Ask any of the retired circus performers of Sarasota, and you’ll hear it over and over.St. Martha’s is the church the circus built.
The history of Sarasota’s oldest Catholic Church is deeply intertwined with the Greatest Show on Earth. St. Martha’s is designated the official "U.S.A. Circus Church," and one of its huge stained glass windows recognizes the contributions of the Ringling Brothers to the community. In fact, if it weren’t for the generosity of circus performers, there might not be a church at all.
The current church, at the corner of Fruitville Road and North Orange Avenue, was built during the Great Depression, hardly the best time to start a major construction project. However, a series of benefit circus shows helped secure the money needed to complete the building in 1941.
The shows started in 1935. The circus magazine White Tops described the first production: "A conveniently bright full moon in the evening provided artificial lighting [as] the performers flew through the air with the grace of birds-a beautiful and dazzling spectacular."
Church records say that around 2,000 people were at that first show-in a city of just over 12,000. Adult admissions cost 50 cents, 25 cents for children. One of the performers the audience saw was young Pete Cristiani of the famed show horse family.
"The Ringlings would donate the seat wagons," he remembers, "and they held around 350 people each. They arranged them in a horseshoe pattern, but you know there were still plenty of people standing to see the show."
The 78-year-old Cristiani recalls the informal atmosphere that pervaded the volunteer effort. "It was essentially a one-ring show with high-wire and trapeze rigging. The show had no roof. The ground acts were concealed by the seat wagons, but the aerialists were visible from the street."
The Cristianis weren’t the only famous family to lend their talents to the benefits. The 1938 program highlights a high-wire performance by the Wallendas and a Pony Quadrille presented by the "Tiny Doll Family." The 1939 show was so successful that The Sarasota Herald reported tickets were sold out in advance as patrons anticipated seeing "every feature dear to the hearts of the circus fans," from elephants to clowns.
Also on the bill was the famous Canestrelli family equestrian show. The first members of the family came to the United States in 1929. Aurelia Canestrelli-Nock remembers hearing about the shows as a young girl in Italy. "I’d see the pictures and we would hear from my uncle and cousin. One of them would tell us they were building a church and we’d wonder, ‘Is he nuts?’ In Italy a church just couldn’t be built by a group of performers and other people."
The benefits were the idea of Ringling vice president Samuel Gumpertz ,and were staged by personnel director Pat Valdo. But Cristiani says the real driving force was St. Martha’s pastor, Father Charles Elslander. "He was a great salesman and got lots of people involved in the show," says Cristiani. "You just couldn’t turn him down."
Even after the church was built, the circus was a big part of its financial picture. Starting on St. Patrick’s Day, 1942, benefit shows and dances for the church were held at the John Ringling Hotel.
Jackie LeClaire was a clown in some of those shows. "Everybody worked for nothing, of course," he recalls. "I don’t ever really recall anyone asking us to do it. The circus can be pretty political, though. Sometimes if someone says the boss thinks is a good idea, you do it. And remember, these were performers. They had an ego and liked to perform for an audience." (LeClaire, by the way, also performed on the trapeze and was one of actor Cornell Wilde’s doubles in the circus film The Greatest Show on Earth.)
Margie Geiger was an aerialist in the hotel shows and remembers swinging right over people eating in the dining room. "I did the swinging rings act. Instead of a trapeze you had rings. Most performers did a sort of gymnastics routine on them, but my husband Joe had been with the circus for years and said ‘Audiences only look where you are moving.’ So, my rings started to swing."
Charles Carr managed the hotel in those years, and his son Robert, now president of the Sarasota law firm Kirk Pinkerton, says, "The St. Patrick’s Day Dance was the real big deal. It was right in the middle of the season, and there was really nothing else happening then." One year the event made $40,000.
Going into St. Martha’s today, Cristiani feels a sense of ownership. "It gives me a melancholy feeling, too. My parents, brothers, sisters, so many fellow performers attended that church and had their funeral services there. And nothing has really changed in the church. It has two wagon wheels now and the organ, and I visualize the people I knew still being there, but that’s all that’s changed."
LeClaire says the enduring relationship between the church and the circus is no surprise, if one simply understands local history. "The Ringling organization was instrumental in making this town. It brought lots of people here before there was any real tourist interest. People passed through Sarasota, but they didn’t really stay, except for the circus. But Ringling had the city’s name on the rail cars and in the programs. They did a lot for this community; and you couldn’t go anywhere, you couldn’t drive down any street without seeing Ringling Brothers trucks or trailers, or seeing people practicing a trapeze act or high-wire act in their back yards."
The construction of St. Martha’s was the result of historic circumstances that brought together a dynamic pastor, a uniquely talented immigrant community, and economic conditions that mandated donations of time and talent over money. The church these performers built still stands today, a symbol of the strong ties that bind the circus to all Sarasota.
Tom Honsa teaches at Lakewood Ranch High and is also a member of the adjunct faculty at Manatee Community College and Eckerd College.