Circus City – Sarasota, Florida’s Claim to Fame

“The Greatest Show on Earth” A movie that was actually filmed at the winter location in Sarasota. The film debuted at the Florida Theatre in 1952 and drew director Cecil B. DeMille, Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, and Dorothy Lamour. A re-enactment of the parade scene down Main St. led the audience to the opening of the movie.

Everyone loves the circus. The atmosphere of the Big Top drew audiences year round. The ringmaster in his top hat and tails, the clowns with their antics, and death defying performances bringing spectators to the edge of their seats. A collective sigh of relief could be heard when each performance completed safely.

In 1927, the Ringling Brothers decided to make Sarasota their winter home. What a boost for the small bay side village. The tropical setting drew performers and tourists alike. The attraction lured 100,000 visitors to Sarasota in one season. When John Ringling saw the public curiosity about the behind the scenes activities of the circus, he opened the winter location for tours on Christmas Day 1927. For a mere $.25 for adults and $.10 for children anyone could view the inner workings of the circus. Truly, John Ringling put Sarasota on the map.

In the late 1950s, Ringling decided to move their winter quarters to Venice, just south of Sarasota. The original property was then sold and turned into a residential community. Glen Oaks Estates prominently displays a historical marker depicting the original site.

The Sarasota Opera House was also home to the famed Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bialy Clown College. After 30 years, the Clown College closed its doors.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily was not the only circus in town. In 1949, Sarasota’s Sailor Circus was founded. Originally started as Sarasota High School’s extension of their physical education program, the circus taught basic circus skills taught by retired circus performers. Originally, open to only SHS students, the circus program was expanded and opened its doors all interested youth.

The Sailor Circus facility is currently located on Bahia Vista St. They perform twice yearly and are the only performing arts group given copyright permission to call themselves “The Greatest Little Show on Earth.” A campaign is currently under way for a new $6 million 31,000 sq ft is facility.

If you miss the Sailor Circus, don’t despair. Circus Sarasota started in 1997 in a tent at the intersection of Fruitville Rd and I75. They have since moved to their new location on Beneva Rd. close to Ed Smith Stadium. Circus Sarasota is a non-profit production geared toward improving the perception of circus performers. A three-week performance is scheduled annually.

Over the years, we’ve seen the circus come and go. Some of the greats performing for these shows are the Great Wallendas, the Clyde Beaty-Cole Brothers elephants and of course the world’s most famous clown, Emmet Kelley.

The circus will never die in Sarasota. In fact, on Feb. 4, 2010, Sarasota born Nik Wallenda made his 600ft walk across a wire stretched between One Watergate Condominiums and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The walk took about 15 minutes and to the crowd’s gasps, Nik laid down flat on the wire midway through his act. Some gusty winds made the performance a little dicey at times but Nik completed the walk safe and sound.