World of Fantasy

Rainy days in Florida are few and far between–at least this spring. In the land of sun, beaches and bikinis rain dampers outside pursuits so take the opportunity to explore one of the cultural highlights of west Florida–the Ringling campous located in Sarasota, FL.

Sarasota takes great pride in its reputation as an arts center. It’s home to the Ringling College of Art and Design. The city has a number of galleries and shops that sell art. It also has long avenues that are lined with various large modern sculptures including this iconic statue:

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The name Ringling may or may not mean much to many folks today, however for many it conjures memories of the circus. The name Ringling is everywhere in Sarasota as well in Baraboo, WI.

When I was ten or so my family began an annual summer pilgrimage to Baraboo. The town is located near the mother of all “tourist traps” the Wisconsin Dells and Devils Lake.
This is what the area looked like in the late 19th century:

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One of my fondest memories of those vacations were visits to the Ringling Circus museum — artifacts and live circus acts too!

Did you know Baraboo was the birthplace of the “largest and greatest show on earth” aka the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Pretty cool, huh? There were eight Ringling siblings — Five of the seven Ringling brothers were involved with the circus from 1874 to 1936 — the lone sister lacked interest. The last brother–John Ringling died in 1936 thus passing the circus on to the next generation.

Baraboo (I love to say the word) was the winter home for the circus until the early years of the 20th Century. After a brief transition to Connecticut the Ringlings’ Circus finally settled on Sarasota as its permanent winter quarters. John Ringling, then the sole surviving brother recognized Florida’s potential as a vacation destination and that Sarasota could be the center this phenomena. He immediately began to buy up as much land as he could.

He and his bride Mable moved to Sarasota. For a number of years Mable led the design and construction of a home which resembled a Venetian villa. She named it Ca’d’Zan or House of John. This is the website for the estate: http://www.ringling.org/ca-dzan. It provides a number of pictures and details about the site.

The couple were major art collectors — primarily renaissance and baroque period paintings and statuary:

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John lost nearly everything in the Depression except his art collection. He was determined to save it for posterity. Though limited by a lack of liquidity he was able to complete a museum that still houses their collection. The house, the art and estate were willed to the state of Florida after John’s death. He and Mable were buried in a garden adjacent to Ca’d’Zan.

In 1948, a new building was constructed to house circus memorabilia and artifacts. The collection came largely through donations by former circus performers. Gifts included thousands of costumes, props, posters, etc.:

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The collection was so vast that a new wing was added in 2006. This additional space allowed for interactive displays: these photos show the transformation from civilian to clown:

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For my money the best exhibit in this quirky museum is located in the museum wing added in 2012. It’s a 3,800 sq.ft. scale model of a circus — tents, animals, performers, trains, attendees, etc., plus the trains, wagons and animals that transported the circus. The Howard Circus model is situated in a hermetically sealed room surrounded by glass. Begun over a fifty years ago the work continues today. Volunteers assist Howard Tibbal as he adds more to the display each dayl. I apologize for getting carried away with photos, but aren’t the details amazing?

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I am virtually breathless with excitement as I sit here re-living my visit. Should I share more. Stop! Enough, already!

Before forget all three museums plus the grounds of the museum campus are included in one price–it’s a steal. Come down and enjoy this blast from the past.

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About tourdetom

I'm retired. Travel a lot.
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4 Responses to World of Fantasy

  1. Susan Peltola says:

    There is a Ringling in MT too-John owned a lot of ranch land there and a railroad line.

  2. Alfred says:

    Wonderful! Barrie & the boys and I were there in April 1999. Sarasota is also the home for Sailors Circus (a youth circus) where the founders of Circus Juventas, Dan & Betty Butler met & first learned their skills as teenagers.

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