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Meet Sarasota’s Ringling Heritage
By Carolyn Ross Tomlin
“Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages – welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth.” Generations of Americans remember the ringmaster standing in the spotlight of the center ring announcing the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. This is a
adventure everyone is sure to enjoy.
Nearby, elephants, ponies, monkeys and performing dogs made their way through the sawdust trail that led to the big top. It was the lyrical invitation to the lure of the big top, promising excitement on the trapeze, beautiful girls clad in exotic costumes and strong-muscular men who performed daredevil stunts while balancing on the high wire.
How many of us remember – as a way of introduction – circus workers unloading the animals, parading them through downtown streets then herded the troupe back to the tents before the evening’s performance.
But things change. When nephew, John Ringling North, took over the circus in 1956, he said, “The tented circus as it exists today is, in my opinion, a thing of the past.” LIFE magazine proposed that “a magical era had passed forever.” However, change also brings opportunity.
Today, the circus still comes to town. But instead of tents in nearby dirt fields, local arenas take their place filling the air with the aroma of popcorn and peanuts. Yet, for those who long for bygone days of yesterday, you can recapture that special feeling by visiting the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Florida.
In addition to the Circus Museum, two other spectacular attractions lure RVers for unforgettable
at this site. The internationally recognized Ringling Museum of Art features European, American and non-Western art. Ca d’Zan, the magnificent 32-room Venetian-Gothic mansion owned by John and Mable Ringling, stands as one of America’s treasures. Here, you can capture the exuberant lifestyle of America’s spectacular Roaring ’20s.
Ringling’s Mark on Sarasota’s History
Around 1910, Sarasota began attracting wealthy Americans. Some came to avoid harsh winters in the North; others in search of the fertile soil for growing vegetables and citrus; and some came to make an investment in land.
In time – thanks to the the lure of the sugar-white beaches combined with the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico – many one-time visitors became homeowners.
From those first inhabitants, the spirit of generosity continues today in this city by the sea. History shows that one investor, John Ringling (1866-1936) of circus fame, left his mark on the community in a variety of ways. As one of the city’s most influential residents in the 1920s and 1930s, the business tycoon and culture baron established a fortune. Therefore, it was no surprise that the Ringlings left their 66-area estate overlooking Sarasota Bay to their beloved Florida.
As entrepreneur and developer, John often made use of what was at hand. Considering his resources, he called in the circus elephants to help build the first bridge from the mainland to St. Armands Key, which he developed as a commercial and residential center. Moving the circus’ winter quarters to Sarasota in 1927, Ringling helped to create a new worldwide identity for the city as a “circus town.”
The Ringling Legacy in Sarasota
Aside from the white sandy beaches and warm Gulf waters, the community of Sarasota offers something unique to The Sunshine State – its cultural coast. Within the 571.75 square miles of land area and 35 miles of beachfront, Sarasota is home to more than 30 art galleries,numerous artist communities, theaters, professional symphonies, ballet and opera.
Home to Florida’s only designated state museum is the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. On frequent trips to Europe, the couple purchased numerous works of great art. Eventually, the collection outgrew their home, so they built an art museum to house their valuable accumulations. Works by master painter, Peter Paul Rubens and other Italian and Flemish artists of the 17th century fill the rooms.
Nearby, stands Ca d’ Zan (House of John), their Venetian-style mansion filled with priceless antiques. Chosen with great care, the furnishings reflect the lifestyle of the rich and famous of that era. With one season following another, the gardens and grounds continue to entrance visitors with their beauty and grandeur.
Inside the Circus Museum, RVers see a tribute to legendary performers such as Tom Thumb and the Zacchinis – a family of performers the circus made famous.
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