I can only recall visiting the circus once as a child. Because I was at the big top as just a wee tot, my memory of the show itself is hazy, but I have a clear vision of a crowded arena and of being captivated by the glow of hundreds of light-up novelty toys glowing in the dark – like fireflies on a warm summer night.
For many reasons (which I will not get into on this post), the circus has fallen out of favor in recent times. This ultimately lead to one of the most recognizable shows – the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus – shutting its doors forever in 2017. The day may soon come where there are no circuses left to entertain the masses, but with any luck, the nostalgia will still remain.
What is all this circus talk is leading up to? Will this be a post about a trip to a circus? The answer to that is yes… and no. We didn’t go to a circus per se, but we did go to the next best thing. A circus MUSEUM!
The Ringling Museum is yet another Florida gem that, until recently, I had no idea existed. It’s located in Sarasota on a huge plot of land which previously belonged to the late John Ringling and his wife Mable. It was also used as the winter quarters for the circus in the early years of the Ringling Brothers. If you’re interested, this map shows a layout of how the space was used, and also gives you a pretty good picture of the massive size of the property.
For $25 (adult pricing) you get access to the original Circus Museum, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, and 66 acres of surrounding property including Mable Ringling’s beautiful rose garden and a number of other gardens and landscapes located around the estate. Because we were short on time and the museum property closed at 5, we declined to purchase the optional guided/self-guided tour of the the mansion (named “Ca’ d’Zan”) where John and Mable had lived.
Expert tip – if you decide to visit, make sure you get there early. The hours are 10-5, but there is so much to see! There are also multi-day packages available if you don’t want to squeeze everything into a single day.
Our first stop was to the original circus museum. We walked past the heavy curtains which separate the museum from the rest of the world, pausing to let our eyes adjust to the dim lighting. It’s strange… I know that we were in a public place and that there were plenty of other people in the room having their own museum experiences, but when I think back my impression is that it was only George and I, exploring the exhibits alone.
After you get your bearings, one of the first features you might notice is a large pea-green section of train. This is “The Wisconsin”, a luxury private rail car once owned by the Ringlings. John and Mable had sold the car many years ago, but it was recently re-acquired and restored by the Ringling estate. It’s now one of the major attractions of the museum. While you can’t get on board to explore the inside, you can peek through each of the windows to see the multiple bedrooms, staterooms, kitchen and dining areas and, of course, bathrooms – all of which have exactly as much glamor and showiness you might expect from the wealthy of nearly 100 years ago.
Steps away from the Wisconsin sat a cannon-equipped car, once used to shoot brave (or foolhardy) performers into the sky.
Important side note – they frown on people trying to climb into the cannon to see if it still works – so don’t try it, no matter how tempting it is.
As you continue to walk deeper into the museum, you can see much more circus equipment, performing props, and parade wagons – the latter of these immediately made me think of those little boxes of animal crackers I ate as a child. Do they still make those?
In one of the eerier sections of the museum, there are life-sized outlines of behind-the-scene circus folk performing their everyday duties. The shadows cast by the cleverly placed spotlights created an ambience that left me feeling as if I had wandered into a two-dimensional circus of ghosts.
Another side note – there is an excellent half hour movie shown in the museum about the early life and beginnings of the Ringling circus, and specifically John and Mable Ringling. I highly recommend that you leave yourself time to see it.
As strange and wonderful as I came to expect this museum to be, there were still some exhibits that left me scratching my head wondering, “What in the world?” One example – there was a bird cage with an old shoe in it. The description said only that it belonged to Lou Jacobs and it was used in the “Greatest Show On Earth”. Lou Jacobs was a clown who worked in the Ringling Bros. Circus, so perhaps the shoe was his pet bird? I suppose if you use your imagination and squint your eyes real tight, it does look a bit like a canary.
Then we come to this horse, which seemed to have sunken halfway into the floor. Was it quicksand? Tar? Horse leg theft? Or did the statue builders just get lazy? We may never know. I do have to admit that at the time, I didn’t think to look for a description around the horse. I took the picture specifically so I could make a Never Ending Story reference in the photo caption.
By now you are surely wondering, “All of this is semi-entertaining so far, but we’re talking about the circus here! Weren’t there any costumes?” Oh yes, impatient one. There were costumes.
The circus propaganda affixed to the walls was another entertaining aspect of this wonderful place. The below poster in particular spoke to me (not literally of course, but with everything else I’d seen so far, that actually wouldn’t have been so far-fetched).
Two grinning children riding a saddled hippopotamus… What could possibly go wrong? While we’re on the subject of hippos, did you know how close America came to importing and using hippos for meat purposes in the early part of its settlement? I make sure to mention this interesting fact whenever I happen to be discussing hippos (which actually happens more often than you’d think).
Moving on! There were a few museum exhibits that encourage you to “play”… but again, and I can’t stress this enough, NOT the cannon.
I tried my hand (er, foot) at walking across the tightrope and made it all the way across on my first try! I’m thinking new career path? I was also able to squeeze myself into Lou Jacobs’ clown car. How I got out I still have no idea.
And now we are up to the most impressive feature in the circus museum – the miniature circus. We probably spent close to half our museum time marveling at this creation. As a child, I had my own obsession with miniatures and had a dollhouse to place them in, but this setup made my dollhouse look like a dollhouse for ants.
This masterpiece, known as the “world’s largest miniature circus”, was built by Howard Tibbals, a circus collector who has been working on this big-tiny representation of the fictional “Howard Bros. Circus” for over 50 years. If you were to visit the Ringling Circus Museum and see nothing else, your time would not have been wasted.
Not only can you see a mini-version of the show itself, but you’re also privy to behind-the-scenes action that you’d normally never see. There are circus folk relaxing between showtimes, elephants and other animals being fed, bathed, and trained, workers building components for the next big show (you can even catch some of them slacking off!), and so much more. The attention to detail on this circus is, for lack of a better word, awesome. The buildings are decorated with tiny posters, tiny tickets are in the hands of the tiny people, and though most people would never see it, there is even tiny money in the tiny cash registers. We learned that bit of trivia by watching an interview with Mr. Tibbals, which was playing in the background in one of the rooms.
Each time you visit the Howard Bros. Circus you are certain to see something new – either because you missed it before, or because Mr. Tibbals is still working on the circus today. You might even be lucky enough to see him working on the next addition in his museum workshop!
The unexpected details were so much fun to find. They had an elephant bathing in a creek! I got way too excited about this when I saw it.
And that, my friends, brings part I of my Ringling adventure to an end. But we’re not done yet! Feel free to take a break, get a snack or stretch. I’ll wait.
Oh, You’re ready? Fabulous – on to part II!
So, we unfortunately didn’t have time to visit the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art on this trip. We had spent a lot of time at the Circus Museum and the clock was ticking ever closer to 5… but we really wanted to visit the rose garden and see the Ca’ d’Zan before we left.
The Mable Ringling rose garden is the oldest rose garden in Florida. As you walk down its paths, you are surrounded by floral fragrances and weathered statues. The flowers all look to be lovingly cared after – perhaps by the spirit of Mable herself? Many of the roses are labeled with species names and the years planted. I was shocked to see that some of the roses were dated back to the early 1900’s. I had no idea roses could live that long!
Coming up on the mansion… At this point I was glad I wore my comfortable shoes. Oh, who am I kidding. I always wear my comfortable shoes.
One thing that the Ringlings really did right with their ornamental decor was their choice of “guardian” statues that were placed on either end of some pathways. This one below was my favorite. I was almost afraid to cross their path lest they detect fear in my heart and obliterate me with laser beams shooting out from their eyes (another Never Ending Story reference!) .
In contrast, this happy little character had no semblance of danger – in fact, I was half expecting it to jump up and lick my face to greet me!
And now, the Ca’ d’Zan! While we didn’t opt for the add-on ticket to tour the inside of the mansion, we were still able to wander around outside of it.
Yes, that is a bride and groom in the above picture. Funny story – as I got closer I realized I knew the bride from my office. Neither of us live anywhere near Sarasota or had any idea the other would be there – but I suppose such is the magic of the circus.
There was so much more to look at on the Ringling property. Garden sculptures and courtyard statues were everywhere. Towards the end of our walking tour, we came across these statues of animal heads which confused us at first… until it hit us that they were representations of the Chinese New Year animal zodiac!
It was shortly after this point when a groundskeeper found us and told us that the museum and grounds were now closed. We looked at the time and were surprised that it was after 5! What felt like minutes was actually hours.
And so, my friends, this post has come to an end… at least until I update it when I visit the parts that I missed!
May all your days be circus days.