In one way, you might say that Howard Tibbals (after whom the Ringling Circus Museum’s Tibbals Learning Center is named) began his collecting career some 40 years ago, when he acquired the first circus poster in a colorful trove that now includes 5,000. But in another sense, he began collecting much, much earlier—when as a young boy he started acquiring circus memories.
“I first saw the show when I was three,” recalls the 75-year-old Tibbals on a tour of the center’s Howard Bros. Circus model for which he has become famous. “I remember the elephants coming in. As a teenager I was one of the ‘lot lice’”—a nickname for the swarms of fans that could always be spotted watching the circus set up.
From such small beginnings have come great things. Tibbals, who has given the museum $4 million (matched by the state) to open a major expansion of the Learning Center on Sept. 24, belongs to an elite group of circus memorabilia collectors (“There are only about 10 serious ones in the country,” he says) who scour auctions, attics and old circus magazines for fresh finds.
But he’s the only one who’s turned his private passion into such a public display. Along with collecting those circus posters and close to 1 million historic photos tucked away in file cabinets (“Only I know the system,” he chuckles), Tibbals has spent an untold number of painstaking hours creating the circus model that dominates the 3,500 square feet of the Learning Center—a building that was actually designed around his layout. The son of an engineer, Tibbals, who spent much of his life either at his flooring business in Tennessee or “in the hole,” as he called the basement workshop of his home, continues to add to the number of miniature circus wagons, horses, railroad cars and human figures that populate the model on a regular basis.
It’s a passion his wife of 20 years, Janice, understands. “She’s doll-crazy,” Tibbals says. “When we got together she told her family she was marrying a man who played with dolls.” It’s also a passion that fans from all over the world have come to share. The day I spoke with Tibbals, a couple from South Carolina came up to him with the sort of awe usually reserved for movie stars. “Are you Howard Tibbals?” they asked. “We’ve come to Sarasota just to see this.” Thanks to Tibbals’ generosity to the museum, generations of circus fans will be able to do the same.