Like most places in Florida, Sarasota sits along a coast. We believe there actually are parts of Florida that aren’t highway or coastline, but we haven’t found them yet. Maybe it’s like one of those Floridian urban legends we keep hearing about, like hill country or English-speaking policemen.
We went to Sarasota for a specific purpose, and it wasn’t sunbathing, fly fishing, or mosquito-wrangling. We went to see the circus . . . or more accurately, the Home of the Circus. Sarasota, you see, was the winter quarters for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the place where all the animals and performers could rest and train between circus seasons. These days, it’s called The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
Yes, there is an art museum on the grounds (one building with many, many galleries), but that’s not the reason most people pay $25 to get in. The real draw are the three museum buildings full of circus paraphernalia and Cà d’Zan, the Ringling family mansion. Despite the fact that the mansion’s name sounds like something out of Lord of the Rings, they tell us it’s actually a Venetian dialect of Italian. It’s all Greek to us.
Anyway, back to Sarasota. Cà d’Zan has 56 rooms, some of which are human-sized. Its ornate furnishings, hand-painted ceilings, and exquisite views make you think that you paid too much to see trapeze artists the last time the circus came to town.
But you didn’t. Even in the age of steam trains, the circus employed thousands. It was no small feat to move the whole affair from town to town, tend the animals (however cruelly, according to some), set up and tear down the big tent, and still put on show that could wow even adults. It boggles the mind to think about it, but in the museum’s Tibbals Learning Center, you can actually see it in glorious 3D. Howard Tibbals created the world’s largest miniature circus, complete with trains, people, animals, and part of the town. If that weren’t enough, the whole scene changes from day to night every few minutes. Try to find the mule kicking a handler, customers peeing in the men’s tent, the boy getting a needle in his ass, the fallen acrobat, and the drunk in the Big Top. They’re all highlights.
The miniature circus includes 59 train cars, eight tents, 152 wagons, 1300 people, and 800+ animals, according to our count.
The best part of the tour by far were the unofficial, off-the-cuff stories told to us by our guide, meaning Mark’s brother. Remember that circus life placed untold pressure on the performers. The circus life was a hard road. It was arguably worse for the so-called freaks who had nowhere else to go. They stayed in Florida during the winter, and not surprisingly did not welcome gawkers.
One such freak, Grady Stiles (aka Lobster Boy)—a man born with limbs that resembled lobster claws—was a heavy drinker and notoriously abusive. Even the other circus people avoided him as much as possible. He murdered his daughter’s fiancé on the eve of the wedding, confessed, but was given 15 years probation because no prison was equipped to handle someone with his deformity. Then years later, he was murdered himself . . . by his own family. His wife claimed it was the only way she could protect herself and her children from his physical abuse.
So next time you hear someone wanting to run off to join the circus, talk him or her out of it. The circus life does something to people.
Lessons Learned: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art: it’s not the only reason to visit Sarasota, but it may be the best reason to do so. If you find yourself stuck south of Tampa with nothing to do, get in the car and drive someplace else. Quickly.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 1
Discomfort Level: 2
Grunge Factor: 1
Inactivity Guide: 3
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 3/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Sarasota-Bradenton Airport
Native Population: 52,000
Normal Attractions: Historic buildings, killer humidity, and institutions of secondary education. Colleges: because normal people wouldn’t want to live there.
Final Point of Interest: Sarasota does have a major league baseball spring training site, and it is almost famous for its golf courses. Funny, just like most other Florida cities.