Circus Museum Tour
Exam tour with Susannah Michalson by Willem van Osnabrugge
First Stop: The Poster Area
Ladies & gentlemen, welcome to the circus museum. Or as they say in the real circus:
Children of all ages, step right up.
My name is William and I will be your ringmaster. If you are wondering about my accent: I
grew up in Holland and England and am now retired, living in Sarasota.
Where do you all live? Have you been here before?
When I say the word "circus" what do think of and what do you see?
Yes, it is all that, but it was also running a business, a huge operation of marketing,
advertising, getting licenses, logistics, transport, handling big crowds, feeding staff,
the animals etc etc.
That is what the Ringling Brothers were good at and made them from nothing to the biggest
circus show in the world in less than 25 years.
So, our tour will be 40 minutes and we'll start with the big picture: the marketing and
advertising, then more about the logistics of the circus, then the street parades and
finally we zoom in on the more glamorous side of the show and the performances of the
actors, animals and clowns. Then finally we'll end up in the winter quarters, where
maintenance was carried out and new acts were learned.
Throughout I will try to weave in stories of the Ringling Brothers and John specifically,
because this is the John Ringling Museum and you should know who he was and what he
contributed to the circus and Sarasota.
We will not cover every item, because of time constraints, but you can stay here till
closing time and come back to those.
Now we are in the poster area. Do you get the flavor of the circus? Discuss a few posters.
Do you see contrasts? Do you have posters at home? Kids in their bedroom? Can you describe
them? Leonardo DiCaprio?
Today's posters are made by offset photographic color separation and then printed just
like in the magazines you buy. First circus advertising was done with woodblock printing.
Leaflets, booklets and posters and then 4 color lithography. These posters on the wall
were made by lithography. Oldest we have here is from 1878. At that time it was a
relatively new process, invented just before 1800 in Austria. He used Bavarian limestone,
which is still the best material to use today for art printing.
A drawing is made in reverse with crayon or an oil based ink. The image on the stone will
accept oil based printing ink and reject water. Once the oil in the ink has penetrated the
stone, the drawing is washed off and the stone is kept moist. It is then inked with a
roller and printed on a lithographic press. Several hundreds of fine prints can be taken
from a stone. The medium was used by many 19th Century artists, such as Goya, DeLaCroix,
Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. By 1848 the process had been refined to the point that it was
possible to print 10,000 sheets per hour using metal plates. There were a handful of
companies in the USA which did beautiful work. One of the most famous was the Strobridge
Co in Cincinnati, which was called the "Tiffany of Lithography". You know of
course that Tiffany became famous for it's jewelry and design after the civil war. Since
working at the museum gives us fantastic privileges, I have been able to lay my hands on
an original special Tiffany design and the best printing technique in the world, as a
prize for the first person, who can tell me which Dutch actress (she was actually the
daughter of a Dutch baroness) played the lead role in the 1961 movie "Breakfast at
Tiffany's". Answer: Audrey Hepburn. Here it is. It is the Great Seal on a one dollar
bill, which Tiffany was asked to re-create in 1885, and it is still there after more than
Any questions before we go on? OK, let's go and look at the big picture of organizing a
In between Stop: Show Wagons 1
Let me first tell you a bit about how the Ringlings' started:
Five Bros started in 1884, when John was just 18. They worked with an experienced circus
man "Yankee Robinson", who had good name recognition. The brothers played
musical instruments, had a small band, John was also a clown and they also did balancing
acts. They were pretty good according to the local newspapers. Charles and Alf T. had a
show number, where the two of them played 12 different instruments. You have to remember
that there virtually was no music before and just after the civil war. It was the sound of
the devil. After the civil war people going to the circus enjoyed brass bands as much as
the rest of the entertainment
Eventually all 7 brothers became involved in the management of the circus.
Before a circus came to town, they had to entice people to come. That is what we now call
Marketing. When you work in a business, people often use marketing and sales
interchangeably, but these people knew what true marketing was: "to create the
desire". For the bigger shows they would send an advance crew with one to 4 cars,
each with a crew of 20 -30 men. The first car would arrive in town about two weeks before
the show, the second a few days later and the second crew would cover additional
territory. The advance men already went before the advance cars, advertised by pasting
posters everywhere. Sometimes by the thousands. There were some plain wagons, but also
animal wagons and sometimes a calliope. Remember that there were virtually no zoos in
those days, so to see a tiger or giraffe was a sight to behold.
At the end of the century there were dozens of circuses touring the country and often the
advance men would paste their posters over the competitors'. John Ringling becomes an
advance man in 1889, only 5 years after the brothers started the circus. In 1892 the
Ringling Bros. advance men had a big fight with Barnum & Bailey, who were then the
biggest in country.
On our way back we'll go more into detail about the other wagons.
Second Stop: Model tents
Did you make Thanksgiving dinner? For how many people? How long did it take you to do the
shopping . That was also part of what the advance men did. Organize the posters, but also
the delivery of the food. Not only for the animals, but also for the people.
The Hotel wagon. This was the cookhouse kitchen. In 1935 they employed 135 people, just in
the kitchen. Stewards, cooks, bakers, potato peelers. Called "The Flying
Squadron". They used 8 stoves, using wood fires and steam kettles. They would leave
the site at 9:30 PM and arrive at the next destination by 3:30 AM, ready with breakfast at
daybreak. All you could eat for 1400 people.
All groceries were bought locally, arranged by the advance men.
For one day they used:
2700 eggs, 2200 loaves of bread, 2470 lbs of fresh meat, 285 lbs of butter, 200 galls of
milk, 3600 ears of corn, 200 lbs of coffee & tea, 36 bags of table salt, 50 lbs of
lard, 1300 lbs fresh veg, 1320 fresh oranges, 2 barrels of sugar, 50 bushels of potatoes,
350 lbs of salad dressing.
For the 1000 animals of the menagerie, with 700 horses, they bought 11 tons of hay and 83
tons of oats per day.
When the food was ready, they would raise the "Hotel" flag high, so that it
could be seen from all areas in the camp. In dining tent everybody had their own seat and
gave their order to the waiter. There were 2 areas in the tent, separated by a canvas
curtain: performers, owners and guests in one area and the workers and their bosses in the
other. On special days the men had beer and the women chocolates.
The Smithery had 9 men, tending to 700 horses and all the metal on the 140 wagons. In the
30's they (a woman) started to use electric welding for the first time. When the circus
arrived in the town, there were 140 wagons, often shipped by railroad. Everything was
always packed in the same manner. Same trunk, same space, same wagon.
Bigtop model. The tent was an American invention. Circus shows were normally done in a
fixed structure or in open air. In 1830 Aaron Turner of Danbury Con. took out a show under
a round tent, 90 ft in diameter. This ingenuity gave the circus freedom to travel the
countryside, setting the stage for the ultimate bigtop. The bigtop grew eventually to 490
x 190 ft, made in 12 sections. It weighed 20 tons dry. It could hold 14,000 people and if
the show was sold out, they would put straw down in front and have 3000 additional seats.
In 1882, when Barnum merged with Bailey and created "The Greatest Show on
Earth", they used three stages, with a center ring of 42 ft diameter. This is the
optimum for horse acts.
Elephants helped to raise and teardown the circus (tents).
In the top years there were 45 tents all together, taking up 18 acres.
Explain side shows. Also animals, sword swallowers, jugglers, clowns.
The large posters describe what Barnum called "Human Curiosities" or
"Museum Wonders". But the crowd derogatory called them "Freak shows".
These people were born differently than we are. Not to be made fun off. It was their own
choice and they made a good living.
- Man with 3 legs: Francesco Lentini. Born in Sicily in 1889. Third leg grew from hip. All
were same size till he was 6 years old, then the third leg grew less fast. At adult age it
was 6 inches smaller. It was weaker, but, but fully functional. Demo by kicking soccer
ball. He was in many shows.
- Albino family: No pigment, hair white, eyes pink.
- Lady with beard: Had doctor's certificate that beard was real. She was married and
- Tallest and shortest man: The tallest man was Geroge Augur. They claimed he was 9 ft,
but he was "only" 8 ft. He looked taller because he wore high heel boots and
large cowboy hats.
- Ostrich Lady: Bird lady could do all the bird calls. She dressed up this way.
- Men from Mars: Albino twins, claimed that they came from Mars.
- Skinniest men: James Coffey. They called him "the skinny dude". He was of
average height, but never weighed more than 70 lbs. If he was alive today, he could sell
his secret to "Weight Watchers".
- Punch and Judy show: mainly for kids
- World's Fattest Lady: Jane Campbell, also called "the Connecticut Giantess".
She weighed 628 lbs when she was 18. Got paid weekly 50 cents/lb, weighed in weekly.
- Siamese twins: Chang & Eng, came from Thailand, connected by muscle and skin on
chest. They saved up $10,000 (not $60,000) and got married with two sisters (daughters
from the local preacher). First lived together in one big house with one big bed. Later
they bought adjacent farms. Lived 3 days in one and 3 days in the other. Had 21 children
between them (11 with one, 10 the other). One was extrovert, one introvert. One liked to
drink, the other didn't, but didn't become intoxicated. Often fought and did not speak to
each other for days. One died and the other also within 4 hours in 1874, probably from a
Third Stop: Show Wagons 2
Our Museum's Wagons:
- The open Tiger Cage: sometimes 6 of these wagons were used in a parade. Animals used in
a parade were never used in the circus show.
- The Five Graces Bandwagon. Probably the oldest circus wagon in the world. Certainly the
most traveled. It was built in 1878 for Adam Forepaugh, whose circus was taken over by
B&B. It is all original, only colors have changed. Was yellow + silver. Columbia with
the 4 Seasons. Can you see which seasons are described? I will also explain how they
harnessed, hitched and rode the 40 horse wagon. Harness weighed 28 tons. Total length of
the 40 horses was120 ft. Can you measure that out? 40 paces.
- "Make the nut".
- Big lyre is called "Celestina".
- The Griffin Wagon: This is a replica, made from a b/w photograph. Will relate this back
to the "carving area" in the circus museum and the volunteers, who re-create
these master pieces. Star burst wheels.
- The Jester Calliope: Ran on steam, with real keyboards. Invented in 1851 in Indiana. We
need a better sound recording of the real music it made. Jesters were in the Middle Ages,
now clowns. Story about the Muses. Life on Olympus was good. Often Apollo would play the
lyre and the 9 muses would sing more sweetly than any mortal could imagine. Calliope
(prncd caliopeeee) was the eldest. She taught Achilles to cheer his friends by singing.
She had a son by Apollo, called Linus, who was slain by Hercules and Orpheus. I don't know
why we pronounce the calliope the European way, because it is an American invention in the
1850's. The circus calliope is also called the "Devil's Whistle" because of its
piercing sound. A mechanical organ was called an "Appolonium".
- The Elephant Bandwagon: Used by the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. Can tell an interesting
story about this. Jumbo is another word for big. Where did it originate? Jumbo (Mumbo
Jumbo), London zoo, 1882-1885.
All the Ringling's circus cars had rubber tires since 1934.
In 1897 the B&B circus went to Europe for 5 years. When they came back the Ringlings
had merged with other circuses and were kings. Barnum had already died and Bailey died in
1906. The R's bought B&B. They now were the biggest circus show in the country.
In 1919 there was only Charles and John left. They combined the two circuses into
"The Ringling and B&B Greatest Show on Earth" and moved winter quarters to
Big poster of Gunter Gebel Williams. Is not Siegfried, from Siegfried & Roy in Las
Vegas. He was one of the greatest animal trainers, with all animals. Performed for more
than 25 years with "The Greatest Show on Earth". Did 12,000 performances to 200
million people. Lives in Venice.
In between stop: Costumes.
They would have new wardrobes every season, made by Brookes Brothers in New York. Even the
elephants had costumes.
Talk about LaNorma Fox and the costumes she made. She did double work in the 1950 movie
"The Greatest show on Earth" for Betty Hutton. Also Charlton Heston and Jimmy
Steward. Filmed in Sarasota.
Talk about Jules Leotard as the first person to do high trapeze in the Cirque National in
Paris in 1859. Practiced over his father's swimming pool. Had a tight fitting costume made
for his special Paris performance.
Unus standing on one finger on a light bulb.
Fourth stop: Canon + highwire area
Cannons first appeared in US as early as 1873, but were gone in the nineties, because it
only shot people25 ft into a trapeze (spring operated then). Big revival by Zacchini
(Italian). First performed in Egypt. John R. signed them in 1929 in Copenhagen. In 1944
Silvana (ChaCha) Zacchini was shot from the cannon as the first woman. In 1946 they built
the super repeating cannon. Two people were shot nearly 140 ft trough the air with a speed
of 125 mph, landing in a net 275 ft away. One uncle was shot over two Ferris Wheels.
How would you create such a cannon. How would a school kid do it? sling, BB gun, harpoon.
Flying Wallendas worked on 35 ft high wire. Most famous for their 3 high pyramid (7men).
Karl's wife sat on top. Brother Walt (Walther) still lives in Sarasota. Accident in 1962
in Detroit. Two died and one paralyzed from the waste down. Karl continued. Walked the
Niagara Falls and part of the Grand Canyon. Fell to his death in Porto Rico at the age of
75. His children and cousins have now revived the 7 men pyramid and are touring as the
Flying Wallendas again.
Try to walk the tight rope on the floor. Police DUI test. Don't look at your feet.
Clown props: Lou Jacobs did 60 years with The Ringlings. It is his car on top of the props
table. He was 6'1".
In between stops: Woodcarving and clown:
Emmet Kelly was "Weary Willy". Hobo clown. Never said a word. Always a straight
face. From 1942-1945 at Ringling's. Became mascot of Brooklyn Dodgers. Was famous for
sweeping up a spotlight, making it narrower till it was finally a spot and then swept it
up in this dustpan. Was one of the best pantomimes we had, maybe equal to Charlie Chaplin.
Two famous clowns, who never worked in the circus: Ronald McDonald and Bozo (since 1950).
Fifth Stop: Winter Quarters.
Now John had been visiting Sarasota since the early 1900's and bought a house here on this
site in 1912. But they only lived here with his wife Mable 3 month out of the year till
1926, when their Ca d'Zan home was finished. During those years John had started to
develop the keys in the land boom years, building the causeway to Lido, but in 1926 there
are some problems, hurricane, real estate and land development has gone bust, his brother
Charles has died and John decides to move the circus winter quarters to Sarasota to bring
new life and tourism to the town.
They had already moved the winter quarters from Baraboo to Bridgeport in 1919. After
Charles death in 1925, John moved winter quarters to Sarasota. Opening Christmas Day 1927
In 1956 they stopped using tents after a fight with the Unions
The Ringlings had 86 double length railroad cars.
Can you imagine the effect of having 1000 strange people coming to live in a small town of
7000 people (12,000 in Sarasota county). If you went to Lido beach and saw artists
practicing their new routines? There would be 500,000 visitors per season.
In Sarasota from 1927-1958. Then in Venice on smaller scale till 1992. Now in Tampa and
surrounding towns for maintenance etc. They now rent the fair grounds.
John dies in 1936 at the age of 70. His estate is in disarray, but he willed estate to the
people of Florida.
In 1948 a new Museum Director decides to build a circus museum. It is the first in the
USA. And now... if you have read the newspapers recently, Howard Tibbals from Tennessee
and Longboat Key has donated $6.5 m and a 3000 ft circus model to our museum, ready in 2
Loomis Dean was R's photographer for 4 seasons. Got 50 Time/Life covers. He was on
"Ile de France", which came to the rescue of the "Andrea Doria" in
Work: Safety nets were made by hand. Each year a new tent was sown. Wardrobe re-fitted.
200 horses to look after.
Lou Jacobs, Emmett Kelly, LaNorma Fox, Unus, Wallendas, Zacchinis and Cristianis all
live(d) in Sarasota. Gunther Gebel Williams lives in Venice.
This is the end of our tour. Any questions? You can go back to the areas, which you didn't
have time to explore.
Thanks for your attention.
- 1860 Civil war begins.
- 1872 Barnum goes to 2 rings. The first circus train developed for the Barnum circus.
Cole goes to California.
- 1882 Barnum merges with Bailey. For the first time 3 rings are used. Open in Madison
Square Garden: 338 horses, 14 camels, 20 elephants, 370 costumes performers, 4 brass
bands, plus midgets. Mumbo Jumbo arrives in the US. Dies in 1885 in Canada in RR accident.
- 1884 Ringlings start. 5 of them, later all 7.
- 1892 Billing fights Ringling vs. B&B
- 1897-1902 B&B tour Europe
- 1906 James Bailey dies
- 1907 Ringlings buy B&B in London
- 1911 Otto dies
- 1912 John buys Tompson's house in Sarasota
- 1918 Only Charles and John left.
- 1919 B&B and R open as one. Winter quarters move from Baraboo to Bridgeport.
- 1925 Charles dies
- John & Mable stayed only 3 months per year till 1926, till Ca 'd Zan was finished.
- 1926 John decides to move winter quarters to Sarasota
- 1927. Circus winter quarters open in Sarasota on Christmas Day.
- 1934 All R. wagons have rubber tires.
- 1936 John dies
- 1938-1967 The Norths run the circus.
- 1958 winter quarters move to Venice.