Bright lights and colors; action everywhere, from one end of the circle to another.
High above daredevil acrobats fly from one swing to another, while spectators hold their breaths. Bulbous-nosed, sad-eyed clowns with impossibly big feet play pranks on one another; beautiful ladies ride tip-toed on prancing horses while a morning-coated ringmaster holds it all together! It’s a kaleidoscope of movement and sound, of tantalizing smells like cotton candy and popcorn. It’s the circus, as old and older than our republic and as American as mom and apple pie. While circuses have come and gone since our country was founded, they still reign in Sarasota, Florida, which calls itself Circus City, USA.
When Englishman Philip Astley, considered the father of the modern circus, added acrobats and other acts to his equestrian performances, he created the circus’s prototype. He brought it to America for performances in 1772 and 1773. In 1793, another Englishman, John Ricketts, established the first permanent circus building in Philadelphia. The American circus was now here to stay.
In 1825 tents became popular as circuses took their acts across the country. Circus trains became the next innovation. Cars were elaborately carved and decorated, becoming works of art in themselves. Some are still displayed in the circus museums in Sarasota.
A number of great circuses were formed and some began to merge. P.T. Barnum, one of America’s showmen, merged his with James Bailey’s circus to create the famous Barnum and Bailey enterprise. Barnum died, then Bailey, and the Ringling brothers, who had their own circus, purchased the Barnum and Bailey circus for $400,000. Two Ringling brothers, John and Charles, formed the mega Barnum and Bailey and Ringling Brothers Circus.
Now it was the two Ringling brothers who led America’s circus scene. John, the last brother, was one of the wealthiest men in America. He made Sarasota, with its tropical climate and beautiful beaches, the winter home of his circus. He and his wife Mable built an estate there that became renowned for its art and architecture. The Ringlings were great art collectors. Their museum, with its 600 Baroque masterpieces and a Peter Paul Rubens collection (considered the finest in the world), and their lavish house are open to the public for tours. Also on the grounds is the Historic Asolo Theater, an 18th century palace brought piece by piece from Asolo, Italy, and reassembled, by Ringling, in the 1940s. It showcases fifteen productions each season.
Circus fans will have a ball touring the estate’s Circus Museum, which displays almost every aspect of circus life, including artifacts of P.T. Barnum and Ringling, original circus wagons, costumes, and newspaper clippings that date back to 1816! The star of the museum is the world’s smallest miniature circus, the 3,800 foot replica of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus from 1919 to 1938, showing every aspect of circus life. You’ll even get a peek into the dressing rooms, where you can see buxom ladies being laced up for their performances.
John and Mable so loved their estate and Sarasota that they are buried on the grounds; there is a modest headstone at the head of each grave. With no children, they left their home, museum, and art collection to the state of Florida.
The Ringling influence can be seen in many of the streets, plazas, and boulevards bearing the Ringling name. The Ringlings were influential in creating many of the area’s cultural and artistic buildings and events. St. Armands Circle is a delightful area of boutiques, restaurants and greenery where the Circus Ring of Fame, with the names of famous circus performers and Ringling’s statue, is located. Ringling, who had purchased property on several keys that comprise Sarasota County, even used his elephants to help construct the first bridge that connects St. Armands to the mainland.
Many of Ringling’s circus families still live in Sarasota. Check out the house with lower door knobs and handles that accommodated the circus’s little people when they lived there. Several of Sarasota’s former circus people are members of Showfolks, a club for active and retired performers.
The circus is still alive and well in Sarasota. Two permanent circus companies, the Circus Sarasota and the Sailor Circus, offer performances. The Sailor Circus is unique in the U.S. Run by the famous Nik Wallenda, who is also the high wire star of the Sarasota Circus, it takes performers, who learn circus skills after school, from grades four through twelve.
But the circus is not the only reason to visit Sarasota. Along with culture and arts, it’s a place where you can swim, fish, bike, and play golf (with over 100 courses in Sarasota County) or tennis. For an unusual ethereal experience, take a kayak cruise through a Mangrove tunnel.
Sarasota’s keys are a string of eight islands. Each has its own unique personality. Casey Key has moss-covered roadways. With thirteen unique broad sand beaches on the Gulf of Mexico to sink your toes into and to watch spectacular half hour long sunsets from, you’ll feel like you are in a very special place. The most unusual beach is Siesta, made of 99% quartz, which is known as the whitest and silkiest in the world, feeling velvety and cool to the touch.
The Amish have have a bustling winter colony in the area. You can spot them biking along, the men with their flat hats and chin beards, and the women with their long dresses and bonnets.
Try the Amish food, hearty and plentiful, at two Amish restaurants. Sample the famous Shoo Fly Pie, a heavy molasses concoction.
In Sarasota, you’ll indeed find, as the great P.T. said, “the greatest show on earth,” or at least one of the greatest in the country!