The circus has been a part of Sarasota’s history since the late 1920s, when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus established its winter headquarters here.
By the mid-1950s, a group of men decided that a museum was needed t pay tribute to the men and women who performed, worked and managed the circus. With this goal in mind, the Circus Hall of Fame came into being.
In an interview with the Sarasota Herald Tribune in 1963, Managing Director, Colonel W.W. Maramore Jr., of the attraction at the time, recalled that the primary motive for its establishment was to provide a home for the “Two Hemispheres” band chariot; the largest and most colorful circus wagon ever built. The wagon was built in 1896 at a cost of $40,000. Drawn by a hitch of 40 matched horses, it was used for years in the parades of the old Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Acquired by the late Dr. B.J. Palmer of St. Armands Key and Davenport, Iowa, during World War II, the historic wagon was rejected by three museums. Palmer offered it to John L. Sullivan and Dr. H. Chester Hoyt , curators at that time of the Museum of the Circus, a division of the Ringling Museum.
Sullivan and Hoyt, who had large collections of circus memorabilia of their own, decided to pool their collections with Dr. Palmer’s gift and establish the Circus Hall of Fame. It would be, they felt, a popular tourist attraction for Sarasota, considering that it was the winter headquarters of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The Circus Hall of Fame was established with five objectives: to publicly honor circus stars, to collect and display mementos of the stars, to maintain a circus historical library, to develop and train stars of the future and to create an understanding of the educational and recreational value of the circus.
A Hall of Fame committee was instituted to recognize the achievements of circus maintenance personnel, management and performers who contributed to the greatness of the American circus. The committee consisted of 12 circus historians who annually chose personalities to be included in the Hall of Fame. The Circus Hall of Fame, at 6255 North Tamiami Trail, across from the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport, first opened to the public on January 4, 1956, with more that 5,000 people attending. Four professional circus act performers were given daily in addition to tours of the circus museum, puppet shows and tours of the side show museum. Exhibits included Tom Thumb’s coach, which was presented to him by Queen Victoria; Jenny Lind’s sleigh, given to her more than 110 years ago by P.T. Barnum; a collection of antique puppets; Buffalo Bill’s chaps and one of the guns used by Annie Oakley in Buffalo Bill’s 101 Ranch Wild West Shows; a life-size bust of Gargantua; Ringling Bros. famous gorilla; and more than 200 non-retouched photos of sideshow characters. The crossbar, chair and one of the costumes used by the Wallenda Family when their famous seven-man pyramid on the high wire collapsed in Detroit in January 1962 were added later.
The Circus Hall of Fame was a popular attraction for more than 20 years; however, by the late 1970s, the stockholders wanted to sell the museum. After negotiating the sale of the property and the collection, the Circus Hall of Fame’s had its last performance on May 27, 1980.
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Residents of Sarasota have long speculated about the origin of the name. A plausible sounding daughter Sara was invented for explorer Hernando de Soto, who landed in the Manatee River in 1538, complete with a tragic love story to dramatize a 1916 “Sara de Soto” pageant. The pageant became an annual week-long celebration climaxed by a circus parade, and declined when the Barnum & Bailey winter camp moved to Venice in 1960. A more recent speculation is that the name may have meant Point of Rocks or Place of the Dance, but the truth may be more interesting.
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