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The Ringling Museum Preserves the Story of the Circus for All Time

By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus will be in Rhode Island for the last time ever when it plays the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence from May 4-7. It’s hard to believe that after 146 years of touring the country, once it finishes its last performance at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island on May 21st the storied show will cease to exist.

Ironically, after it is gone future generations who want to get a real sense of the mammoth scale and scope of this unique form of entertainment that dates back at least 250 years, might get the best idea of what it was like from a one sixteenth life size, 42,000 piece mini-replica in a Florida museum. The model recreates a typical big top show from the first third of the 20th century. Improbable as it might seem, the painstakingly crafted, sprawling reproduction actually conveys beautifully the enormous magnitude of the circus in its heyday.

Called the Howard Brothers Circus Model, the unique creation is based on the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey iconic show. It is the creation of Howard Tibbals, 80, who has been working on it for the last 60 years.

The model has been on display for 10 years in Sarasota, Florida at The John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art (or The Ringling as it is called). A multi-faceted facility with several spectacular buildings, the museum is situated on a 66 acre campus with manicured grounds and gardens on Sarasota Bay.

According to a media release from The Ringling, the Circus Museum established in 1948 is the first museum in the United States to document the historical roots of the circus and to celebrate the spectacular Ringling family enterprise that has defined the American circus.

The Ringling’s circus collection, which includes many historical items, posters, and interactive exhibits in addition to the Howard Brothers model is displayed in both the original Circus Museum and the Tibbals Learning Center. Among the unique pieces on view is The Wisconsin, John Ringling’s original fully restored personal railroad car.

According to a book by Tibbals, in the 10 years his scale model has been open to the public at the museum more than 2.9 million visitors have viewed the awe-inspiring depiction which represents the entire spectrum of circus life.

Visitors set their own pace and walk around the circumference of the model on a raised platform that surrounds the miniature facsimile.

A fact sheet issued by The Ringling explains: “Covering 3,800 square feet [larger than many modern homes], the model represents an entire circus that would cover 16-20 acres. The perimeter of the model measures 475 feet — over one and a half times the length of a football field.”

Behind Plexiglas, the spectacular layout is lit to show the passage of time so that day turns to night and then back to day as visitors walk by. Animated model acrobats and dancers under the big top do their acts as viewers pass them. Meanwhile, small video screens play repeating loops of contemporaneous film clips that document the various aspects of circus life being portrayed nearby in the model.

There are also placards detailing what is being shown, listing statistics such as the fact that the 1,300 circus personnel consumed 3,900 meals a day served by a corps of waiters in the dining tent. The meals were served on porcelain plates and consumed with real silverware. Daily provisions used by the cookhouse included 2,200 loaves of bread, 285 pounds of butter, 226 dozen eggs, 2,470 pounds of fresh meat, 200 pounds of coffee, and so on.

Some 154 scale model wagons and 55 train cars that brought the show from town to town are present. So are the trucks that moved the various complex individual components of the greatest show on earth to their designated places on the lot. The menagerie of animals, phalanxes of clowns, gymnasts, jugglers, sideshow attractions, musical acts and the like are all on display, frozen in time forever, the enduring representation of a soon to be gone show that fascinated generation after generation in America.

Last year some 425,000 people visited the museum. Of those 1001 were Rhode Islanders, at least one of whom, to this writer’s certain knowledge, was from Smithfield.

Alice Murphy, public relations manager for The Ringling, says that news of the circus closing has sparked even more interest in the museum.

“We’ve definitely seen people feeling nostalgic about the circus,” she comments. However, she stressed that the cessation of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey show, the largest circus in the world, is “not really the death of the circus.”

There are smaller shows that will continue, including Circus Sarasota, a one ring production that offers traditional and contemporary acts and attractions for limited engagements in the city that was once the winter home of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. (One of the co-founders of Circus Sarasota is aerialist Dolly Jacobs, daughter of the renowned Lou Jacobs, a famous clown who was with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey for 64 years. He was the creator of the clown car.)

The Ringling museum has worked with Feld Entertainment, the parent company of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, in the past, notes Murphy. She discloses that CEO Kenneth Feld has said they will continue to work with the museum in the future.

Rich and varied attractions

Visitors to the impressive Ringling complex can also see more than the circus-centered exhibits.

For instance there is The Museum of Art. Publicity materials tell how “galleries were built to showcase the Ringlings’ bold and magnificent collection of European Old Masters and classical antiquities. Highlights include impressive paintings by Rubens, Gainsborough, Tiepolo, Velazquez and Veronese. These original galleries have been expanded over the years to create spaces that showcase works across eras and cultures. The 20,000-square foot Searing Wing presents exhibitions curated by The Ringling as well as significant shows from other institutions.”

Also featured is Ca’ d’Zan. Inspired by the Venetian Gothic style of palazzos surrounding the canals of Venice, John and Mable Ringling’s spectacular 36,000-square-foot winter residence Ca’ d’Zan was completed on the Sarasota Bay waterfront in 1926. Considered one of the last of the great Gilded Age mansions, the Ringling’s hosted grand concerts and magnificent ballroom parties there, and it stands as a testament to the American Dream in the Roaring Twenties. Its architectural details, furnishings, paintings and decorative art objects offer a glimpse into the rarified lifestyle of a couple dedicated to living with, appreciating, and advancing the arts and design. One of the country’s significant architectural treasures, Ca’ d’Zan was comprehensively restored from 1996 to 2002.

In addition there are the Bayfront Gardens. The media release points out that the gardens include “hundreds of native and exotic trees — a collection of tropical flora — including massive banyan trees, as well as a variety of wildlife. Among the gardens is the oldest rose garden in Florida, completed by Mable Ringling in 1913.”

Another feature of the museum is the Historic Asolo Theater. Created in Asolo, Italy, in 1798, the theater is one of the more important architectural artifacts ever brought to America. With an appreciation for the collaborative artistry of musicians, choreographers, actors, and painters, the museum’s first Director, A. Everett Austin, Jr. purchased the palace playhouse and established the museum’s program in performance in the early 1950s. In 2006, America’s only 18th-century European theater was fully restored and reinstalled in the new John M. McKay Visitors Pavilion. It continues to serve as The Ringling’s gallery for the exhibition of the Art of Performance, a unique curatorial program.

Immediately adjacent to the museum grounds is the Asolo Repertory Theatre. According to on-line sources and other materials proffered by the company, the facility has roots in the Historic Asolo, but is a separate entity. It is currently housed in the Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts where it has several performing spaces, including the main stage, the Harold E. and Esther M. Mertz Theatre, which was brought over from Scotland, where it had its first life as the Dunfermline Opera House. The largest repertory theatre in the southeastern United States, Asolo Rep presents a year-round season of about ten titles with as many as five shows playing in any given week.

Staff member Lauryn E. Sasso, a Smithfield native, is the resident dramaturg and casting associate at Asolo Rep. The theatre has received wide recognition, and in addition to its major productions it offers educational programs that reach thousands of Florida students each year.

Truly, at The Ringling Museum and its environs there is more to see and do than at a three ring circus!

Full disclosure: Lauryn E. Sasso is the writer’s daughter.