The Circus in Venice
Incorporated in 1927, the town of Venice established ties with the circus within its first
20 years of existence.
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 airport.
The show was scheduled to make its world premiere on March 2 with proceeds going to the
local American Legion post. But torrential rain forced its cancellation, and it moved on
to Fort Myers with the promise of giving a performance for the people of Venice when it
returned at the end of the season.
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 and sold off all the equipment.
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.
Ringling Winter Quarters Moves to Venice
Students practicing at the Tito Gaona Flying Trapeze Park.
At the conclusion of the 1959 season, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus made its
usual "home run" to the Suncoast area, but instead of stopping in Sarasota, it continued
south to its new winter quarters in Venice.
A new Circus Arena was under constructed on the same site used by the Sparks Bros. Circus
in 1947 when the downsized 15-car circus train rolled into Venice on November 29, 1960, to
a welcoming committee of 5,000 townspeople. Legendary circus band leader Merle Evans marched
with the Venice High School band in a parade from the train station to the winter quarters site.
Although the new 55,000 sq. ft. Circus Arena was only 90% complete, the circus used it as a
rehearsal building with the public watching on.
In January 1962, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus made its world premiere in the
completed Circus Arena.
In 1963 Desilu Productions filmed a television series called "The Greatest Show on Earth" at
the Circus Arena with Jack Palance as circus boss and actress Tuesday Weld as star aerialist.
Each year from 1962 through 1992, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey presented its world
premiere in the Circus Arena. A host of great circus stars and acts made their American debuts
in Venice, including Gunther Gebel-Williams; Michu, the world's smallest human on Earth;
the mighty elephant King Tusk; and The Living Unicorn.
Deterioration of the rail spur from Sarasota to Venice forced the circus to move its winter
quarters to the State Fairgrounds in Tampa. The departure of the circus from Venice after
the 1992 world premiere marked the end of 75 years in Sarasota County.
The Tito Gaona Flying Trapeze Park
The Gaona circus family moved to Venice in 1964 from their native Mexico. Young Victor "Tito"
Gaona became the star of the troupe at age 12 by becoming the youngest flyer ever to
accomplish the difficult triple somersault on the flying trapeze. The Flying Gaonas joined
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1966, and Tito became a trapeze superstar,
setting a record for successfully completing the triple somersault in 657 consecutive shows.
Known for his winsome boyish smile, Tito appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show twice, and made his
acting debut with Barbra Streisand.
After retiring, Tito opened the Tito Gaona Flying Trapeze Park on the back lot of the Circus
Arena in 2000. He teaches kids from ages 8 to 14 to fly on the trapeze, as well as a number
of other circus arts.
Tito also founded the Venice Circus Arts Foundation to raise support and money to preserve
the abandoned Circus Arena building, and to "reintroduce Venice to the history of the marvelous
circus." But in June 2006, the Venice City Council unanimously passed a resolution to seek
funding for demolition of the derelict building, finding a restoration project too costly
and financially unsound.
Venice's Favorite Circus Son
Shortly after the Feld family group of Washington, D.C., took ownership of Ringling Bros.
and Barnum & Bailey Circus in November 1968, circus owner and producer Irvin Feld revealed
plans to launch a second unit of The Greatest Show on Earth. Without sufficient circus
performers in the United States to build a second unit, Feld acquired the rights to
Germany's Circus Williams, including its budding new star Gunther Gebel-Williams.
On January 6, 1969, Gebel-Williams made his U.S. debut at the Circus Arena in Venice, and
by the time the show reached New York for its annual Madison Square Garden engagement, the
circus world was abuzz with news about the young animal trainer who mixed natural enemies
in the same act - various big cats in one cage, and tigers riding on elephants and horses.
Before the end of Gebel-Williams' second season and multiple national television appearances,
he had become a household name.
Gebel-Williams set a performance record of never missing a show in more than 12,000 consecutive
shows. It is estimated that he entertained more than 200 million circus-goers during his
20-year reign as Lord of the Rings. He officially retired at the end of the 1989 season,
but returned to the spotlight on special occasions.
Gebel-Williams died on July 19, 2001, and funeral services were held in the Cathedral at Our
Lady of Lourdes. More than 2,000 people attended the service, many representing circus families
from around the world, and many local residents who counted the Gebel family among their friends.
A bronze statue of The Greatest Wild Animal Trainer of All Time was commissioned to Apollo
Beach sculptor Ed Kasprowitz, and placed outside the Venice Train Depot, where it remains today.
RBBB Clown College
In preparation for the two units of The Greatest Show on Earth for the 1969 season, Irvin Feld
could not find enough circus clowns to fill the clown alleys of the two shows. So he founded
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey College for Clowns (later changed to Clown College), and
held its first session with 26 students at the Venice Circus Arena in early fall 1968.
Clown College quickly became recognized as the only facility in the world solely dedicated
to teaching and preserving the "ancient and honorable art of clowning." The college offered
classes in makeup, costume construction, juggling, wire walking, arena choreography and even
Clown College was convened at the Circus Arena from 1968 through 1992 before moving to
Wisconsin. The school returned to Sarasota in 1997, staging its last class at the Sarasota
From three decades, Clown College held eight-to-ten-week sessions, the vast majority in
Sarasota County, and issued diplomas to almost 1,300 students, officially proclaiming each
as a professional clown.
Circus Wedding of the Century
Trapeze aerialist circus stars Miguel Vazquez and Rosa Sergrera were married at the
Epiphany Cathedral in downtown Venice before joining a parade in their honor to a huge public
reception at the Circus Arena. The young couple thrilled 1,500 onlookers as the pair took
their first flight on the trapeze as husband and wife. The wedding and reception were covered
on the front page of the New York Times on Saturday, December 2, 1983.
Miguel Vazquez went on to make circus history in 1982 when he became the first circus performer
in history to complete the illusive quadruple somersault on the flying trapeze in Tucson,
Arizona on July 10, 1984. The event also made the front page of the New York Times, giving
Vazquez the rare distinction of being the only circus performer known to have appeared on the
front page of the lauded newspaper twice (within seven months).
In October 2005, the Venice City Council passed a resolution to re-name the bridge on U.S.
41 over the canal near the arena the Circus Bridge in honor of the circus animals and equipment
that paraded over the bridge from the train yard to the Circus Arena each year from 1960 to
1992 (when Ringling left Venice for the last time).
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