Circus in Venice
Markers: Sarasota History
Among the number of circuses that have called Sarasota County home, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus [RBBB] is the largest and the one that has had the longest association with Venice. Its roots go back to a small show the five Ringling brothers established in 1884. The winter quarters was in Baraboo, Wisconsin, home of the Ringlings. Bridgeport, Connecticut, winter quarters of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, became its second home. In 1927, John Ringling brought the circus winter quarters to Sarasota, where it remained until 1959.
No longer needing the acreage it had in Sarasota, but still needing a rail connection, RBBB moved the winter quarters to Venice in 1960. The 30-year lease provided that the circus would occupy 15 acres of undeveloped airport property with an option to renew for an additional 20 years. The rent was set at $1000 a year, with adjustments to be based on the federal cost-of-living index. Since the circus no longer performed under the “Big Top,” construction soon began on a 55,000 square-foot, 5000-seat arena. Adjacent structures housed staging, costumes and wardrobe space.
On November 29, 1960, a crowd of more than 10,000 greeted The Greatest Show on Earth when it arrived at the Seaboard Air Line Railroad Station for the first time. The Venice High School Band played and Mayor Smythe Brohard, atop a new Venice Fire Dept. truck, led the parade of officials, performers and animals to the new winter quarters. For the next thirty-two years, the circus was the major tourist attraction for the city. As circus employees made the Venice area their permanent home, they contributed to the city's circus reputation.
Ownership of the RBBB circus changed in 1967 when the Ringlings sold it to Hoffeld Corp., which was owned by Roy Hofheinz and brothers Irvin and Israel Feld. The following year Irvin Feld established Clown College to pass the skills of the clown masters on to the next generations. The faculty included legendary Lou Jacobs, Frosty Little and Bobby Kaye.
Deteriorating railroad tracks threatened the circus's stay in Venice. In 1992 the Seminole Gulf Railroad announced abandonment of the ten miles of track into Venice and the RBBB circus closed its winter home in Venice.
Sarasota County Historical Commission