Winter Quarters

Ringling Brothers’ Winter Quarters Shamefully Evicted by Sarasota County Commissioners (Part 1 of 4)

Many decades ago, when Sarasota, Florida was still a sleepy, salty Gulf Coast town, long before it became the resort for the nipped-and-tucked and Chiclet-whitened tooth crowd that it is today, Ringling Brothers maintained their Winter Quarters in fields east of town since 1927. John Ringling put Sarasota on the map owing to the popular draw his circus had for winter visitors who annually drove hundreds of miles south on vacation to watch Ringling’s rehearsal performances before they took the show back out on the road in early spring. We were proud of Sarasota’s nickname:  Circus City, U.S.A.      

The Quarters were set up on a hundred and fifty-five-acre area where caged exotic animals were housed and trained, lions roared, elephants bellowed, equestrian acts were showcased, and high wire and trapeze acts could develop new routines.  A great number of circus families owned homes throughout Sarasota, housing rigging and other tools of their trade-in warehouses and arenas in back yards where they could practice, build and repair equipment, and otherwise develop new acts.  It was commonplace to see brightly painted red, blue, and gold circus wagons, elaborate cages, and trapeze rigging towering over rooftops, both within and outside of the city limits.

Many of us had the good fortune to rub elbows with illustrious neighbors who lived low-key in modest cement block or frame homes just down the block. One of my pals had Wallenda neighbors and watched in awe as they practiced on the high wire suspended across their front yard.  Karen, a longtime friend, also lived near the Wallendas and also another legend. Karen would do a double-take when she’d see Emmet Kelly raking his front yard and looking like a regular fellow. Nearby, yet across the TamiamiTrail, another friend lived two doors away from the Truzzis, a fabled circus family. (Mrs. Truzzi and Mrs. Heyer ran a high-end dress shop on Palm Avenue, where they also made costumes for the circus.)

Friends took dressage lessons from Captain Heyer and visited his famous horse, Starless Night, stabled at the Heyer ranch when not on the road with the circus. Ringling Brothers was home to a great many equestrians and their exquisite dressage-trained horses. Some of these world-famous riders kept stables on the outskirts of the city.

It was commonplace to see unusual residents such as “little people” (some of those Wizard of Oz Munchkins came from Sarasota) and clowns going about their errands all over town. The Ringling Barber Shop, still in operation today, used to give haircuts to circus performers. In those days, seeing a person covered with tattoos was still unusual, and a bizarre appearance was a rarity, but not in our town where we delighted in exotic sights such as the World’s Tallest Man driving his Packard from the back seat because of his legs were so long he had to remove the front seat. 

A lifetime friend cringes when he recalls yelling one day, “How ya doing, Pee-Wee?”  The “giant” reached for the door handle, and Billy bolted.  “I was only about five feet two at the time and too stupid to wait and see whether he wanted to come after me or congratulate me on my great wit.”

Billy and other pals skipped school and trudged the railroad tracks to the Winter Quarters to observe the relentless daily practice going on in preparation for taking the show on the road while they entertained secret fantasies of running away with the circus come spring. The romance of the circus was never more prevalent than in Sarasota in those exotic days.

One day, a friend walked around the Winter Quarters with one of the major circus families, the Cristianis, and a gigantic elephant who had been following them (“biggest elephant I ever saw”) stepped away to turn on a spigot with his trunk, drink for a long time out of the bib, and then turn the faucet off again with his trunk. Dan asked a worker about the elephant: “He’s retired, and we let him do whatever he wants all day.”

Steve, another lifelong friend, who was living in Kensington Park at the time, recalls riding his bicycle and spotting a silverback gorilla about thirty yards off Oriente, sitting beneath a Brazilian pepper tree munching on the berries. A few minutes later, he and his childhood friends saw men in green coveralls driving around slowly in a pickup, along with a horse and cart and four or five police cruisers. Steve, age ten, told them he believed he knew who they were looking for.

Another friend grew up with the circus as her father, Fred Hess, designed the sound system each year before the circus going on its annual tour. As a child, Susan already had a good ear for music and voices and was fascinated by all the different languages being spoken when she was around circus people.

“But even though the circus was a Tower of Babel, no matter what their native language, workers and performers all spoke Circus. Communication was vital during a show, and everyone had to know circus language. There were so many necessary technical and other essential words that went into the directing, coordinating, and performing that went into a show that all the workers and performers had to be fluent in Circus Language, no matter where in the world they came from.

CONTINUED NEXT WEEK ON WEDNESDAY

Photo courtesy of the Sarasota Historical Society

Karen has written eleven Cajun crime novels. All on Amazon and Kindle.

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circus, Florida, History, John Ringling, Sarasota, Winter Quarters

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