Ringling Winter Quarters

Ringling Brothers’ Winter Quarters Shamefully Evicted by Sarasota County Commissioners (Part 2 of 4)

If you missed part one, get caught up HERE.

Kids going out in those days were often warned by cautious parents to “stay away from those roustabouts!”  But that was easy to do as those men, when not working, mostly hung around low-rent beer, wine, and pool-hall dives. By late March, Ringling Brothers, in thanks to the town, always put on a free full show Big Top extravaganza right before loading up and taking off via train tour to excite and amaze eagerly awaiting fans in towns and cities from coast to coast.

At Sarasota High School, we went to classes with circus children of many nationalities.  The Cristianis, the Zacchinis, the Loyals, the Truzzis, the Heyers, were just some of the circus royalty who sent their kids to our school. And Sarasota High School was delighted that circus families helped them get their well-known student Sailor Circus up and running which has become as big a draw for ticket sales as football, basketball, and baseball events. Some of these teens went on to actually perform for Ringling Brothers.

A trailer, Under the Little Big Top, about Sailor Circus, was filmed and shown along with The Greatest Show on Earth.  The Greatest Show on Earth had its Premiere in our town, preceded by a grand Circus parade.  Sailor Circus friends, Bonnie and Mary, got to ride high on the back of a Cadillac convertible with Emmett Kelly in the middle. Bonnie recalls the thrill of picking out “any dresses we wanted for the parade” from the hundreds of hanging costumes on racks in the huge Ringling costume warehouse. 

At the Florida Theatre, Charlton Heston complained to an excited classmate seeking his signature on her sailor hat that his hand was getting tired from signing so many autographs.  Judy begged him, “Just write ditto marks then.”  Dorothy Lamour, Betty Hutton, Gloria Grahame, Jimmy Stewart, and Cornel Wilde were in town as well.  All that glitter from the circus and Tinseltown celebs too? Not a dull moment.

But, owing to the short-sightedness of a few in official positions, the fact that Ringling Brothers was synonymous with Sarasota became irrelevant.  The richness of their contributions, unique talents, and diversity was lost on a handful of dreary politicians. The old saw that politics is Show Biz for the homely, could in this instance be changed to:  Politics is Show Biz for the clueless.

Those exotic animals and the wondrously, hard-working talent from all over the world became somehow a drawback to those who wanted Sarasota to start Putting on the Ritz and attract people seeking out that sort of ambiance. And so the circus had to go. 

The tools that seasoned politicians use to remove a group of people that they want out are higher taxes and/or creative zoning restrictions. Ringling Brothers had never had to pay property taxes in the past, a trade-off for the tourism draw, but that all changed in 1958.  There was a glitch, and an ad for Sarasota was not included in the Circus program that year, and consequently, taxes became an issue. There was even talk of taxing the hundreds of Circus costumes.  Officials claimed complaints that lions roaring in the middle of the night bothered residents, although few people lived around that east side acreage at the time. Family friends who lived close by The Quarters said they were never bothered and knew of no neighbors who were.

 The bottom line: Sarasota was going to expand east.  The Winter Quarters was in the way. End of story. Misanthropes and cynics believed there was back-door collusion going on between County Commissioners and developers waiting in the wings. Politicians involved in Pay to Play influence? Pay-offs? However, proof of any such as this never came to light.

Arvida Corporation, already hawking Sarasota for exploitation, zoomed in and swooped up a great expanse of acreage right after the circus pulled out, and while the anger and uproar over the ungrateful slap-in-the-face-eviction to our beloved circus was still swirling.

This eviction was going on at the same time as the frantic fight between Save Our Bays and Arvida (and politicians) over the dredging in Sarasota Bay to provide a landfill for a good portion of the bay in order to expand Bird Key and create a housing development.

(Interested readers can read John D. McDonald’s “Flash of Green”, a crime novel John D. wrote about a fictional town south of Sarasota with a similar Save Our Bays vs predatory land developers controversy as plot. Also made into a movie filmed in Sarasota with Ed Harris.) All of this made up the beginnings of the aggressive and exploitative land development that in a dozen years would lead to the Condo feeding frenzy that is still going on today.

Right after the Winter Quarters eviction, Arvida sold to Paver Construction Company, and sprawling development started up almost immediately.  Others say even back then, the idea was to turn Sarasota into a wannabe Palm Beach resort, and Ringling Brothers and all their hard-working, sweaty, immigrant entourage stood in the way of the ritzy swells they hoped one day to attract. Those of us who loved having Ringling Brothers a huge part of our town wouldn’t trade living among all those internationally-famous, exotic circus families for the condo-saturated, un-exotic Sarasota of today.

CONTINUED NEXT WEEK ON WEDNESDAY

Photo courtesy of the Circus and Sideshows

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

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Florida, History, Politics, Ringling Circus, Sarasota, Sarasota City Commissioners

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