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The Greatest Show on Earth

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Jill Spellman
Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - The Greatest Show on Earth photo

La-dies and Gentlemen...Chil-dren of all ages...”
If you ever heard that, you’ve been to the circus. Specifically, the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus, which had winter quarters in my home town of Sarasota, Florida.

Growing up there was weirder than most places. The Sarasota Snake Club I wrote about was only one of the many things-- the amazing art museum, the colorful pseudo-Spanish pageant, the Red Sox spring training ballpark, and--most of all--the winter quarters of the Ringling Circus -- that made growing up in Sarasota so special. John Ringling, an important early resident, didn’t go there to get away from his circus freaks and clowns and acrobats. He brought them all down with him to Sarasota to spend the winter.

It seemed to me back then that half the town was famous in one way or another (the Ringlings, the circus stars, the ballplayers, the artists and writers), and we just took it for granted. It was a town of little more than ten thousand, so you might run into any one of them any day on Main Street. Or in school. I had classmates whose parents were circus performers, and their children were often part of the act. It was a family business. In second grade with me there was Carla Wallenda, of the famous Great Wallendas on the high wire. Their house had a yard full of rigging, and Carla had a spectacular allowance of $14 dollars a week back when movies cost less than a dime. I myself was getting a puny 35 cents a week--but then, all I had to do was dry the dishes and make my bed, whereas Carla had to walk a tightrope.

Another classmate, Antoinette Cristiani, was working too, I think, in her family’s top equestrian act, but I didn't know her salary. For me, just getting to be near the horses would have been salary enough.

In seventh grade there was a brother and sister acrobatic act, Peppi and Nita Borza, who lived in our neighborhood. We used to go over there after school and watch them practice, and Peppi had a crush on my friend Anita. (Sigh. In those days all the boys had a crush on Anita). But surprisingly, my very first gift from a boy came from Peppi. It was a box of Yardley English Lavender soap and on top was written, and crossed out, "To Anita." This had been replaced by "To Jill." I never knew exactly how to take this evidence of Peppi's broken heart, but since I enjoyed feeling for the first time in my life at least a tiny bit desirable, I went ahead and used the soap. Oddly, the gift wasn’t only a box of soap but also a washcloth. Might this have been some kind of a hint? I never discussed this with Anita.

Then I went on to high school, forgetting Peppi Borza and Carla Wallenda, and, like my buddies, tried out for cheerleader, swimming team and basketball, for only one of which (swimming) I squeaked onto the team. But I was only second string, and happily quit the swimming team next year: because what had suddenly, magically, happened at high school was a perfect escape for me: Sarasota High School started its very own circus! I tried out and made it as a web girl.

The web girls are the circus equivalent of a chorus line. You’ve seen them at the circus, a bunch of girls who run out and climb high up on fat ropes (called the web, fortunately having nothing to do with spiders), do a couple of dangerous-looking graceful postures up there and then are violently spun around as a finale. This was my favorite part. We did it to the music of Manuel de Falla’s "Ritual Dance of Fire," and at the climax of the music we would be spinning fast enough to be horizontal and for the music in my ears to go out of key due to the Doppler effect. Other than that exciting finale spin, most of the tricks we did up on the web were just the standard circus acrobatic actions, for which I had an early propensity. Except for the part about pointing your toes and holding your arms out gracefully, I had been doing these things since childhood, often getting up on the top of our backyard play-gym instead of using the swings below; or, in the swings, taking a thrilling flight by jumping off at the peak of the swing; or, mindlessly suffering numerous scratch marks on my legs by climbing up and sliding down the huge clump of bamboos in the nearby A.B. Smith Park.

I did make the Sailor Circus team, though still not a star; never performed in center ring. But I did get to ride an elephant in the parade sequence of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth,” starring Charlton Heston, Jimmy Stewart, Cornell Wilde and Betty Hutton, which was filmed in Sarasota. We donned the gamey sequined costumes of the real circus girls (costumes mass-produced and worn by the typically short-term web girls, unlike the carefully sewn outfits Aunt Adriana Borza made for Peppi and Nita) and ride in the movie premier's parade sitting barelegged on the elephant’s head. It felt kind of like doing a pleasant hula dance on a floating inner tube. All went well with my elephant, but the one ahead of me got hot and cooled itself off by putting its trunk in its mouth to get a good batch of saliva and then spraying it all over him and the poor girl riding him.

All this circus ambience vanished when I went away to college, and then moved to New York City. But the sawdust has never completely left my blood. Every now and then something takes me back. Last year it was the amazing movie "Man on Wire", a live action documentary of Philippe Petit's years of planning, practicing and finally, in 1974, spectacularly achieving the incredible feat of walking a tightrope between the World Trade Center twin towers . Walking back and forth again and again for what seemed like an eternity! Sometimes even bouncing up and down, sometimes actually lying down on his back halfway across the wire. And, just last week I watched the extraordinary dance performance at the Minetta Lane Theatre of “The Garden of Earthly Delights," where, while sinuously dancing nearly naked as participants in Hieronymus Bosch’s sex-crazed 16th century painting, the dancers sometimes fly and whirl above the stage suspended on long wires -- reminding me of my days spinning on the web, and the dire necessity up there of not getting dizzy.

Today in a subway station I saw a poster announcing that the The Greatest Show on Earth is coming next week, to Madison Square Garden. When my kids were little I always took them there every year to see it. They liked it—but for New York City children, what is ever really The Greatest?

Me, I’m still a small town girl, and I can’t forget the Sarasota excitement of rubbing elbows with the Ringling stars. Big stars they were, but they didn’t just perform. Many of them had what you might call “day jobs” in Sarasota. Juggler Massimiliano Truzzi’s wife Sonia had a boutique on Main Street. “Queen of the Circus” (double backward somersault on the bounding rope) La Tosca Canestrelli had an Italian restaurant called Casa Canestrelli. Franz Furnter, who called himself Unus and stood upside down on a ball supported by nothing but his index finger, had a motel on the North Trail. Some had businesses directly related to their act. Peppi and Nita’s Aunt Adriana, who sewed the Borza costumes, was my mother’s dressmaker and made a lot of our clothes. She was very good: if your families are performers, they need to have costumes that won’t self-destruct when you perform. This need was well demonstrated in our novice high school circus, whose costumes were made by the home economics class, when one of our trapeze artist’s straps snapped while she was hanging by her knees upside down. Adriana’s expertise ensured that this would not happen to Peppi and Nita.

Costumes sewn by Home-Ec classes, you wonder? Yes, quite soon half the high school got into the act, if not performing, then doing makeup and the like. The Ag(riculture) and Tech boys were our roustabouts and web sitters, the latter being rewarded for holding the ropes by getting to look straight up at our scantily clad teenage bottoms.

Some circus families who made their own rigging made a business of doing similar work for others. As with the Borzas’s costumes, when your act depended on it, you would want to construct your own equipment. The famous Zacchini family did that. If your father was The Human Cannonball who got shot from a cannon all the way across the entire three-ring length of the circus arena, would you want your cannon to be faulty? So the Zacchinis had a machine shop.

I was explaining this key work-performance relationship to my husband’s 18-year-old granddaughter, Joanna. About how, since their very life was at stake, they wanted their own trusted family to do the mechanics of the cannon the Zacchinis would be shot out of. There was a long pause before Joanna finally answered.  Having heard what to her sounded like a favorite salad ingredient, she said, “But would people really pay to see a vegetable fired across the tent?

Copyright 2009 - Jill Spelman