Ruskin FL, Wednesday March 18
The Ringling. One simple name. The advertising/branding people were listened to. One simple name that comprises several different components on 60 plus acres on Sarasota Bay in Sarasota, FL. The Ringling includes the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the Circus Museum, Ca’d’Zan-the winter mansion of John and Mable Ringling, the Tibbals Learning Center, Bayfront Gardens, and the Historic Azolo Theater. We spent 7.5 hours here today exploring the complex.
Many of us above a certain age associate Ringling with the Ringling Brothers Circus (aka Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus). John Ringling was one of the five Ringling Brothers that began their circus in Baraboo WI in 1884. Circuses were immensely popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s and John became wealthy. He invested in oil, railroads, real estate, and ranching and became one of the wealthiest men in America.
John and Mable, his wife, set up a winter home in Sarasota and believed in the area. They spent time in Europe searching out new circus acts-and bought art masterpieces also. A mansion was begun in 1924 and completed in 1926. John and Mable had no children, Mable died in 1929 and John in 1936. John built an art museum and it opened in 1930. When he died in 1936, he left the art museum, house and grounds to the State of Florida. The circus portion of the grounds was added after WWII.
We arrived at 9:45 A.M. for the 10 AM opening of the buildings. Our first stop was Ca’ d’Zan which means “House of John” in Venetian dialect. While it might be called John’s, Mable was responsible for the design features and the architects labeled their drawings: Home for Mable Ringling in Sarasota FL. We toured the first floor, passing on the extra cost docent tour of the second and third floors.
The mansion had a staff of seven for upkeep and partying, with movie stars, politicians, circus people and others who kept the parties hopping. There is a ballroom, grand dining room, court area, etc with all of the back room preparation area you might find in a large restaurant. The colored windows look onto a terrace and Sarasota Bay. The building style is Venetian Gothic, mimicking looks the Ringlings fancied after their trips to Europe. Unfortunately Mable died after only three years here. John’s second marriage was described as brief and contentious. The Great Depression caused John’s finances to fall apart and at his death he had $311 in cash plus his home, museum and art work. There was a brief comment that probate and litigation were troublesome after his death but the house, museum and art work did end up as a gift to Florida.
Our second stop were the two buildings focused on the circus. One building was built in 1948, the second in 2006 with an addition in 2012. Building one houses circus wagons, the Pullman railroad car John and Mable used for traveling in the U.S, and other memorabilia. A docent tour described the items which evoke an earlier time in America. Most of these items related to the days of the circus when circuses traveled by train from small town to small town. For instance, in 1928, one Ringling circus took up 100 rail cars. There were 46 flat cars with wagons, 27 stock cars for animals, 22 coaches for people, 3 cars with advertising people, a dining car, and a car for John Ringling.
In those days, the circus was in town for one day. Advance teams arrived in town at 3 AM and started setting up the big tents and food areas. A few hours later the work tents would arrive with the people and animals coming last. All would be up and functional, frequently for an afternoon and an evening show. The entire town would normally shut down so everyone could attend the circus. Before the evening show was done, the tear down had begun to get the show on the road for the next stop.
The circus would have 1300-1500 people who had to be fed three times a day. Sleeping accommodations were provided. Dressing areas provided. Medical care and veterinarian care provided. Animal housing provided. Practice areas provided. A midway and food area provided for customers. It was a big operation, well oiled with everything marked and in its proper place for quick dismantling and re-assembly. In fact, the docent indicated the U.S. Army monitored the circus operations twice because the circus was more efficient in its organization.
For us, circus memories do not go back to the days of small town visits, but in large arenas in large cities. Our daughters rode in a cart pulled by elephants in the parade. Chris and her mother were petrified but it turned out great. You many not have read it but just recently Ringling announced that the use of elephansts in the circus will be phased out.
The second building, the Tibbals Learning Center, has added new displays, many of them interactive and touchscreen, that update the circus to today’s modern era. For us, however, the major feature in this building was the model circus exhibit. Howard Tibbals is from Tennessee and a businessman who was hooked on the circus at an early age. Over 50 years, he built a scale model circus massive in its scope. It replicates a Ringling Brothers circus, although it is named the Howard Brothers circus since when Tibbals started this as a teenager, Ringling Brothers would not agree to the use of its name. No matter, 50 years later Tibbals donated most of the money for this building and spent a year of his time re-locating the model circus to its new home here.
The model shows the train yards with the rail cars; the back yard where the performers and animals rest, eat, and practice; the big top with the acts, the attendees, even the folding chairs (that actually fold) that the people sit on; the midway with sideshows and restrooms; etc. Even Tibbals the builder has no idea how many individual pieces are included. Detail is all important to him; the interior of the ticket taker booth (which no one can actually see) has people with a type writer, a calculator and a cash drawer with scale model money. It was pretty amazing.
Our final stop was the Museum of Art, the original focus of the gift to the state. Ringling and his wife were into Baroque art, from the period of the 17th century , when art themes were dictated heavily by the Catholic Church in response to the Reformation. These are large canvases, so the rooms of the museum are tall and the canvases immense. Artists such as Rubens, Titian and Tintoretto dominate this period and the Ringlings picked up many of them while contemporary art collectors were focusing on more modern works.
The museum was designed as a pink Renaissance-style palace with 21 galleries. The courtyard is topped with statues. We spent our last two hours of the day here, including a docent tour. The paintings dazzle but at the end of a long day, the art probably did not receive the attention it deserves.
We finished off the day with another serving of Working Cow ice cream at Kimi’s Ice Cream. Thursday will probably be another day out and about, Friday, like Tuesday, may be spent by the pool and/or beach.
Ed and Chris 3/18 midnight