Skip to main content

Dreaming of the Circus- The Ringling Legacy Lives on in Sarasota

Dreaming of the Circus- The Ringling Legacy Lives on in Sarasota

| Sande Caplin |

The circus is coming!  The circus is coming!  Those words have been echoed by children, families, and lovers of the spectacle of the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus for the past 146 years.  For many, the circus was a unique first experience on many levels.  To see the grandeur and artistry from the ringmasters and high-wire acts to the enormity and gentleness of the lions and elephants.  Oh, those elephants, whose sweet and cutely-giant presences tugged at the hearts and minds of many and would ultimately play a crucial role in both the building and demise of the circus.

Stepping into the tight-knit world of the” Big Top” meant entering a mystical journey that brought small towns and large cities to their feet, cheering and clamoring for just one more act.  A “can do” spirit spawned dreams of greatness for tiny little children whose imaginations had been ignited with one visit to the circus.  Yes, seeing the circus was perhaps the equivalent to a child viewing the Internet for the first time.  For today’s youth, that excitement and strangeness can be seen with the flick of a finger on a screen at their beck and call.  But for many generations, the circus signified a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

What the circus means to Sarasota is hard to quantify.  Without the clout and foresight that John Ringling brought to Sarasota, and the choice to have his circus winter here, Sarasota might have become just another pretty tourist trap along the Suncoast.  Of course, there were other dignitaries who shaped and influenced the artistic and exclusive nature of the area, but it is difficult to imagine Sarasota without thinking of the beautiful mansion on the bay, and so many other significant Ringling legacies.

Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus

Per Feld Entertainment, the parent company of the circus, the decision to close the show was a result of declining ticket sales and rising costs of operation.  “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey was the original property on which we built Feld Entertainment into a global producer of live entertainment over the past 50 years,” said Kenneth Feld, Chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment. “We are grateful to the hundreds of millions of fans who have experienced Ringling Bros. over the years. Between now and May, we will give them one last chance to experience the joy and wonder of Ringling Bros.”

So, what will happen to the animals, performers, and so many others who are integral to creating the greatest show on earth?  The elephants have been quietly retiring to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation.  The other animals will “go to suitable homes,” and some of the performers will be given roles in Feld Entertainment’s other entities, which include Monster Jam, Disney on Ice and similarly popular shows.  

The legacy between the Barnum and Ringling families will forever hold a special place in the hearts of people around the world.  It is both sad and strange to see iconic figures, activities, even the “greatest show on earth” see its time come and go.  Sarasota is uniquely poised to preserve the Ringling legacy for future generations with local iconic landmarks including The Circus Museum, The Ringling Museum of Art, Ca’ d’Zan, Ringling College of Art and Design, and The Showfolks of Sarasota, billed as an international alliance of circus artists and executives.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will see its final performances at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, R.I., on May 7, and at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., on May 21, 2017.  Floridians can catch their last performance of “the greatest show on earth” at the Amalie Arena in Tampa, with shows running from January 25 through January 29.  Experiencing the exotic, weird, wild, and always exciting world of the circus will be something unique to our generation.  May our memories, imaginations and senses remind us to retell the magic in a way that pays homage to the performers, artists, and animals who taught us anything is possible at the circus.

Photos:  Ringling Brothers Circus, Circus at the Cow Palace.  Both photos courtesy of Bob n Renee on Flickr, commercial use allowed

Skip to content