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.
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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.

A Walk in the Park: Silver Springs State Park

One day, there were two people who wanted to ride on the boat. Their names were Melani and Jillian. When they were rowing everywhere, they saw two baby alligators. One of the mothers of the babies came out with its whole body and it attacked the little girl’s brother. Her friends were up by the bridge, and they saw everything.
— Jillian, age 5

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

OCALA, Fla.
We were in that part of Florida because I was researching the post-sideshow lives of carnival workers. So it was kind of fitting that we stumbled on this old Hollywood starlet, Silver Springs State Park, who has starred in the Creature From the Black Lagoon, and James Bond, and Sea Hunt.

These artesian springs provide fresh water to more than half of Florida. But also, because they are exceptionally clear — you cannot tell whether you are looking six feet down or 65, they are the perfect backdrop for filmmakers who need an underwater stage.

We took the glass-bottom boat tour — designed starting in the 1870s to show off this wonder — and then rented kayaks. 

The wildlife warning “if you see the baby, the momma is nearby” had been impressed upon us by the good folks over at Wildlife Inc. the day before, so we responsibly kept our distance when we twice paddled past young napping gators.

“There’s a big one down there!” hollered someone from the bridge as Melani and 5-year-old Jilly headed toward home base to return their tandem kayak. Twenty-one-year-old Trevor was close behind them, having sped away from me when I told him he looked very redneck-y with his ball cap and a snoozing gator over his left shoulder.

Melani eased the kayak to a safe space to take a look at the sunning eight-footer, and Jilly dropped her paddle into the water to help out. The sound and the sudden jerking motion of the boat made the gator open her eyes and lift her head, which made Jilly scream, which made the gator say, “Nope nope nope damn humans” and slither away through the water, cutting off Trevor’s kayak and slapping the tip of it with her tail.

The little audience at the top of the bridge hollered their approval.

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We’re awarding Silver Springs State Park the ever-elusive yet completely arbitrary five out of five stroller wheels, and not just for alligator sightings. We can’t name all the birds we saw, and there were dozens of turtles and hundreds of fish. The park is rich with history going back thousands of years to when indigenous peoples used this water and harvested the land. The paths are wide and clear — though we only got to walk a bit of them because of time constraints.

The food at the canteen is very well priced, and there are many tables throughout the park to picnic instead. Entrance to the park is only $2. The glass-bottom boat and kayak cost extra (you can launch your own kayak for $4), but the price is reasonable and the experience well worth it. We were on the water for a total of three hours and retreated to our Airbnb exhausted and happy.

Solomon’s Castle, a palace hidden in a Florida swamp

Solomon's Castle is silver plated, and features stained glass created by Howard Solomon.
Solomon’s Castle is silver plated, and features stained glass created by Howard Solomon.

ONA, Fla.
There are roadside attractions that are centres of power, author Neil Gaiman says. His book American Gods takes us to a few of them, and we’ve visited some ourselves, like the House on the Rock and Rock City, and they are truly powerful in their kitsch.

Then there’s Solomon’s Castle, which isn’t in American Gods, but easily could be.

The silver palace in the middle of a Florida swamp is the brainchild of writer, sculptor, and lifelong eccentric Howard Solomon, who built the castle’s outer walls of old typesetting plates, news-side-in. There are metal-sheathed guards, and a full-size boat in the boggy “moat.” Everything, from the stained glass to the strange menagerie we will encounter inside, was created and installed by Solomon over decades. He died in August at 82, but his wife still lives in the castle.

Behind the castle is the full-size Boat in the Moat, which features a restaurant and more puns.
Behind the castle is the full-size Boat in the Moat, which features a restaurant and more puns.

Our tour guide, Ricky, is scripted within an inch of his life, and he spends an hour blasting facts like buckshot. He kind of warns us about the puns.

It seems Solomon was some sort of three-dimensional-word genius, weaving language and sculpture and play to justify his junk collecting.

Ricky shows us a three-foot sculpture of a woman called Busting Out. She’s just been released from prison and she represents freedom, he says. He tells us what old car part and found treasures went into making her, ending with the bicycle chains that are her hair.

“We call this a permanent permanent,” Ricky says with an eyebrow wiggle.

Howard Solomon's garboyle.
Howard Solomon’s garboyle.

Next up is a half-size truck that Solomon let his grandchildren play in. “The fish market truck is covered with the same stuff the castle is built with, only it’s painted black. Howard said it would take three people to operate this thing: Somebody to steer it, another one to push it, another one to run alongside barkin’ at the tires.”

There’s a selection of guns and rifles, each with their own pun. “I asked Howard, how come this rifle’s got a clock in there?” Ricky says. “He said, ‘It’s a Minuteman rifle. … It’s for killin’ time’.”

It would take days to examine the curiosities Solomon created in this sanctuary that he called his time castle, where it’s okay to touch things so long as you’re respectful, and you can get up close to see each piece of flaking rust or to peer more closely at masterful wooden reproductions of classical art.

Howard Solomon, a self-portrait in wood.
Howard Solomon, a self-portrait in wood.

I ask Ricky where Solomon found his material and he laughs. “Anywhere and everywhere. People’ll’d bring him stuff.” Then he’s back on script.

“The garboyle over there, guys, I had not a clue what it was when i got to the castle. The garboyle is 800 pieces of metal. They say it lays eggs, it eats the eggs, and then it becomes … eggstinct.

“Now let me introduce you over here to Lionel.” Without skipping a beat he’s moved on to the life-size metal lion that’s leaning toward us. “Now, if Howard was here, he’d let you know it’s got two glass eyes up front and two steel balls in the back. Then he’d ask you, ‘Know what this is?’ “ He’s holding up a baseball bat that was lying at Lionel’s feet. “No, ladies, it’s not a ball-buster. Howard would let you know.

“That’s the Lion’s Club.”

Lionel, who comes with his own club.
Lionel, who comes with his own club.

The Lion’s Club indeed. If you have the stomach for the puns, Solomon’s Castle is tucked away in the backroads of inland Florida. We had an adventure trying to see this place five years ago and we’ve been wanting to come back ever since. It was absolutely worth the wait.
4533 Solomon Rd., 863-494-6077

Mermaids and chemical warfare at Yeehaw Junction

YEEHAW JUNCTION, Fla.
It was hot as steam pipes outside the car and though we’d just stopped for a pee break, the building-cum-roadside-attraction was so cool I was wandering around taking pictures.

“Mom. Mom. Mom mom mom.” I’ve explained to him for more than 20 years that it just has one syllable. Say it the one time and see what happens. Maybe he’ll get there. In the meantime: “Mom! Did your bathroom have a naked mermaid? Because mine had a naked mermaid.”

It’s what you’d expect an establishment at a crossroads that was in the early 20th century a “supply and recreation centre for cattle drovers,” which is a nice way for a big historical marker to say: “brothel.”

The Desert Inn was a gathering place for local farmers near Yeehaw Junction — also called Jackass Junction because patrons rolled up on their burros — with separate rooms for African Americans and Seminole aboriginals. There are hundreds of crossroads like this in America. A few dozen have historical markers.

I turned to Google for more because I intended to write a fluffy post about the brothel, and discovered that Yeehaw was exposed to a lot more than pioneer-era bosoms. It was exposed to biological warfare.

Secret tests were performed here in the 1960s, and the government would maintain — will maintain — that the chemical agents sprayed on the area were harmless. At least two sets of tests were conducted over Yeehaw during the Cold War, as Project 112 sought to find ways to stunt the growth of Russian wheat. The trials were secret till 2002, when a senator demanded an inquiry into decades of rumour after revelations by CBC Evening News.

Puccinia graminis tritici, or TX, was sprayed from F4 fighter jets over Florida, Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of Britain and Canada — off the coast of Newfoundland and “southwestern Canada,” which probably referred to Suffield, Alta. — during the joint U.S., UK and Canadian program. TX is toxic to plants and can spark cancer in animals but the government said it was harmless to humans over the long term. But anyway, the point of the tests was to see whether the chemicals would kill plants, not people. People were secondary, and anyway there have never been more than around 240 in Yeehaw.

TX is wheat rust, “a fungus which kills wheat, and is an offensive test if you want to take the breadbasket away from the enemy,” Michael Kilpatrick, the Pentagon’s director for employment health support, told the Sun-Sentinel soon after the news broke in 2002.

There’s big sky out here on the flat land where a fighter jet would look out of place, now or in the 1960s. It’s incredible to me the testing was kept secret for so long. But I can be naive that way.

You can find food and drink at Yeehaw Junction, which is along old Highway 60 between Orlando and Tampa, but if you find special companionship you’ll have to take them somewhere other than the now-shut-down motel out back.

My bathroom didn’t have a naked mermaid, by the way.

My bathroom mannequin scared me so bad I nearly peed on the floor, which clearly defeats the entire purpose the of thing.

My tribe: On holding tight and letting go

I have written many times and in many different ways about the small group of women with whom I have become close over the past six years. Meeting almost exclusively on Facebook, we laugh or cry or rage in a way we can’t with our day-to-day friends. In December, some of us rushed to the side of one of those women, who was very ill. We have since lost her, but we’ll never completely let her go.

* * *

My tribe is small.

We are a farmer, an immigrant, a journalist, a funeral-home director, a teacher, a former executive, a homeschooler.

We are, before all that, mothers and friends.

We have other tribes. Families, best friends, confidantes with shared history. Yet we hold each other in a special, guarded circle.

We are funny, and smart, and boisterous and loud, though we know when to be quiet. Like when the food arrives.

Or when our heart breaks.

We have our phones with their cameras ready at all times, but we know when to take pictures. Like before we eat.

Or before we cry.

We have secret pacts. Like: everyone has to use the washroom at every stop, even if you think you don’t have to.

Or that we’ll always always be there.

Each of us travelled hundreds or thousands of miles to gather in body, in the shadow of anticipated loss, but with the hope that we weren’t about to lose one of us.

Over and over I caught us trying to hold on to the moments, the phrases and cadences and genesis of in-jokes. But words resist corralling. We won’t remember the words.

We’ll remember the scenes.

Five of us with limbs crossed or bodies tucked up safely on alien yellow furniture with bright red and orange flowers and a crooked middle cushion. Voices rising and colliding, separating in laughter like a wave, then rising one at a time in a fountaining pattern.

Twenty-three seconds of video where we smiled goofily and waved awkwardly while our strongest voice recorded love and laughter in case we didn’t get to see our dear one’s face. Five of us staring into the clear eye of a smartphone, willing all our compassion through it.

In the car, the hollow desperate sound of five women weeping in complete silence.

Connecting with the one of us who couldn’t be there, squeezing in so we could all see her face, sharing our news and letting her cry, because we had all had a turn already. The familiar warmth of tears on cheeks and chins.

Walking into the thin, precious air of the ICU for an unprecedented 58 minutes, surprised by her moon-like and pale face, yet her sudden smile warming each of us from ribcage to throat. Perplexed that we had come just for her (we had come for us), she said: “Thank you. This was on my bucket list.”

Those words we will keep.

My tribe is small.

We are a healer, a pillar, a clown, a helper, a pragmatist, a gentlewoman, a protector.

We are, before all that, friends and mothers.

We have other tribes. But this tribe is knit with confidences and compassions we guard jealously. We are small. Yet we are fierce.