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Sarasota, Florida: The Ringling Museum Isn’t Just About the Circus

John Ringling's fascination for the circus began as a child, growing up watching traveling shows that passed through his town. In 1884, he and four of his brothers created the Ringling Brothers Circus. In 1907, they acquired Barnum & Bailey, eventually resulting in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, better known as The Greatest Show on Earth. Led by John, the Ringling brothers became leaders in the American circus industry.

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Today, thanks to the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida, you can discover not only the history of the circus, including what went on behind the Big Top, but how "Circus King" John Ringling and his wife Mable lived in the early 1900s

It may take more than a day to see everything, but by the end of the day you can examine an amazing miniature replica of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, wander through John and Mable Ringling's spacious Venetian styled Ca d’Zan mansion, stroll through Mable Ringling's rose garden, and of course explore the history of the circus.

The Greatest Miniature Show on Earth Resides at the Tibbals Learning Center

We started our day at the Visitors Pavilion where we grabbed a map and headed for the Circus Museum's Tibbals Learning Center. You’ll enter the center through a replica of a circus tent used by the Ringling circus during the early twentieth century. Inside you'll find the Howard Bros. Circus Model, a replica of The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus from approximately 1919 – 1938.

Howard C. Tibbals, a circus historian and model builder, is the genius behind the Howard Bros. Circus Model. As you walk around his 3,800 square foot model which took him over 50 years to create, take a peek and see what goes on in the "backyard" or behind the scenes at the circus.

This miniature circus, containing more than 44,000 individual pieces, includes tents, wagons, performers and workers, animals, car trains, a railroad yard, the big top, the menagerie, concession stands, sideshows, and dressing and dining tents. You'll even find small details such as big top chairs and performers’ wardrobe trunks accurate down to the smallest detail.

For example, take a close look in the dining tent and you’ll be amazed at the individual tiny china plates, silverware and condiments at the tables. Workers, staff, and performers each had a designated seat at the table. A raised flag over the dining tent indicated that it was mealtime. When the circus was in town, the dining tent served over 3,900 meals, including breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

Tibbals' model also includes a number of rest tents in the backyard providing workers a place to sleep after setting up the circus, or performers a place to hang out in between their performances. Haircuts were available at the barber’s tent and a commissary wagon supplied clothing, magazines and toiletries.

Tibbals masterfully recreated the Big Top with its four stages, three rings, clown acts and the famous Flying Wallendas walking the wires. His Menagerie includes hand carved animals enclosed in caged wagons representing the actual wagons used by the Ringling circus. Tibbals' sideshow posters, including the Human Pin Cushion, the Lady Sword Swallower, and the World’s Tallest Husband and Wife, bring bizarre and amazing circus sights to life.

On the second floor of the Tibbals Learning Center, the circus extravaganza continues with the history of the American Circus, historic circus posters, memorabilia and the Dunn Bros. Circus Model. Dunn's model displays a circus parade of hand-carved wood and plastic miniature people, animals, costumes and floats from the early 1900s.

Posters and Props, Wardrobes and Wagons Decorate the Circus Museum

At the Circus Museum, you'll have an opportunity to observe props, wardrobes, wagons, posters, and photographs comprising the most incredible compilation of circus memorabilia available to the public in the country. You'll discover elaborate costumes decorated with feathers and sequins, and spectacular props including clown masks, swords and garlands.

Climb aboard the Wisconsin, the Ringling's private rail car built in 1905. Here you'll get a close up view of the extravagant accommodations that the Ringlings enjoyed as they traveled across the country. It's fascinating to observe the differences between the Ringling's plush accommodations on the Wisconsin versus those of their help.

The colorful circus posters that dot the walls of the Circus Museum describe the magical shows, the incredible acts and the amazing sights that the circus promised to deliver. Advertising for the circus started weeks before the show rolled into town. Posters covered windows, sides of barns, and fences. No one in town wanted to miss this spectacular one day event.

Each of the Ringling Bros.'s specially built wagons were used for a specific purpose in the circus. The Circus Museum displays a number of these circus wagons. For example, Baggage Wagon #59 made of wood and iron hauled trunks from town to town. After the trunks were unloaded, the wagon served as an on-site dressing room for the performers. Once the circus arrived in town, the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Ticket Wagon #122, made of wood, steel and iron sold over ten thousand general admission tickets daily.

The Ca d’Zan Mansion, a Cozy Cottage by the Water

Next up, we trekked to John and Mable Ringling's magnificent Venetian styled 200-foot long Ca d'Zan mansion. This 36,000 square foot palatial palace, built in 1926, featured 41 rooms, 15 bathrooms, a marble in-ground swimming pool, a clay tennis court and a marbled terrace where the Ringlings threw extravagant parties with orchestras serenading guests. The Ringlings moored their 125-foot yacht, a 52-foot cruiser, and a Venetian gondola off the bay front terrace.

Rooms at the Ca d’Zan mansion rival those in the White House. A mix of Italian and French architecture influences the interior. Murals decorate the ceilings, and furniture and artwork pieces embellish each room. It’s impossible to miss the family’s central living space called "The Court." Here you'll find a custom-made “French lac glass” skylight and an opulent chandelier hanging directly below. The “Breakfast Room” features Mable Ringling's love of dark green as displayed in the frames and the leather on the Renaissance Revival dining chairs as well as on the window blinds.

Roam the Ringling's Gardens and Trails

In between visiting the mansion and the museums, you may want to take a leisurely stroll around the Ringling's grounds and enjoy Mable's Rose Garden, the Dwarf Garden, the Secret Garden, and the Millennium Trail. The Rose Garden is home to over 1,200 rose plants including Tree Roses, Hybrid Teas, Floribundas, Grandifloras, miniature roses, shrubs and Old Garden Roses. You’ll discover an assortment of Bromeliads, Philliline Violets and Variegated Bougainvilleas decorate the Secret Garden.

Take One More Day: Museum of Art and Asolo Theater

The Ca d'Zan mansion is not the only place on the estate that displays John Ringling's passion for art. For the serious art lover, leave yourself plenty of time (you’ll need a second day) to enjoy the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, home to European, American and Asian art as well as modern and contemporary art, sculptures and paintings.

Also on the grounds you'll find the Historic Asolo Theater, a restored 18th-century European theater that offers a mix of music, theater, dance, film, and lectures. It is the only original Baroque playhouse in America.

The Historic Asolo Theater has quite a history. In 1789, an architect built the playhouse in Italy for the Queen of Cyprus. After numerous renovations through the years, the theater was dismantled and stored away during World War II. In 1950, the Ringling Museum purchased the theater. Today after additional restorations, the playhouse resides inside the historic Ca d’Zan Gatehouse in the Visitors Pavilion. (The theater is not always open to the public. For more information about performances and ticket purchases go to Historic Asolo Theater.

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Maureen C. Bruschi is a freelance travel and sports writer and photographer. She lived in Istanbul, Turkey for two years and has traveled to over 15 countries. She has been published in a number of publications including Travel Post Monthly, The Writer, BootsnAll Travel, TravelLady.com, BudgetTravel.com blog and USTA Middle States Section.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: August 7, 2016



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