The Circus City: Sarasota, Florida

The man responsible for putting Sarasota on the map as the Circus City is none other than John Ringling, the mastermind behind the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. In 1927, Ringling made the bold decision to move the winter quarters of his circus from Bridgeport, Connecticut to the sunny shores of Sarasota, forever changing the destiny of this Florida beach destination.

With the arrival of the winter quarters came a spectacular array of performers that would captivate audiences for decades to come. Trapeze artists soared through the air with grace and precision, lion tamers fearlessly commanded the attention of majestic beasts, and tightrope walkers displayed incredible feats of balance and skill. And, of course, who could forget the beloved clowns whose antics brought laughter and joy to audiences of all ages. The presence of the circus brought an undeniable vibrancy to Sarasota, infusing the city with a sense of magic and wonder. The annual circus parades, dazzling performances under the big top, and the bustling energy of the winter quarters all contributed to the unique charm of Sarasota as the Circus City. Even today, the spirit of the circus lives on in Sarasota, as evidenced by the vibrant arts and cultural scene that continues to thrive in the city.

The Great Depression

A Turning Point for Sarasota Real Estate

The 1920s marked a period of prosperity and growth for Sarasota, with the real estate market thriving and ambitious development projects underway. However, the devastating impact of the hurricane in Miami in 1926 sent shockwaves through the national real estate market, leading to a downturn in Sarasota’s once-booming industry. The subsequent economic instability, bank failures, and property devaluations left the community in a state of distress. One prominent figure deeply affected by these challenges was John Ringling, a key player in Sarasota’s real estate landscape. The decline in property values and the struggle to attract buyers for Sarasota bonds posed a significant threat to Ringling’s ambitious development plans for the keys.

The announcement of the relocation of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus winter quarters in March 1927 brought a much-needed economic and morale boost to the community. The prospect of hosting the renowned circus elevated Sarasota’s status and kindled hope for a resurgence in prosperity and development. The relocation of the circus not only injected new life into Sarasota’s economy but also created employment opportunities for local residents. The practice arena in Sarasota became known as “Little Madison Square Garden,” further solidifying the city’s reputation as a hub of entertainment and leisure.

The Impact of the Circus on Sarasota

For 33 years, Sarasota was known as the Circus City, home of The Greatest Show on Earth. The approximate 155-acre headquarters served as a mini-city where performers rehearsed for the next year’s tour. This bustling hub drew nearly 100,000 “children of all ages” annually, injecting tourist dollars into Sarasota’s economy. However, as the circus left Sarasota for Venice, the fate of the headquarters became a topic of interest for the community. The transition of the circus grounds to real estate development marked a significant shift for Sarasota. As the circus bid farewell, the city was left with nostalgic recollections of its vibrant circus days. However, Sarasota had established itself as a prominent tourist destination, boasting numerous attractions and a wonderful climate that continued to draw visitors from around the world.

The Legacy of Ringling’s Clown College Lives on in Circus Summer Camp

Ringling’s Clown College was the premier institution for aspiring clowns, operating from 1968 to 1997. During its tenure, the college moved from Venice to Baraboo, Wis., and finally settled in Sarasota. Over the years, the college honed the skills of approximately 1,300 clowns, many of whom went on to join Ringling’s circus and make their mark in the world of entertainment. Although the physical institution of Clown College may be a thing of the past, its spirit lives on through the annual Circus Summer Camp at the Circus Arts Conservatory in Sarasota. This camp, held in one- and two-week sessions from early June through early August, offers children aged five through 15 the opportunity to learn circus arts and clowning skills in a fun and supportive environment. It’s not just children who can partake in the magic of the circus. Adults have the opportunity to participate in a range of classes that cater to various skill levels.

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