Ringling Winter Quarters

Ringling Brothers’ Winter Quarters Shamefully Evicted by Sarasota County Commissioners (Part 3 of 4)

If you missed part one, get caught up HERE.

If you missed part two, get caught up HERE.

Circus fans may never know the real scoop, or what went on behind the scenes. Arthur Concello, a former innovative trapeze star, then executive director of the circus said at the time, “I personally like Sarasota, but, some of the stockholders have been getting the feeling that Sarasota doesn’t want us here.” [1]

John Ringling, “Mr. John,” geared his phenomenal success toward the families of middle class and working class America, but those weren’t the fashionable elite that some officials were likely scheming to lure to our colorful, informal town. There was a lot of controversy and a great dust storm kicked up over it, but in the end, the show was over for Sarasota.  No more could we claim the title, Circus City: U.S.A.  Those who were upset, frustrated, and angry over the stunningly ungrateful treatment of Ringling Brothers and the end to the Sawdust Era in our town had to get over it.  Some of us never did.

Louisville, Kentucky wanted Ringling Brothers’ to move there, but balmy weather is vital for winter practice and preparation for spring. Venice however, a much humbler town to the south, came to the rescue, and had the common sense and good taste to make the circus welcome there.  

By 1960, Ringling Brothers had relocated their Winter Quarters twenty miles south to Venice. Sarasota’s tragic loss was Venice’s gain, and Ringling Brothers, pros at pulling up stakes and moving out, never looked back. Bottom-line: Venice saved the day and it was Venice that drew all the tourists and the crowds of fans who drove to see the Big Show for thirty-one more years. In 1990, the Seminole Gulf Railway could no longer handle the mile-long array of circus cars, and so the circus had to move to the Tampa Fairgrounds.

For all those whose families had owned homes in Sarasota since 1927, when the Winter Quarters had first moved from Bridgeport, Connecticut– or who had bought homes in the thirties and forties, the bitter pill of the Winter Quarters eviction did not go down easily. Tina Cristiani Veder, who grew up immersed in circus royalty, and who now lives on her horse farm in Ocala and carries on the equestrian traditions of the circus teaching dressage at her Baroque Equestrian Games & Institute, recalls feeling rejected when the circus was shunned:

“There was a big shift in the atmosphere and energy of Sarasota after the circus was evicted, and I still carry the scars of those feelings of rejection I had then as a teenager. Any time I might pass through Sarasota at present, I experience a profound feeling of melancholy and loss.” 

Next, Ringling Brothers’ Winter Quarters went to the Tampa Fairgrounds, and many circus people live in Tampa and environs, such as Ruskin, Gibsonton, and Riverview.  Later, the Winter Quarters relocated a bit further south to Ellenton in Manatee County. (At that time, Sarasota County flubbed the possibility of a Grand Return.)

One of the many tremendous gifts John Ringling and his circus has given us is their tolerance for the eccentricities and diverse packaging in which talent so often appears.  Whether your favorite part of the circus is the sideshow, the equestrians, the high wire, the flyers, the big cats, or the clowns, you were mostly looking at people from Eastern Europe, Italy, Spain, Russia, the Orient, the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America. Ironically, that buzz word of today, “diversity”, was never better demonstrated than the many performers, their friends and families, that Ringling Brothers brought to Sarasota decades ago.

The circus role models we observed at a tender age taught us that whatever your native language, gender, looks, or background, if you were determined and spent thousands of hours developing your talent, you too could succeed.  And if your talent was of a more mundane and practical nature, such as electrician, welding, carpentry, truck driver, roustabout, PR, mechanics, cooking, seamstress, or accounting, there was a place in the Grand Show for you too. 

In a multitude of ways, the circus is a microcosm of what has made America unique.  Groups of people from all over the world, willing to take risks and spend thousands of hours training and developing God given talents to reach the top, or rather, The Big Top, made the circus fabulous.  These same ingredients made our unique melting pot country great as well.

However, back in l958, these lessons were lost on a misguided clutch of pols, and the rude upheaval of Ringling Brothers’ Winter Quarters was the shameful result.  Hundreds of people had to lick the sorrowful wounds of rejection, pull up roots, and relocate. Now instead of all those intriguing performers going about their daily business, visitors to Sarasota will see plastic surgeons’ grand palaces lining the old Tamiami Trail, and traffic jams consisting mostly of Lexus’, Porsches, BMWs and Mercedes’.  They can also scan miles of stunningly arrogant towering concrete condos warehousing thousands of people and blocking everyone else’s view of the water. (John D. McDonald’s “Condominium” is an illuminating, deeply researched eye-opener about Condo living and this book was also made into a movie by same title.)


Photo courtesy of the Circus and Sideshows

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

[1] The Sarasota News. Ringling Circus Discloses Plans to Move to Venice Airport Site. Dec.20, 1959.

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