Home of the American Circus
No other area in the country can claim the rich cultural heritage, the abundance of circus
families, and the homebase of as many circuses as Sarasota, Florida, and its surrounding
communities. As a hub of circus activity for more than three-quarters of a century, Sarasota has
earned its rightful title of "Home of the American Circus."
John and Charles Ringling - two of the five original Ringling brothers who turned a small
traveling circus into an international entertainment empire - wielded incredible influence on
the economy, development, culture, and character of this same quaint village on beautiful
When the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus moved its winter quarters to Sarasota in
1927, the serene seaside resort became a ring of circus activity, attracting famous circus
families and artists from around the world, as well as thousands of tourists to its famed
winter quarters. Sarasota quickly became known far and wide as Circus City, USA.
In 1960, Ringling moved its winter quarters to Venice, (25 miles south of the city of Sarasota),
and the impact of the circus expanded into the larger Sarasota County area.
Ringling Bros. Winters in Sarasota
The five Ringling brothers.
Photo courtesy of State Archives of Florida.
On March 23, 1927, prior to the circus' opening in Madison Square Garden, John Ringling
announced that Sarasota would become the new home of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The Greatest Show on Earth would move its winter quarters to 200 acres on the east side of town.
Winter quarters provided an annual respite for circus performers while giving management and
the creative staff an opportunity to create and produce a new show for the following year.
John Ringling realized that the public had a great interest in a "behind-the-scenes" look at
circus life, so he opened winter quarters on Christmas Day, 1927, and charged $.25 for adults
and $.10 for children.
Ringling's winter quarters boosted tourism for Sarasota, and reaped a great deal of publicity
for the state of Florida. By 1940, the winter quarters in Sarasota drew 100,000 visitors in one
season, making it one of Florida's earliest and most heavily visited tourist attractions.
However, the folding of the Big Top tent for the last time in Pittsburgh on July 16, 1956
drastically changed the structure of the three-ring circus. Without the Big Top tent, several
additional service tents and moving equipment the need for 1,000 roustabouts, a 75+ car train,
or a 200-acre winter quarters greatly diminished.
After the circus pulled out of Sarasota on its 1958 tour, John Ringling North announced that
winter quarters was moving 25 miles south to Venice. The 1959 season marked the last year that
winter quarters were held in Sarasota, and as soon as the circus left town, the Ringling
organization began taking up the train tracks and dismantling the circus buildings. The land was
sold to Arvida Realty who developed the subdivision of Glen Oaks Estates that opened in 1963.
Today a historical marker stands at the entrance to the Glen Oaks Estates off Beneva Road at
Calliandra Drive to memorialize the 33-year history of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Circus' winter quarters in Sarasota.
Before the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus left Sarasota, it made its big-screen debut.
Filmed at the circus' winter quarters and throughout the city of Sarasota, the 1952 Academy
Award Best Picture of the Year premiered on January 31, 1952, at the Florida Theatre. The
theatre's marquee was tented in the fashion of the entrance to the Big Top, and Cecil B.
DeMille joined Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton and Dorothy Lamour in a re-enactment of a movie's
street parade down Main Street to the theatre for its first public screening.
On January 21, 1960, the Florida Theatre was also the site of the world premiere of another
circus movie entitled Toby Tyler, starring Kevin Corcoran in the title role.
The Sarasota Opera bought the Florida Theatre in 1979, reconditioned it for $7 million, and
renamed it the Sarasota Opera House. In 1983, it was placed on the National Registry of
The Sarasota Opera House was also the site of the 30th (and last) session of the famed
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College in 1997.
Venice and the Circus
Circus performers parading in Venice.
Photo courtesy of State Archives of Florida.
Venice's first experience with the circus occurred in 1946 when longtime Ringling family
friend James Edgar leased the rights to the former Sparks Bros. Circus and signed a five-year
agreement with Mayor Clyde Higel naming Venice as its winter quarters. The Sparks Bros. Circus
rehearsed for the 1947 season in a tent on a vacant lot off U.S. 41 adjacent to the Venice
The season was not as successful as Edgar would have liked, and the show ended the year on
September 7 in Tacoma, Washington. With less than adequate funds to make the long haul to
Venice, Edgar decided to get out of the circus business.
Although Venice held the dubious distinction of being the winter quarters of a circus that
never played in its hometown, the Sparks Bros. Circus experience put it on the circus map.
Other circuses continue to reside in Sarasota County. Among them are Sailor Circus and
Sarasota's Sailor Circus, named for Sarasota High School's mascot, is the oldest continuously
running youth circus in America. Founded in 1949, Sailor Circus began as an extension to SHS's
gymnastic program to include basic circus skills taught by volunteer circus performers.
Initially only students from Sarasota High School were allowed to participate in Sailor Circus,
but its popularity became so great that admission was opened to any interested youngster from
the larger Sarasota area.
In 1952, Sailor Circus gained permission from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to call
itself "the greatest little show on Earth," marking the only time that such copyright
permission has been granted to any performing arts troupe outside the Ringling organization.
In 1969 Sailor Circus moved to its present location on Bahia Vista adjacent to Sarasota High
School, and performed under canvas. It moved into permanent facilities in 1981.
Ownership and management of Sailor Circus was passed from the Sarasota County School Board to
the Police Athletic League of Sarasota County in 2004. While its goal remains teaching circus
skills to young people, its mission is to use the positive atmosphere of the circus as an
alternative teaching method and intervention program for youths at risk in the community.
Sailor Circus holds two sessions each year. Sailor Circus is presently conducting a $6 million
capital campaign to build a new 31,000 sq. ft. arena as its home.
A Circus Sarasota performance.
Photo courtesy of Circus Sarasota.
Many circuses have called Sarasota home, but one of the latest and most dynamic is Circus
Sarasota. Founded in 1997 by aerialist Dolly Jacobs, daughter of famed clown Lou Jacobs and
aerialist Pedro Reis from South Africa, Circus Sarasota is a non-profit circus committed to
"broadening the artistic contribution of the circus while raising the level and perception of
the American circus."
Circus Sarasota made its debut under canvas on a lot near the intersection of Fruitville Road
and Interstate 75. Known for its highly artistic performance, the hometown circus features
outstanding circus artists from around the world during its annual three-week performance
Circus Sarasota's new location is on Beneva Road near the Ed Smith Stadium, and site of the
Cincinnati Reds' spring training baseball diamond.
An international alliance of circus artists, executives and associates, Showfolks of Sarasota
was formed in 1964. Today, it presents performances every December. Its historic clubhouse
holds memorabilia, including photos and hand-painted murals.
Circus Hall of Fame
The idea to create a hall of fame that honors outstanding circus artists and families was
formulated in 1954 by circus fans and enthusiasts in the Sarasota community. The founders
wanted to create a museum that would memorialize the rich cultural heritage of the American
circus, as well as the contributions made by Sarasotans. In 1956, the idea became a reality
when the Circus Hall of Fame opened its doors to 5,000 attendees on U.S. 41 near the airport
and the Ringling Estate.
Its seven buildings provided 29,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space that was filled with circus
memorabilia from costumes and props to posters and circus wagons.
Also among its collection were Tom Thumb's carriage; the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind's
sleigh; personal remembrances from P.T. Barnum, James A. Bailey, the Ringling brothers, Buffalo
Bill and Annie Oakley; and mementos from aerialist Lillian Leitzel and Aflredo Codona, the
Flying Concellos and the highwire-walking Wallendas.
The Circus Hall of Fame was open year-round (including Christmas and New Year's), and
presented circus acts four times a day from mid-December through April and from early June
through Labor Day.
CBS-TV and host Garry Moore broadcast "The World's Greatest Circus Stars of 1966" from the
Circus Hall of Fame on December 11, 1966. Appearing in the show were many famous Florida-based
circus performers, including Emmett Kelly, the Wallendas, the Clyde Beaty-Cole Bros. elephants,
Harold Alzana on the highwire and an animal act presented by Jon "Tarzan" Zerbini.
Although many thousands of tourists visited the Circus Hall of Fame each year, it was unable
to remain profitable and closed in 1977.
Ring of Fame at St. Armands Circle
The Ring of Fame was established in 1988 to "recognize those who have made significant
contributions to the circus." Each member is honored at an annual induction ceremony and a
bronze plaque that is permanently embedded in concrete around St. Armands Circle.
Governed and administered by The Ring of Fame Foundation, new inductees are nominated by a
committee comprised of former circus artists, employees and fans. About one-third of all Ring
members are still living, most of them in the Sarasota area.
As of 2006, there were 88 members in the Ring of Fame, including circus owners P.T. Barnum,
James A. Bailey, the five Ringling brothers and John Ringling North and present Ringling
circus owner Kenneth Feld; circus aerialists Fay Alexander, Lillian Leitzel. La Norma and
Dolly Jacobs; animal trainers William and Barbara Woodcock, Mable Stark; clowns Dan Rice, Otto
Griebling, Emmett Kelly and Lou Jacobs; Ringmaster Fred Bradna and Bandleader Merle Evans; and
famous families such as the Wallendas, the Cristianis, the Gaonas, and the Zacchinis.
Read more articles
The Ringlings and Sarasota
The Circus in Venice
Sharing Circus Memories With Today's Generation