Travel January 11th, 2014

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A great escape to the Greatest Show on Earth

Where else can you visit a circus museum and chat with famous performers?

I went to Sarasota, Fla. for the pretty beaches, the delicious seafood, the wonderful arts scene and, of course, the warming sunshine while Canada shivers under a blanket of snow.

What I discovered, though, is that I had actually escaped to the circus!

My generation remembers the circus fondly. When the circus came to town we could get cheap tickets for a special school performance and best of all, we got that afternoon off. Sadly, I hadn’t been to a circus for decades, but in Sarasota I found a childhood treat again.

As a hub of circus activity for more than eight decades, Sarasota is considered the “Home of the American Circus”. Beginning in the 1920s, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus made its winter home here. And though the outfit eventually moved down the road to Venice, the circus influence in this community remains.

Most obvious is the Ringling Museum, a wonderful complex built on the grounds of Ca’d’Zan, the extraordinary Venetian-inspired home of John and Mable Ringling. Constructed in 1926 for an astounding $1.65 million — truly a princely sum in its day — it copied the architecture of the Doge’s Palace in Venice and featured a six-storey tower which Mable kept lit at all times. And where the grounds dip to the inland waterway, Mabel could sometimes be seen being ferried around in her own private gondola.

A tour of this magnificent residence is included with entry to the museum, as is the Art Gallery which houses the family’s fine collection.

But my favourite is the Circus Museum. Filled with posters, memorabilia, costumes and even Ringling’s personal railway car, it also has an interactive room.

In here, I joined the circus. I squeezed into a clown car, then walked a tight wire (safely at ground level, of course). I could even pretend to tame a fierce tiger or ride a horse bareback.

But none of this compares to the joy with which I explored the Tibbals Learning Center. This opened in 2006 to house the Howard Bros. Circus model — a 44,000-piece re-creation of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1919-38.

It’s hard to describe the captivating detail in this extraordinary miniature of the circus as it sets up. Each piece, lovingly hand built by Howard Tibbals over decades, offers an enchanting glimpse behind the scenes of a full-scale circus.

He used his own name — Howard — for the model because it required less time and space for the lettering. But this is the Ringling circus in all its glory.

The tiny costumes of the performers are decorated with extraordinarily meticulous gold filigree; the camels and horses sport ornately wrought harnesses.

The detail is so complete that Tibbals even put a miniature ticket collector, complete with cash register and tiny dollar bills inside the booth. While she can’t be seen from outside, he comments in a video at the museum, “But I know she’s there. It wouldn’t be complete if she weren’t.”

Being complete is still on the agenda as Tibbals, whose passion for the Big Top began at age 3 when he saw his first circus, still works on his miniatures. Of course, miniature is misleading.

This astonishing replica covers 3,800 square feet — more than twice as big as an average home. But in Sarasota, the circus extends well beyond the grounds of the Ringling Museum.

In St. Armand’s Circle, the Ring of Fame was established in 1988 to “recognize those who have made significant contributions to the circus.”

An annual induction ceremony embeds a bronze plaque in concrete. Here you’ll find the names of circus glitterati — names like owners P.T. Barnum, James A. Bailey, the five Ringling brothers; circus aerialists Fay Alexander, Lillian Leitzel.

La Norma and Dolly Jacobs; animal trainers William and Barbara Woodcock, Mable Stark; clowns Dan Rice, Otto Griebling, Lou Jacobs and the immortal Emmett Kelly; and famous families such as the Wallendas, the Cristianis, the Gaonas and the Zacchinis.

Sarasota and its surrounding communities are still the winter base of many circus families. It’s not unusual to see a trapeze or high wire in a backyard, as the next generation hones its skills.

Indeed, the Sailor Circus Academy is located here. At Sailor, young performers are trained and perform in “The Greatest Little Show on Earth”.

Two of Nik Wallenda’s children attend this school. (The Wallenda family makes its home here — when the patriarch isn’t walking across any available geographic wonder.)

Nik Wallenda walked across Niagara Falls on a tightrope last year and recently crossed the Grand Canyon in the same way, a feat he describes as one of his most treacherous because of the wind gusts.

I asked him how his mother feels about such dangerous pursuits, considering her grandfather perished during an attempt in Puerto Rico.

“She’s a little jealous, I think,” said Wallenda. “She would like to be doing it too.

“After all, she taught me. It’s what our family has always done. Actually, she and I did that same crossing in Puerto Rico together.”

Running into members of the circus world is an exciting part of the attraction of Sarasota. But this is a beautiful little city which abounds in art and culture. Each winter, the waterfront’s Seasons of Sculpture, a curated exhibition of sculpture from some of the foremost artists in the world, makes a stroll along the shorefront a really special treat.

Here too, is “Unconditional Surrender,” Seward Johnson’s 25-foot-high sculpture based on a famous 1945 photograph of a soldier kissing a young nurse in celebration of the end of war.

This tiny town also has a resident symphony, opera and theatre company.

All these — along with the beaches, the seafood and the sun — are reason enough to visit. But it’s also the only place I know where you can run away to the Greatest Show on Earth.