Circus Museum History
Here comes the circus! Circus is a magic word inspiring all sorts of exciting, colorful images. It's a theater of mind-boggling feats, elephants thundering around the rings, horses dancing, clowns cavorting and the sequins glittering under the lights. The circus calls to the child in each one of us. Ernest Hemingway wrote that it "is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money..."
History of the Circus Museums
A. Everett Austin, the first Director of the Ringling Museum and a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, envisioned the idea of a Museum celebrating the American Circus. Austin and the Board of Control saw that it was "an additional attraction, calling the public to the city. In purpose and content it also does its part in keeping alive the memory of the man who made Sarasota famous."
Established in 1948, the Ringling Museum of the American Circus was the first museum of its kind to document the rich history of the circus. With so many circus people living in the immediate area, the collection grew quickly. Because of this, the Ringling Museum has a fine collection including rare handbills and art prints, circus paper, business records, wardrobe, performing props, as well as all types of circus equipment, including beautifully carved parade wagons, sturdy utility wagons, tent poles and massive bail rings. There are also 19th and early 20th century posters and props used by famous performers. A large collection of circus history and literature includes newspaper clippings dating as far back as 1816.
The Ringling Circus Museums document, preserves and exhibits the history of the circus which parallels the development of America. The first American circus was held in 1793 in Philadelphia. George and Martha Washington attended the show in April, and John Adams attended a few months later. A. Everett Austin, the first Director of the Ringling Museum and a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, envisioned the idea of a Museum celebrating the American Circus. Austin and the Board of Control saw that it was "an additional attraction, calling the public to the city. In purpose and content it also does its part in keeping alive the memory of the man who made Sarasota famous."
The mission of the Ringling Circus Museums is to present the history of the American circus to our visitors and to make circus artifacts accessible to a diverse audience. The mission is also to present the Museum's permanent circus collection in an environment that actively engages the visitor, and helps visitors make a personal connection with the work of artists and performers who made a unique impact on the ever-changing face of the American circus.
The Ringling Family Show: A Short History
The Ringling Circus empire was founded by five of the seven sons of August and Marie Salomé (Juliar) Ringling: Al, Otto, Alf T., Charles, and John. In the late 1860s, the Ringling brothers saw their first circus in McGregor, Iowa. In 1884, the brothers premiered their own show and charged a penny as admission. In less than a decade, the Ringling Bros. Circus, World's Greatest Show, developed from a small wagon show in 1884 to a major railroad show covering most of the United States and Canada. John Ringling attributed the brothers' success to "hard work, common honesty, and a close study of what the public wants."
While today no other name is more closely linked with the circus than Ringling, the early years of the Ringling Circus showed little indication of the kind of circus it would become. In 1884, the entire show required just nine wagons to transport it and admission was twenty-five cents.
P. T. Barnum (1810-1891) and James A. Bailey (1847-1906) teamed together in 1888 to create "The Greatest Show on Earth" and they became the undisputed Kings of the American Circus. Moving from town to town on 64 railroad cars, the Barnum & Bailey Circus was supreme and unchallenged. They defined the American circus with the introduction of the three rings, breaking with the European tradition of a single ring. In April 1906, Bailey's unexpected death at the age of 59 left the circus without strong leadership. On October 22, 1907 in London, Barnum & Bailey Ltd. sold out to the Ringling Brothers.
With the acquisition of the Barnum and Bailey show, the Ringling Brothers controlled a major part of the circus business in America. The two circuses were run as separate shows until 1919 when they were combined to form the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, The Greatest Show on Earth. The front page of The New York Times announced, "Supercircus draws crowds to Garden."
Sarasota Unique Heritage
It was John Ringling who made Sarasota synonymous with the circus throughout the world. When John Ringling moved the winter quarters of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Sarasota in 1927, he forever changed the West Coast of Florida. From Tampa to Palmetto to Sarasota to Osprey to Venice and Arcadia, the circus has left its mark.
On Christmas Day, 1927, the Sarasota winter quarters opened its doors to visitors. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of people visited winter quarters, and it became the number one tourist attraction in the State. Circus performers made their homes in Sarasota and brought a unique diversity to the area -- Cristianis, Concellos, Merle Evans, Lou Jacobs, Emmett Kelly, LaNorma, Unus, Wallendas, and Zacchinis. They are an integral part of the community and the circus became a part of Sarasota County's ongoing legacy. Today the legacy of the circus can still be seen in Sarasota with Circus Sarasota and the PAL Sailor Circus.
For more information:
Buck, Pat Ringling
The Ringling Legacy
Sarasota, FL: PRB Enterprises, 1998
Grismer, Karl H.
The Story of Sarasota
Sarasota, FL: M.E. Russell, 1946
Ringling: The Florida Years 1911-1936
Gainsville, FL:University Press of Florida, 1993
John Ringling, The Circus King
In 1929, John Ringling bought the American Circus Corporation for $2 million. With the purchase, Ringling held all of the major circus railroad shows in the United States. As a newspaper account of the purchase stated, "John Ringling...is truly the king of the sawdust rings."
The Ringling brothers became a dominant force in the American circus scene. Al, Otto, Alf T., Charles and John were crowned the "Circus Kings of All Time." Their success was succinctly stated by John Ringling, "We divided the work; but stood together." The unexpected deaths of Otto in 1911 and Al in 1916 made the running of the two giant circuses more difficult. After the 1918 season, the two shows were joined. The posters declared, "The Ringling Bros. World's Greatest Shows and the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth are now combined into one record-breaking giant of all exhibitions." On March 29, 1919, the combined show opened at Madison Square Garden. Alf T. died in 1919 and Charles died in Sarasota in 1926. Only John remained of the original brothers and the mantle of Circus King was transferred to him.
The only challenge to the Ringling predominance in the American circus scene was the American Circus Corporation that consisted of five well-known circuses: Sells-Floto Circus, Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, John Robinson Circus, Sparks Circus and Al. G. Barnes Circus. The corporation booked its Sells-Floto Circus into New York's Madison Square Garden, which Ringling regarded as his own domain. "Out of a clear sky came the announcement in the morning newspaper of September 10, that John Ringling had bought the five circuses being operated by the American Circus Corporation of Peru, Indiana. Not since 1906 was the amusement world or that of the general public so surprised by such a stupendous circus deal, that was when the Ringling Bros. bought the Barnum & Bailey circus and title."
Failing health and the Great Depression took its toll on the Ringling empire. By a vote of the Allied owners in 1932, Ringling was voted out of control and Sam Gumpertz became the general manager of the show. John Ringling, the last of the original brothers, died on December 2, 1936. After his death, the circus continued under the direction of his nephew, John Ringling North. On November 11, 1967, the Feld family purchased Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey from John Ringling North to guide it into the new modern-day era of the American circus.
For further information:
Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2005
The American Circus: An Illustrated History
NY: Henry Holt, 1990
Dahlinger, Fred and Stuart Thayer.
Badger State Showmen: A History of Wisconsin's Circus Heritage
Madison, WI: Circus World Museum & Grote Publishing, 1998
Hoh, LaVahn and William Rough
Step Right Up: The Adventure of Circus in America
White Hall, VA: Betterway Publication, 1990