The Greatest Show on Earth

For anyone who ever wanted to run away and join the circus, ground zero is located in Sarasota, FL, where a legacy built by John and Mable Ringling continues to simmer in a culturally rich pot that still stirs the imagination.

It’s hard to believe that Sarasota, once a sleepy fishing village on the Gulf Coast of Florida at the turn of the 20th century, has become a shining example of shimmering glass towers and manicured mansions on the bay,

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and a cultural capital of fine and performing arts in America–

Van Wezel

born from a prophecy envisioned by circus impresario John Ringling, and fueled by The Greatest Show on Earth.

train poster

However, after 146 years of touring across America, the curtain has come down on the entertainment extravaganza, and the big top has folded forever after its last show on May 21, 2017.

According to Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment, the circus could no longer compete as the spectacle that had endured for so many generations. Plagued by prolonged battles with animal rights activists, rising operating costs, and children more enamored by super heroes, the circus had lost its lustre and cultural relevance.

Fortunately, for those of us who still remember the taste of roasted peanuts, and the sweet smell of cotton candy wafting in the air, a visit to Ringling Museum of the American Circus…

building entrance (3)

provides a venue to a bygone era, when the thrill of the circus parade would send spirits soaring, and unrelenting children reigning havoc on parents, until they were promised tickets to the latest and greatest show.

fun mirror

Established in 1948 by Chick Austin, Jr., Ringling’s first museum director, the circus museum displays Ringling memorabilia from the time the Ringling brothers purchased the Barnum and Bailey act in 1907.

The collection features beautifully carved circus wagons,

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Harp and Jesters Calliope Wagon, circa 1915
music wagon
Griffin and Venetian Bandwagon, circa 1907
lion wagon
Hagenbeck and Wallace Lion Tableau Bandwagon, circa 1904-1905
elephant wagon
Elephant Bandwagon, circa 1906
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Italian Percussion Bandwagon, circa 1915

props…

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Zacchini Repeating Firing Cannon, circa 1960s

posters…

sideshow stage

and costumes…

Emmett Kelly's Weary Willie clown shoes (3)
Emmett Kelley’s Weary Willie clown shoes, circa 1942

donated from local circus families, who eventually resettled in Sarasota after John Ringling moved the Circus Winter Quarters to town in 1927.

Winter Quarters (3)

Winter Quarters1 (2)

The museum features elaborate animal carvings, past…

tiger sculpture

and present, with active carving studios onsite for miniatures…

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and life-size creations.

carving studio

But the shining star of the show has to be the newly refurbished train carriage, named Wisconsin

John Ringling's Pullman business office

a customized rolling office and home of grand design and furnishings built by Pullman,

Pullman banner

which allowed John and Mable Ringling to criss-cross the nation, always in search of fresh talent and new acts for the big top.

The Ringling Museum of the American Circus features a rich folklore that honors the performers of a Golden Age, and celebrates an iconic American institution once hailed as the Mecca of family entertainment.

 

 

 

The museum is also a testament to five hard-working brothers born in Iowa to German immigrants, who rose from the ranks of penny actors to build a circus empire that lasted long after John Ringling’s death in 1936 until its recent demise…

and sadly, has become just another blip in the timeline of American amusement.