Gilded Age Mansion, Art Museum, Theater, Gardens make the Ringling a cultural hub

by Karen Rubin

Among the many wonderful beach destinations along the Gulf of Mexico, Sarasota stands out, but not because of sand, surf and dolphins.

As soon as you enter Howard Tibbals' model circus, you realize this is something quite spectacular: tens of thousands of individually, meticulously carved objects, would fill a real three-ring circus © 2011 Karen Rubin/

The Circus.

Since the 1920s, when John Ringling made Sarasota the winter home of his famous Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus, Sarasota has been identified with the circus. Indeed, it is where the circus performers – that most vagabond of breed – have laid down roots.

Sarasota, it turns out, is to the circus word what Nashville is for Country Music.

Going through the Circus Museum – which turns out is only one element of an incomparably culturally rich Ringling Museum campus – is very much like going through the Country Music Hall of Fame, in that your appreciation is so enriched by being immersed in a fuller context of how all of this came about and what society was like at the time.

You may have been delighted and been thrilled by the clowning and death-defying stunts – who hasn’t? – and you may even have marveled at seeing a circus parade and wondered how they moved about with all those elephants and such, but here, you more fully appreciate what the circus meant to countless millions of people in thousands of communities across the country, for whom the circus was their only real link to the outside world, and an exotic one, at that.

My reason for coming to Sarasota, in fact, was because of its links to circus – it is what makes Sarasota unique among a string of lovely Gulf Coast beach resort destinations. What I hadn’t realized was the role John & Mable Ringling played in putting Sarasota on the map and making it a cultural hub for central Florida. In fact, when they first arrived here, Sarasota was a quiet little fishing and farming village of just 800 people.

The realism of Howard Tibbals' miniature circus is uncanny - you even see doctors treating injured performers © 2011 Karen Rubin/

And it wasn’t until I entered the new John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion that I realized that the Ringling Museum is this most extraordinary campus of culture – in one place, you not only have the most fascinating museums dedicated to circus, but performance venues for theater, ballet and opera including the historic Asolo Theatre (the theater itself actually dates from the Renaissance), the Ringling’s own Gilded Age mansion, Ca D’Zan, now magnificently restored with the Ringlings’ original furnishings, the Ringling Museum of Art, housing their collection of European art – Reubens, Halls, Velasquez, Coptic (Egyptian) antiques; Baroque and sculpture – acquired during their trips to Europe to recruit new circus acts, and magnificent formal gardens (Mable established the first rose garden in Florida).

Be prepared to stay the day, walk a lot, and be enthralled.

Frankly, the biggest surprise to me was that the Ringling Museum we see today is nothing like what visitors would have experienced, even five years ago. The reason is part of the fascinating, dramatic rags-to-riches rise of this dynamic couple, a drama in which the estate itself becomes a character after the Ringlings pass away, bequeathing the estate to the state of Florida. It took 10 years, between 1936-1946 for all the lawsuits from creditors to be resolved.

But for the rest of the 20th century, 1946-1996, the Ringling Museum was a horribly neglected ward of the state, allowed to decline and deteriorate. The magnificent home we see today with its stunning display of furnishings, was almost bare and in disrepair; the Fine Arts museum roof leaked and the Asolo Theatre was condemned. Then a Florida Congressman, John M. McKay, appalled at the condition, intervened, and set the stage for new funding streams, and in July 2000, a new Florida law assigned responsibility for The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art to Florida State University (FSU).

Reopening in 2006, The Ringling Museum has undergone its own Renaissance, and we are the beneficiaries.

There is so much to see and do, it is helpful to have a background for what you see and help organize your visit, so stop first at the Estate Orientation Video in the John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion for an overview of facilities and programs on the Estate, to help you organize your visit (there are also helpful people around).

Howard Tibbals' miniature circus takes you to the backlots © 2011 Karen Rubin/

Taking note of the timing of the various docent tours and films, we head first for the Tibbals Miniature Circus. I imagine this will be a cute novelty that will take a few minutes; I wind up spending a couple of hours (I can’t be sure how long).

When you first walk in you see a marvelous collection of vintage circus posters, in their day, intended to hype expectation. I don’t realize it then, but it has the same effect here, setting the stage for what turns out to be a day in the life of the circus. Then you walk into what turns out to be a circus-sized room (it happens to be darkened at that moment, mimicking the night) and almost immediately, the bombastic rhetorical flourishes of the circus posters do not even begin to do this marvel justice:

Colossal! Stupendous! The Biggest Miniature Circus the World Has Ever Seen!

This hand-carved circus model, created over a 50-year time span by master model builder and philanthropist Howard C. Tibbals of Tennessee and Florida, depicts with meticulous detail the tented American circus during its heyday, 1919-1938, and would fill three rings of a real circus. There are tens of thousands of individually carved, teeny-weeny figures – each one unique. If there is a team of horses, each one has a different face and expression and pose. Famous circus performers are actually identifiable.

Howard Tibbals, according to the Ringling website, saw his first circus as a three-year-old. When he was five, he watched with fascination through a telescope as a circus set up on a nearby vacant lot, and the impression stayed with him for life. As a teenager, he read a 1952 Popular Mechanics article, “Here Comes the Circus” that detailed the logistics of moving Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The article contained a schematic of the 79-car train; a cut-away layout of the circus grounds; and a diagram illustrating the rigging and set up of the Big Top tent. Tibbals was hooked, and by 1956, while a student at North Carolina State University, he started sewing a replica of the six-pole Big Top tent that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus used in 1938. His pastime turned into a life-long passion for accuracy when he met noted circus model builder Harold Dunn in 1958 (whose models are also on display). After picking up tips on model building from Dunn, Tibbals began to create the greatest model circus in the world – the Howard Bros. Circus.

The 1961 Bruno Zacchini Super Repeating Cannon, from which the human cannonball would be shot to soar across the arena. The operating mechanism was removed to preserve the secret © 2011 Karen Rubin/

The experience follows the course of a day in the circus – the lighting changes from day to night and back again – the music and sound effects changes as you walk through, from where the circus trains unload, to the back lots where you see massively long tables where circus people are sitting at breakfast (even the bowls of fruit have individually carved pieces piled in), to where you see performers practicing or sitting around or even being tended to by the doctor, and elephants pulling up the poles for tents, to another giant tent where you peak in and see clowns putting on their makeup, to the private areas for the star performers.

When you see it, you couldn’t be more engaged or fascinated if you were watching the actual circus come to town.

The scenes are juxtaposed with even tiny video screens that show actual documentary films from that time, appropriate sound effects and as you move around to the tents where the midway, menagerie and circus are going on, appropriate circus music.

Jaw-dropping, heart-stopping amazing. Even PT Barnum’s words fail to describe it.

I can’t even imagine how all the figures were set up, how someone could have had that kind of patience.

A vintage poster shows five Ringling Brothers, who as boys in Bugaboo, Wisconsin, became entranced by circus, and went on to develop the foremost circus in America © 2011 Karen Rubin/

The level of detail is beyond obsessive. Tibbals (who called his circus the Howard Bros. Circus because he wasn’t allowed to use the Ringling name) – even put money into cash boxes that wouldn’t be seen, and there are characters that you don’t see. Why? Because they were there, and because Tibbals wanted there to be this connection, this sense of reality, with the viewer.

I am convinced of the accuracy because as we move to the next building, the Circus Museum where you see the actual circus cars, devices and artifacts, you can see pretty much what Tibbals depicted.

When you get to the Howard Bros. circus tent, the aerialists twirl, the horses speed around the ring, and 7,000 folding chairs that actually fold.

You only just begin to appreciate what the circus meant in those times, when most people lived in rural agricultural villages with limited access to the outside world, let alone the exotic animals and people of the circus.

“The circus lifted people out of the ordinariness of everyday life.” In many places, schools and factories were shut down for that one special day when the circus came to town, starting with the festive parade up main street that finished with the calliope, and ended just as swiftly as a dream, with the stakes and tent poles pulled up and loaded again onto the waiting circus trains.

“It is the only spectacle,” Ernest Hemingway said, “which while you watch it, gives the feeling of being in a truly happy dream.”

“It was a fantastic display, an overwhelming array of sights and sounds.” Two advance advertising railroad cars were come first, unleashing a “Flying Squadron” who plastered posters on every available surface for 50 square miles, with “astounding promises of wonders never seen.”

Each of the 3,000 circus people have their own distinct features © 2011 Karen Rubin/

“One thousand workers set up a city without a zip code.” There would be this fantastical transformation from an empty lot to a massive city under canvas.

The circus artists were the blockbuster celebrities of their day. They performed fearless feats of acrobatics and animal tricks. “Men fly through air. Animals walk on two legs.”

You come to the midway, and here, you should really look closely for the level of detail is utterly astonishing – the ticket takers, the balloons, the cotton candy. Then you see how people were funneled into the Big Tent, which held 15,000 people, through the menagerie, which for most was their only opportunity to see animals from exotic locales (and an ingenious way to funnel the crowd into the tent, something that is emulated at today’s themeparks).

As you move around the model, the music and sound effects change, adding to the realism. Peer into the Big Top, and you see aerialists twirl, teams of horses going through their paces around the ring, hear the circus music.

At the end of the show, 150 circus wagons had to be loaded onto flat cars in a precise order in order to fit perfectly.

The “Flying Squadron” would have left in advance, gone on to the next town to paste up the posters and create the hype.

Famous clown Emmett Kelly's hat is on exhibit at the Ringling Circus Museum © 2011 Karen Rubin/

By 1 a.m., there would be an empty field, again, and the circus would have already gone on to another town, where it will again be the center of universe for one day.

Seeing it all unfold before you (even in miniature) you begin to appreciate that the circus traveled with 1300 workers and performers and 800 animals. In less than four hours time, the workers would have set the Big Top’s six center poles, 74 quarter poles, 122 sidewall polls, 550 stakes, 26,000 yards of canvas, three rings, four stages, a hippodrome track, and seats for 15,000 people. The 2 1/2 hour performance would feature 800 artists in 22 displays.

In season, the circus traveled up to 15000 miles and performed in 150 towns and cities; fewer than 20 of the venues were more than a single day.

The second floor of the Tibbals Learning Center presents the full history of the circus, and for the first time, you fully appreciate what the circus was.

Elements of circus – feats of skill and artistry – go back to 2000 BC; the word “circus” comes from “circle” of the Greek gymnasium.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, groups of traveling entertainers began to appear around Europe. Troubadours would bring dancing bears, dogs, acrobats, jugglers and perform on a stage made of wood. For many in the Middle Ages, the circus was only source of information of outside world. The circus tradition continued into Europe’s fairs in the 17th century.

The modern circus developed in the 1750-1840 era. In 1768, Philip Astley, called “master of the ring,” staged the first modern circus. It turns out that the remarkable feats of horsemanship was made possible by the centrifugal force of the ring. Comic characters were added in the 1778-1837 period, and Joseph Grimaldi, called the “King of Circus” is considered the father of modern day clowning.

The fabulous Gilded Age Venetian-style waterfront mansion, Ca D'Zan - House of John, but everyone refers to it as Mable's house © 2011 Karen Rubin/

The first American circus was staged in 1793. President George Washington and his family actually attended a circus at 12th and Market Streets in Philadelphia. (Not without controversy, there were attempts at passing laws banning circuses.)

The Golden Age of the American Circus was 1870-1938, when P.T. Barnum, the “Prince of Humbug” and the “world’s greatest showman,” James A. Bailey, and the Ringling Brothers reigned supreme.

In 1888, Barnum combined his circus with James A. Bailey to form the Barnum & Bailey circus, and when James Bailey died in 1906, the Ringlings acquired the Barnum & Bailey circus for $410,000.

Barnum’s was first large circus to travel by rail and he would open his season at Madison Square Garden, something that John Ringling envied.

The exhibit is absolutely fascinating – there are artifacts, like famous clown Lou Jacobs’ birdcage which he used in 1952, and amazing vintage films including of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the 1889-1902 era.

Around the room are the Dunn circus model.

John Ringling's bar at his waterfront mansion, Ca D'Zan © 2011 Karen Rubin/

You come to a mock-up of Howard Tibbals’ workroom where he carved the miniatures, and you can watch a PBS documentary about his work. (He was asked how many miniatures there are and he said he could only estimate 40,000 to 50,000, because he isn’t quite sure, but include 3000 circus workers, 55 train cars, 900 sets of silverware, food, balloons, and 7,000 folding chairs. They are precise scale – Tibbals says he checked them against photos. He is such a stickler that there are miniatures you can’t even see – like money inside the ticket taker’s box.

During our visit, we could see the work being done on an expansion to the Circus Museum, opening in 2012, which will contain exhibitions that celebrate circus performers “where visitors of all ages will experience the magic of the center ring.”

Circus Museum

A second building houses the Circus Museum. Surprisingly, one of the newest parts of the exhibit is the “Wisconsin”, the actual private Pullman railroad car that John and Mable Ringling used when they traveled with the circus. What is remarkable is that it only recently came back to the estate – it had been sold, used for different purposes, and only recently returned, where it is undergoing the most amazing restoration, virtually before your eyes.

You see the actual circus cage cars, and other devices – the real circus cars and scenes that Howard Tibbals may well have used for his models.

The most fantastic exhibit, though, is the Bruno Zacchini Super Repeating Cannon. That’s the silver truck from which the human cannonball would be shot to soar across the arena. This one dates from 1961, and interestingly, the operating mechanism was removed “and remains a guarded family secret how it operated.”

The private tour of Ca D'Zan gives you access to upper floors; here, the view of a grand room from the mezzanine © 2011 Karen Rubin/"

Apparently, a “death defying stunt” had been a tradition of circuses since 1880s and in this genre, the human cannonball was one of most thrilling. Its novelty faded, though but in 1890, was brought back by Ildebrando Zacchini (1868-1942), who got the idea from a Jules Verne novel. His trick was to use compressed air instead of explosives, to launch the human cannonball, and for a time, the Italian government thought of it for the military.

Here you will also see Emmett Kelly’s costume and his tattered hat and Lou Jacobs’ clown car.

There are docent tours of the exhibit (check the schedule).

I can’t even remember how many hours I spent in the Circus Museum – I couldn’t pull myself away – but however long it was, it wasn’t enough.

Historic Asola Theatre

Taking note of the time, I return to the Asolo Theatre to see a film about the life of John & Mable Ringling. This is not to be missed on so many levels, and a must-see before you go to the Ca’Zan mansion.

Plus, it affords an opportunity to see inside the Historic Asolo Theatre (and sit down and rest).

As I first sit down, I think it is an elaborate reproduction (that’s what you would come to expect from visits to Orlando’s themeparks), but it is actually the original 18th century theater.

A short film describes its history: An 18th-century treasure in a 21st-century venue, the Historic Asolo Theater is a work of art in its own right. The Italianate palace playhouse, with three balconies, was created in Asolo, Italy in 1798 to honor the 15th-century exiled Queen Catherine Cornaro of Cyprus. In the late 1940s, the theater was dismantled and brought to the Ringling Estate in Sarasota. From this important stage sprang much of the theater, the opera, and the music that distinguishes this Gulf Coast city as one of the nation’s leading cultural centers. In 2006, after years of painstaking restoration, America’s only 18th-century European theater was reset in the John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion just inside the historic Cà d’Zan Gatehouse on the Ringling Museum estate. And it is once again a performing arts venue, presenting a diverse roster of theater, music, dance, film, and lectures (check the schedule).

It is in this magnificent venue that you see a movie, “Life and Times of John & Mable Ringling.”

John Ringling, one of five Ringling brothers, came from modest means in Bugaboo, Wisconsin, to become one of the wealthiest men in the United States. But when he died, in 1936, he had just $311 in the bank.

The American Illustrator Willy Pogany painted himself into the ceiling of the Ringlings' Game room © 2011 Karen Rubin/

Mable grew up on a farm in Ohio, yearned for bigger things, and met John when she was working as a cashier in a Chicago restaurant.

Married in 1905, they shared a passion for art and music, and spent a lifetime educating themselves, collecting art in a deliberate way.

There were five Ringling Brothers, and in the 1860s, a life-changing event occurred when the circus boat unloaded. From then on, the Ringling brothers would put on their own shows, played musical instruments. They mimicked the circus, parading down Main Street, and putting on their first show in the backyard tent. In 1882, they took their show on the road. At 16, John was the comedian.

They steadily built up their circus show, bringing in contortionists and a trapeze. “Their fundamental idea was to please people,” the narrator says. In contrast to other circuses, they had a disciplined organization. “It was known as the ‘Sunday School’ circus.

In 1884, the Ringlings merged with Robinson circus, and put the circus on rails for the first time. John Ringling became the advance man, negotiating deals and managing routes.

Over the years, the Ringling Circus acquired the Barnum & Bailey circus, at a time when the circus was unmatched as popular entertainment.

John Ringling became one of the wealthiest men in the country adding to his circus business with investments in oil, railroads and real estate. He was heavily involved in the Florida land boom of the 1920s, and had a vision of turning Sarasota into a major tourist resort.

“It was the Roaring 20s. The motto was buy, buy, buy.”

The Ringlings wanted to build a waterfront palace in the Venetian style – Ca D’Zan was built in just two years, between 1924-1926, for the then-staggering sum of $1.5 million. At the same time, they were fulfilling their vision to build a Museum of Fine Arts to make their collection of European art available to the public.

Meanwhile, Ringling was building a Ritz Carlton Hotel on Longboat Key.

But then Florida’s land boom went bust in 1927; work stopped on the Ritz Carlton permanently, halting his dream of turning Sarasota into world class resort. The opening of his museum was delayed.

Then in 1929, Mable, just 54, died of Addison’s disease, and not long after, came Black Friday, when the stock market crashed, ushering in the Great Depression.

Ringling had taken out a multi-million loan to buy out smaller circuses.

“He lost control of the greatest show on earth.” Nonetheless, he struggled to keep art collection and finish the museum, which opened 1930. He suffered strokes in 1932, and in 1936, at the age of 70, this boy from Baraboo who came from such humble means to become one of the wealthiest men in the country, died with a mere $311 in the bank.

The American Illustrator Willy Pogany painted Mable & John Ringling into the fanciful Venetian-carnival scenes on the ceiling of the Ringlings' Game Room © 2011 Karen Rubin/

“By his death, he saved the museum by willing it to the State of Florida. It was his final triumph. His vision of a unique American city, his legacy.”

Cà d’Zan, House of John is House that Mable Built

With this background, we are now ready to visit Cà d’Zan. Regular admission lets you tour most of the first floor on your own; for $5 more, you can join a docent tour which takes you to first floor and important rooms on the second (recommended).

And for $20, you can join “Private Places -Special Cà d’Zan Experience,” a private tour which goes to most of the other rooms, bathrooms (you should see the painted medicine cabinets), guest rooms, and most wonderfully, the third-floor game room, The Vault (a storeroom the size of a NYC studio apartment where you can see a whole room devoted to wines and spirits, up to the fourth floor to see the magnificent room where Will Rogers and New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker, and New York Governor Al Smith stayed, and finally (weather permitting), you get to climb up the exterior stairs to Belvedere Tower, with its spectacular view. (The Tower is too small for an actual wedding, but has been rented out for marriage proposals).

You actually should take all three tours (but not if you have children).

As I look around the stunning interiors, I am reminded that the visitor experience at the Ringling is vastly different today than it was up until 2006, especially Cà d’Zan.

The mansion underwent a restoration between 1996 and 2006, and the furnishings brought back, our docent Janet Schrock, explains. The house is now about 95 percent filled with its original furnishings – which provide such insight and connection to John and Mable Ringling, as well as to the Gilded Age.

It strikes you how tasteful, how studied and deliberate, it is, but a home that reflects the people and their lives and interests and even humor (as you can see from the painted ceilings by illustrator in the game room).

The name might mean “House of John,” but Cà d’Zan is really Mable’s house (even the docent refers to the house as “she”). Mable had such an eye for detail, even the servants’ entrance had iron decoration, and only from here can you see some of the detail in the ceilings.

The house is exquisite for its architecture and interior design, but also as a window to this couple, who rose from such humble background to the pinnacle of the Gilded Age.

The private tour is quite amazing because it is so personalized.

Visiting one of the bedrooms, we learn that Mable, who had no children of her own, raised three of her sister’s children (one of her sisters was deaf and mute).

Most exciting is walking into “The Vault” – literally behind a bank safe, but an actual room with a room within the room for wine and spirits (it was Prohibition, after all).

Belvedere Tower atop Ca D'Zan, which you visit on the private tour, provides a spectacular view © 2011 Karen Rubin/

One of the most interesting rooms of all is the Game room with a ceiling painted by American illustrator Willy Pogany, who put his own portrait into one of the illustrations, all depicting a Venetian Carnival, and a “portrait” of John and Mable, that reflects their humor.

We are the last to leave the Ringling Museum, and never made it to the Fine Arts Museum, a 21-gallery Florentine-style palace built to emulate the Uffizi Gallery, which houses the Ringlings’ collection of European paintings and art objects.

The Ringling is a unique attraction that makes Sarasota a unique experience, and any any-weather, any-time-of-year destination.

Open daily, 10 am-5 pm (grounds open from 9:30 am-6 pm); On, Thursdays, Art After 5, the Museum of Art and Circus Museum open until 8 p.m. On Mondays the Museum of Art, including special exhibitions, is open to the public free of charge. Adult/$25, Senior 65+/$20, Students 18+ w/ID/ and Child 6-17/$10. Saturdays features family-friendly tours and activities.

Ringling Museum, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, Florida 34243, 941.359.5700; advanced ticketing, 941.358.3180, Plan your visit at

For visitor information, visit Sarasota Convention & Visitor Bureau, 701 N Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, FL 34236, 800-800-3906, 941- 957-1877,

See also:

Sandpiper Inn on Longboat Key is Home-Away-From-Home for Exploring Sarasota

Experience ‘Real Florida’ at Myakka River State Park on Gulf Coast

Mote Aquarium

Tuesday, 22 February, 2011


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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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