Circuses, sideshows and marvels at Ringling and in Gibtown

GIBSONTON, Fla.
It was a bit of a hard sell, convincing me to fly to Florida for just a week. I hemmed and hawed, but my ears perked up a bit when Melani told me some of the circus history of the Sarasota area. There could be some good stories there, behind the tents. And then she mentioned, in passing, “that’s where the carny graveyard is.”

“You didn’t lead with that?” I said. As though she’d just met me. With some encouragement from a colleague I made a story pitch and started making phone calls.

In the end, the story wasn’t about the carny graveyard, though we did visit it, and one of the most important lessons I learned is that I don’t have the right to use the shortened form of “carnival worker.” I’m not one of them. I’m not their friend.

Everything is bright and shiny at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, including the statues and staff.
Everything is bright and shiny at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, including the statues and staff.

Deborah Walk, assistant director of Legacy & Circus at the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, spent nearly an hour with me in the circus archives in Sarasota. She’s passionate about her work, and about circuses, and her voice lilted in laughter, then near-whispers, in the manner of true storytellers. But she couldn’t tell me about sideshows. “Oh, you should call Doc Rivera and visit the museum in Gibtown,” she advised.

Rivera, a former travelling showman and curator of a carnival museum just north of Sarasota, was harder to pin down. But finally he answered an email. It was clear he’d been burned by people like me before and he wasn’t impressed by my clear punctuation and overly polite tone. He explained why in Question 6, where I had asked whether I could use the word carny:

“You’ll find doors closed in your face if you throw that term around in this town and you’ll just be considered another ‘mark.’ People have been bashed, trashed and painted in a very unkind way by so called ‘journalists’ promising a sensitive. insightful and thoughtful piece only to find out it was finally done as another badly written, sensationalist piece of crap. Folks around here have become very leery of the media for good reason.”

Old trailers from the American Circus — the one in the foreground is modestly labeled "Girl Show."
Old trailers from the American Circus — the one in the foreground is modestly labeled “Girl Show.”

Fair enough. I’m not good at sensational, and I hope to have told the story of wintering circuses in the voices of the experts, Rivera and Walk. Unfortunately there appear to be technical issues with the online story, so the PDF version is here (page 1) and here (page 2).

The mausoleum at Showmen's Rest, where hundreds of performers are buried.
The mausoleum at Showmen’s Rest, where hundreds of performers are buried.

Mabel Ringling and Ca’ d’Zan, the house that love built

SARASOTA, Fla.
“I’m a little bit obsessed with Mabel,” confessed Alice Murphy, without a shadow of shame.

In her capacity as PR manager at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, she was guiding me across the sprawling Ringling grounds to the mansion on the bay and giving me an impromptu tour as we went.

If one must be obsessed with a character like Mabel, these grounds — bequeathed to Sarasota by the Ringlings — are the only place to be. They are as close to one can get to the quiet, media-shy wife of a circus baron who oversaw the construction and decoration of Ca’ d’Zan.

Every reference book on Ca’ d’Zan — House of John — remarks that it truly is the House of Mabel, as she was present throughout the building, oversaw the mixing of colours and ensured that not one tile or nymph was out of place. But of course she named it Ca’ d’Zan because written between the lines of each of those references is how very much she loved her husband, who showed her the world and gave her the means and freedom to build a palace.

We do not know how Mabel and John met, though she might have been a dancer or other sort of performer in the circus he ran with his four brothers. We do know that they married when she was 30 and he was nine years older, and that they spent most of their time travelling with the circus or on their own, and that she had a special place in her heart for Venice.

They spent only three months of each year in Sarasota, but were pillars of the community. The real-estate baron side of John dreamed of turning the city into a resort paradise, and Ca’ d’Zan overlooked his lands across the bay.

While the grounds are demure and park-like, the Dwight James Baum-designed mansion is exactly what one expects of a circus family. It rises several stories in tones of copper and gold, with tiles as rich as sky and water. Inside are chandeliers and murals, and technologies at the cutting edge of the mid-1920s. It is rich and on the edge of gaudy.

Shy Mabel threw grand parties in and around the 57-room home and on their boat moored just outside the breakfast-room doors. She filled the palace with treasures from auctions, and with quirky design elements, like the sketched punctuation on her bedroom ceiling and the delicately painted flowers in her bathroom cabinet.

“There is Mabel’s rose garden,” Alice says, nodding to our left. It is grand, befitting the first president of Sarasota’s garden club.

Tucked away on the other side of the path and closer to the house, Alice points again. “Mabel’s secret garden. She and John are buried there.”

It is just past a tree that has grown around a statue, trapping it like an unlucky sprite. We honour an unplanned moment of silence. “Just them? Did they have any children?”

“No,” Alice smiles. “Just them.”

Mabel died in 1929 of complications from Addison’s disease and diabetes. John engaged in a short-lived marriage sometime after, but his heart wasn’t in it. It is said he never recovered from losing the beautiful Mabel; he died in 1936 at age 70.