If you live in Sarasota long enough, you become an expert on the circus. Not a scholar, exactly, but you learn its lore and get to know its people. You can tell a Zacchini from a Cristiani, you may have Wallendas in your neighborhood, and if you’re as old as I am, you can still vividly recall seeing retired Munchkins pushing their shopping carts—which were taller than they were—down the aisle at Publix.
These days the circus is experiencing a sort of renaissance. Everybody attends one of the Circus Sarasota performances (Feb. 3-21 this year), and one of the best parties of the year is the Circus Gala, a black-tie dinner under the Big Top with top-notch acts and cabaret entertainment. And now there’s something new in the circus world, the Big Top Tour.
It leaves every weekday at 10 a.m. from the Ringling Museum parking lot. I was wondering if I would be able to find it, as it’s a pretty big parking lot, so I was driving around looking for it when I saw a man dressed in a red and orange suit, with size 27 shoes and an orange fright wig. He was carrying a goose. Gee, I thought. I wonder if he has anything to do with the circus tour.
He did, indeed. In fact he was the tour guide. His name is Toby Circus Ballantine, and as he puts it, “Circus is my middle name.” Toby has been a clown with most of the major circuses throughout the years, and as a child—both his parents were circus performers— his baby sitters were the famous Doll Family, the midgets from Germany who were major celebrities back in the day. I was excited to hear this, as I am a big Doll Family fan and have even tracked down their tiny house off Bee Ridge, still there after all these years.
It turns out that the perfect way to have a historical tour of Sarasota is through the eyes of the circus. Practically every landmark in town has a circus connection, and it’s usually a crucial one. Bird Key, for example, was originally the home of Ida Ringling North. St Martha’s Church was actually built with proceeds from benefits put on by circ us performers. Where you go to pay your taxes was originally a hotel built by Charles Ringling. The Opera House was where the Academy Award-winning The Greatest Show on Earth, the famous movie shot in Sarasota, had its world premiere. New College has several Ringling mansions as administration buildings. It’s everywhere, it’s everywhere.
But I must say that even I received a few surprises. One of the places we drove past was the former home of M’Toto, the famous gorilla. You remember her; she used to be married to Gargantua. M’Toto, whose full name was Mademoiselle Toto, lived on Virginia Drive in a house designed to look like a railroad car, as that is where she spent most of her year, traveling. I’d noticed this house before when it was on the market several years ago and thought, what an odd-looking house. Well, of course—it was designed for a gorilla.
It was also a slightly eerie experience to drive down Glen Oaks Boulevard, now a pleasant neighborhood of homes dating from the 1970s, as Toby described what it had been like 60 years ago, when it was the Winter Headquarters and the biggest tourist attraction in Florida. You could almost picture the hustle and bustle, as the animal acts were put through their paces and the aerialists rehearsed before the crowds. One of Sarasota’s urban legends tells of the elephant bones that are still occasionally dug up where the animal cemetery used to be. And right down Beneva a block or two, there still exists the Circus City Trailer Park, where Toby, along with many other performers, used to live when he was a kid.
Any tour needs a stop where you get out, stretch your legs, desperately look for a bathroom, and get something to eat. On the circus tour it’s Bob’s Train, a marvelously strange place you’ve got to check out. It functions as a sort of drop-in center for circus addicts. It’s behind where the old Stottlemyer and Shoemaker lumber yard used to be near Lime and Fruitville, and it consists of the JoMar—John and Mable Ringling’s private railroad car, which awaits restoration—plus three old circus railroad cars. These contain a snack bar and a lot of fascinating old photos. There’s one of Raul Castro signing a contract to bring the circus to Cuba, plus a shot of the Pope dressed as a ringmaster—talk about a metaphor. And the picture of an anxious Marilyn Monroe trying not to slide off an elephant is worth the trip.
The most evocative stop is at the original Wallenda family home on Arlington, near Southside Village. You can easily picture them out in the yard, practicing on their rigging, circa 1950. There’s even a historical marker out front. Speaking of which, wouldn’t the Wallendas make a great reality show? They’ve always been the Kardashians of the circus world. We’d watch their feuds and power struggles and then, at the climax of each weekly episode, they’d all do a skywalk and maybe die. Who wouldn’t watch that?
That’s the best thing about the circus tour. It helps connect the dots of our one-of-a-kind community. My favorite moment was when Toby began to brag in a grandfatherly way about his granddaughter, who is a student at New College. A man in a clown suit, holding a goose named Henrietta in his lap—and his granddaughter goes to college across the street at the brainiest school in Florida. And it all makes perfect sense. That’s Sarasota for you.
For circus tour information, call (941) 706-6965 or (800) 895-0071 or go to bigtoptours.com. For tickets to Circus Sarasota, call (941) 355-9805 or go to circussarasota.org. To find out more about Bob’s Train, call (941) 321-5634 or go to bobstrain.blogspot.com.
Mr. Chatterbox moonlights as our “Real Estate Junkie.” Read his blog at sarasotamagazine.com