circus empire in Baraboo, Wis., and in 1927 made Sarasota its winter home. Today, while headquarters have moved to Virginia, Ringling’s legacy is all over Sarasota.
The Ringling estate includes the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art; Asolo Theater; Ca’ d’Zan, the Gilded Age mansion Ringling left to posterity in 1936; and the Ringling Museum of the American Circus, home to the world’s biggest miniature circus, which wows adults and children alike. It re-creates Ringling’s operation to the last railroad tie based on actual specs. The ticketmaster has tickets, the cash registers contain cash and change, and everything works. Howard Tibbals, who created the model, can still be seen on occasion in the museum’s workshop refining his 53-year project. At the vast interactive theater space, kids can walk a tightrope like Karl Wallenda or scrunch themselves into a model of the legendary 2-by-3-foot car of Lou Jacobs.
The circus connection extends beyond the Ringling complex. At Tito Gaona’s Flying Trapeze Academy in nearby Venice Beach, young Will Gransky of Natick said, “Is it safe?’’ before taking to the air like a natural. Gaona, a 17-year Ringling veteran, comes from a five-generation Mexican circus family who were known as the “First Family of the Air.’’ Just as Sarasota’s venerable Sailor Circus trains local students in the circus arts, Gaona teaches aerial skills.
Yet the Ringlings brought more than circus arts to Sarasota. Their palatial art gallery, modeled on Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, houses a collection of European painters rivaling that of industrialist Henry Clay Frick. Today arts patronage still runs strong, making the city of 53,000 the nation’s second-largest employer of artists, with its own repertory theater, two symphonies, an opera, and ballet.
Ringling spurred the development of Lido and Longboat keys and their tony shopping magnet, St. Armands Circle. Their beaches are sugar white and condo-lined, with spectacular homes facing east on Sarasota Bay.
My favorite spot, the public beach on eight-mile Siesta Key, was also Stephen Leatherman’s (a.k.a. Dr. Beach) choice for this year’s best US beach. Big Olaf’s Amish ice cream shop and a village full of fun restaurants and bars make Siesta Key college-friendly and crowded. Especially on Sunday, a cast of characters celebrates the sunset with drumming and Hula-Hoops.
When I was young my parents considered that Sarasota began and ended with the galleries of St. Armands Circle. That is no longer true. I loved discovering the murals of Skip Dryda and the trompe l’oeil clay purses of potter June Assange in Towles Court, a historic neighborhood of colorful clapboard houses and alleyways that was rehabilitated by artists. For lunch, tuck into Garden Room Café, the shabby chic tearoom of photographer Kathryn Kittinger.
“Sarasota is big on meat and potatoes, a carryover from its Midwest influence,’’ said local TV show chef-celeb Judi Gallagher over dinner at Libby’s Café. Gallagher calls Steve Seidensticker’s trendy comfort food plates “exactly what Sarasota needed; we just didn’t know it.’’
Walt’s is a noisy, packed Old Florida seafood immersion experience: a fish market and restaurant whose founder migrated from Indiana to Sarasota on a Ringling circus train. Owen’s Fish Camp is its new-school counterpart, notched into tiny historic Burns Court where the Spanish and Mission Revival facades date to 1920s Chicago developer Owen Burns. The galleries and shops here and on nearby Pineapple Avenue garner a wider and younger following than St. Armands. Conveniently next door to Owen’s is Burns Court Cinema for a break from the beach bar scene.
For wide open spaces, head south for a day on Manasota Key. Blind Pass, Stump Pass, and Manasota Beach on the key’s Gulf side are refreshingly undeveloped and as shell-strewn as Florida’s more famous Sanibel. When hunger strikes, follow the locals to Mango Bistro in downtown Englewood. Manasota is also the best place to explore the Intracoastal Waterway side of Sarasota’s barrier islands by kayak. From outfitter Island Jet Ski in Englewood, you can paddle to Stump Pass State Park, where the beach is pristine and shelling is incredible (about two hours round trip), and onward to Don Pedro State Park, where manatees, dolphins, bird rookeries, and armies of fiddler crabs thrive among the mangrove stands.
The circus drew people from many walks of life to Sarasota, and in a day on a rental bike, you can explore its diverse sides. On the Sarasota Bay waterfront, the Ringlings’ Ca’ d’Zan (which means “House of John’’ in Venetian dialect) gets the trophy home prize, while Selby Gardens is a close second. With Mabel Ringling, Marie Selby was a charter member of the Sarasota Garden Club, and her estate contains thousands of vials of preserved orchids and bromeliads rivaling the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
Look for the city’s Amish and Mennonite community between Bahia Vista Street and Phillippi Creek. Their neighborhood called Pinecraft began in Ringling’s era as a likely place to raise winter crops. While the land proved too poor for farming, the weather sure was nice. Today, the Plain People spend spring break in the community’s tiny homes, while their restaurants and farm stands dispense to the whole city. Yoder’s sells 125 pies a day. The fried chicken is a must.
North of Pinecraft on Beneva Road is Circus City, a trailer park where many present and former circus people live. The sign at the housing development next door reads: “This marks where the winter quarters of the circus was.’’
Jackie Le Claire, the red-haired clown who greeted me at Circus Sarasota, remembered those days. Born in 1924 in Fall River, Le Claire is a former high flier who did stunts for Cecil B. DeMille’s “Greatest Show on Earth.’’ The Circus Sarasota grounds, which open through the month of February, pale by comparison to Ringling’s. Its founders, legendary aerialist Dolly Jacobs and her husband, Pedro Reis, modeled it on intimate European circuses.
Beneath the little big top, the single earth-floored circle is about the size of a rural Spanish bullring. At first, the kids sitting next to me seemed more interested in the video games on their smartphones. Then the lights dimmed. Out came Russian Cossack riders, Moroccan tumblers, a Hungarian quick-change artist, and the Jose Michel clowns from Spain. When Joseph Dominick Bauer sky-walked on his 50-foot Wheel of Thrills, the boys gasped. When Jacobs, the Queen of the Air, soared on the high wire without a net, the girls were entranced.
The artists had become live action heroes. With sweat, discipline, and yesterday’s technology, they suspended our disbelief.
Patricia Borns can be reached at email@example.com.