The Greatest Little Show on Earth

By staff January 1, 2003

Almost all of us have spent an afternoon under the Big Top, squirming hip to hip on wooden benches under a canvas tent, inhaling the pungent aroma of sawdust and fishing slightly burnt popcorn out of paper bags with salty, cotton-candy-sticky fingers.

We've sat up straighter as the lights dimmed, the drum rolled and the ringmaster in his top hat strode into the center of the Big Top. And then we watched, captivated by the clowns' antics, marveling at the jugglers' dexterity, tense with nervous empathy as a lone figure wavered high above us on a flimsy rope. We gasped as men and women in spangles and tights triumphed nature-flying through the air, taming wild lions and racing bareback and upside down.

It's the greatest show on earth, and for centuries-or at least since the invention of modern circus by a daredevil British equestrian in the late 1700s-people all over the world have embraced the art form. And here in Sarasota, we have more reason than most to claim the circus as our own. In 1927, John Ringling moved the winter headquarters of his Ringling Bros. circus here and changed the face of the city, developing St. Armands and Lido Keys and introducing the town to rich and influential visitors from all over. His museum and home remain cornerstones of our cultural attractions, and during the 70 years that the winter headquarters remained here, Sarasota became a town where a trapeze in a backyard was almost as ubiquitous then as a swimming pool.

But Ringling moved its winter headquarters away in 1992 (it had moved from Sarasota to Venice in 1960); and except for a few small traveling shows, a real, live Sarasota circus became just another memory. Until, that is, five years ago, when a pair of veteran performers-aerialists Dolly Jacobs and Pedro Reis-got the itch to put on the production of a lifetime. Their goal is no less than to combine world-class performance with education, social services and a reclamation and preservation of this city's history, all under the ambitious umbrella of our only hometown circus: Circus Sarasota.

Many locals and seasonal residents have already tasted the fruit of their vision; since Circus Sarasota began performing in 1997, more than 100,000 people have flocked to the Big Top each season to watch the acts Reis and Jacobs book from around the world. In contrast to the enormous, three-ring arena of the traditional American circus, this is an intimate, European-style circus, with a single ring showcasing each performer's artistry. The lighting, sets and sound are ultra-modern, adding to the excitement of the show.

And the mission of this circus also differs from that of the traditional circus. Circus Sarasota's aims to do more than entertain. It is a non-profit venture that Reis and Jacobs hope will one day be successful enough to sustain itself and fund a series of related programs, including Laughter Unlimited, a clowning program in nursing homes; various school programs; and, eventually, an accredited, professional circus college.

Slowly, the dream is unfolding. Reis and Jacobs have watched five seasons play out to healthy, though not enormous, crowds. And Circus Sarasota-both the actual circus and the concept-has received rave reviews from professionals in the field.

"It's an unbelievable show," says Wayne McCary, president of the Massachusetts-based Eastern States Exposition, one of the largest fairs in the country. McCary produces a circus for the New England exposition that draws 100,000 people each season; and every year, he comes down to watch Circus Sarasota and scout the talent.

"The show they put together is top quality," McCary says. "Dolly Jacobs is one of the country's premier aerialists; Pedro Reis is an acclaimed performer. It gives them a lot of credibility on a national basis. I couldn't think of two more capable people."

Glowing praise, indeed, but circus lore maintains that looking back on the parade is bad luck. Not that the pair has time to bask in past glory; with each year's tremulous success comes a fresh set of challenges. One good season just heralds another for which funds must be raised, audiences wooed and sponsors enticed.

"To say we've struggled, and continue to struggle, is to put it lightly," says Jacobs, earnest and gracious, with a glamorous sheet of dark hair and not a shred of prima donna attitude. "But we put on an incredible performance; we just have to educate people about it. Eventually, it will support itself. It's just around the corner."

Initial cap

If passion is all it takes for a vision to become reality, Reis and Jacobs would have enjoyed instant success. But as with all performances, much more goes on behind the scenes than the seamless final product leads audiences to believe.

"What Dolly and Pedro are doing is extraordinary in this day and time," says circus historian and author LaVahn Hoh. A drama professor at the University of Virginia, Hoh teaches a circus history course that draws more than 100 students each semester.

"To launch a circus today is difficult; it's the most expensive of all entertainment forms-there's purchasing, maintaining, hiring performers," Hoh says. "To eventually have a payoff, somebody has to immerse themselves totally, 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

That "somebody" is Reis, who leaves his house at the crack of dawn for Circus Sarasota's crowded warren of offices near the Sarasota- Bradenton Airport only to return in time for dinner and exhausted sleep.

"I am Circus Sarasota," says the youthful-looking Reis ruefully, gazing around his tiny office crammed with programs, lists and posters.

This is where he spends virtually every waking hour, phoning sponsors, arranging acts, and figuring out where to find the funds to coax the fledgling non-profit through the four or five years it typically takes for such organizations to take off. In addition to Reis and Jacobs, Circus Sarasota employs four full-timers. In between administrative work, Reis trains acts for other circuses and shows. It's consuming, and often frustrating for a man who has had to learn about marketing and business after having been a performer all his life.

Reis has had sawdust in his veins since he was a boy in South Africa, sneaking over the fence into his Cape Town neighborhood YMCA to practice on its flying trapeze apparatus. The 12-year-old became such a regular that the instructors signed him up for a class, and he went on to become one of the founders of the first circus school in that country. He then spent years touring and performing in Europe and made his American debut with Ringling Brothers in 1984.

Meanwhile, Dolly Jacobs was growing up in Sarasota, where her father, the legendary circus clown Lou Jacobs, had made his home, like thousands of other circus performers. A shy girl who never raised her hand in school, Jacobs would spend hours watching graceful aerialists soar at practice. In her teens, she exchanged school for a private tutor and traveled the country with her father in the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, launching the Roman Rings act that later earned her the title of "Queen of the Air." Over the years, she added many prestigious international circus awards to her collection, including the Dame du Cirque award from the International Circus Festival of Monaco.

Shortly before Jacobs left Ringling for the Big Apple Circus, she decided to check out the acts in the Blue Unit (Ringling travels with two units, the red and blue, and Jacobs performed with the red one). There, she saw a young and graceful Reis perform.

"I was impressed, as one aerialist to another," Jacobs recalls.

Admiration soon turned to affection and more; but both were soloists, and circuses rarely hired two soloists with similar acts. They did, however, create a duet, "On Wings of Love," which toured internationally for two years. After years of long-distance phone calls and airplane tickets, the pair finally settled down in Sarasota and launched Circus Sarasota five years ago.

The project was one the couple had brainstormed for years; but for Jacobs, the defining moment-the one that transformed a germ of an idea into a reality-was when they heard about a circus tent being auctioned off in Orlando by a circus that had gone defunct.

"You could always change your mind when you were just talking about it," Jacobs recalls. "But this was a permanent tent. We took our savings and bought it."

That year, they incorporated as a non-profit, put together a board of directors, organized performers and put on their first season, which lasted three months-enough time, they hoped, to introduce a critical mass of people to the show. Because many artists were so enthusiastic about the concept-a circus run by performers who understood the importance of customized lighting and perfect sound systems-many initially donated their time.

But circus, as professional circus managers know, is no cheap proposition. There are liability costs. There's unpleasant publicity from groups such as PETA, who picket circuses nationwide for using animal acts. (Circus Sarasota only uses domestic animals; its horse acts, explains Reis, are a tribute to the equestrian origins of circus). In addition, the circus competes with a myriad of other forms of amusement for the public's entertainment dollar. Just buying a new tent with all the seating-they sold their old one to pay off their debts and will be leasing one for this season-costs $500,000.

"The fund-raising alone is a major challenge in a circus of that magnitude," McCary says. "The overhead to operate a circus is very expensive. Good talent commands good prices. The facilities require significant investments."

So far, Circus Sarasota has stayed a step ahead. When artists' fees were prohibitive, for example, they cut down from three to one-month seasons. And they're encouraged by growing public awareness of their existence. When Circus Sarasota put on a show on the grounds of the Ringling Museum two summers ago, more than 15,000 people came to watch. When Reis drives his Circus Sarasota van around town, people pull up beside him and tell him they've seen his show. When Circus Sarasota threw its first black-tie fundraiser in 2001, nearly 100 people showed up and raised $20,000, despite the event having nearly been cancelled because it came right after 9/11. The number of gala attendees rose significantly in 2002, and Reis expects the trend to continue. "We're now in our fifth year, and people are becoming more aware of who we are and what we are," Reis says. "Just like any other business, it takes time."

Through tireless solicitation, Reis has brought 160 individuals, businesses and foundations on board as sponsors; and contributions and grants from local charities are slowly starting to trickle in, he says.

"I have calluses on my knees from begging," Reis says half-jokingly. "It's hard to ask all the time."

It's a frustration always buoyed by optimism, however. Reis is convinced the concept will sell; it has to, he insists. It's too reasonable not to-a circus with excellent acts, and a circus school staffed by well-known and widely respected artists, who live here already. And all of this in the town that is known all over the world as home of the circus. Now all Reis has to do is sell Sarasota on it-to get enough people to come and see the show so that each performance is at least 80 percent house full. And this year, Reis says, Circus Sarasota will launch a capital campaign to raise the half-million they will need to buy a new tent and seating.

"I feel like I've been rolling a snowball up a hill," Reis muses. "It breaks, I keep rolling. You know when you get up, and pick up momentum, it'll get bigger and bigger."

Initial cap

A modern America circus may seem like an anachronism; for many, the idea of a circus is nostalgic, implying wagon wheels, bearded ladies, and wide-eyed children watching the elephants hoisting the tent. This is especially the case in America, where circus has traditionally been viewed as something you take kids to see. In contrast, European performers are considered artists; and European circuses often afforded the same level of respect and government subsidies as symphonies, theaters and opera houses.

But things have started changing on this side of the Atlantic. Over the past five years, the circus has crept back into the mainstream of entertainment; and most performing centers in America will feature at least one circus-type event in this year's lineup, says Ernest Albrecht, editor and publisher of Spectacle, a circus quarterly, and author of The New American Circus.

"I think the circus has certainly come back into the consciousness of America, and it is being seen as a worthy activity," Albrecht observes.

Over the past few years, Albrecht has documented an outburst of grassroots circuses all over the country. Circus schools and even summer camps are everywhere-one flying trapeze school just opened up in Manhattan's financial district-and older, more established schools are receiving new interest.

"We're still alive and kicking, and we cross our fingers that we're going to continue to be," says Peggy Ford, program director of Circus Center in San Francisco. Circus Center began as a school founded by the Pickle Family Circus in 1984 to teach children circus skills, and later grew into a non-profit organization that now includes both a professional and a student circus under its umbrella.

"There's been a resurgence of interest in the circus, and a lot of that is because of Cirque Du Soleil," says Ford. "People saw that and got inspired by it; and it occurred to them what we've all known for a very long time, that circus is an art form."

Cirque Du Soleil began in 1984 with a group of imaginative street performers in Quebec and has grown into an international phenomenon with 2,400 employees and seven shows. More than 33 million spectators have watched the shows on tour or at one of the three permanent locations Cirque Du Soleil has in Las Vegas and Orlando. It's been featured on prime-time televsion, reaching millions of other viewers.

For Reis, the multi-million dollar corporation's story is evidence that a circus, or circus-like production, can be a financial success today. And with the music and lighting he brings on board Circus Sarasota, he creates drama, suspense and a magical environment around his acts, much like Cirque du Soleil. The 2002 season, "Let Your Senses Soar," started with projected black and white iconic images of circuses past: setting up the tent, unloading animals from train compartments, the ringmaster in his tails and top hat. An equestrian act was elevated to a mini-drama as rider Lisa Dufresne came out in a traditional Spanish ruffled dress and performed in accompaniment with a flamenco guitarist and dancer in the ring. Reis interspersed sexy drama with traditional circus acts like clowns Greg and Karen DeSantos and The Cristiani Family's trampoline act, before Jacobs herself entered the ring, twisting through air in sensuous motion in a pas de deux with Yuri Ryjkov. The 2003 season (Jan. 31 to March 2) is called "The Art of Circus," and will incorporate visual arts, voice and music with circus acts.

"Evolution is inevitable," Reis says. "We're moving away from the gaudy '40s and '50s, the image of going to the circus and seeing the bearded lady. Circus is not about seeing freaks." It's also, in tune with modern consciousness, not always about seeing animals caged and trained to perform unnatural acts; Cirque Du Soleil, for example, has no animal acts.

The shift toward glamour and theater has helped modern audiences respond better to circus, Albrecht says. Almost all circuses now are adapting acts to be more sophisticated and dramatic, from Circus Flora to Ringling Bros. and New York City's 24-year-old Big Apple Circus, which is one of Reis' beacons of hope. It's a traditional, one-ring circus with a permanent home, a non-profit that combines performance with social and charitable programs just as Circus Sarasota wants to do.

And there are others. Los Angeles has its own circus. In San Francisco, one company has come up with a circus-within-a-dinner-theater concept. In Minnesota, Betty and Dan Butler, who fell in love under Sarasota's Sailor Circus Big Top in 1973, started Circus Juventas, a children's circus school, at the same time Reis and Jacobs began Circus Sarasota, and recently convinced the St. Paul community to raise $2.1 million to build the school a 21,000-square-foot steel-frame Big Top.

A permanent home is on the agenda for Circus Sarasota, also, and the goal has special urgency because Reis can't think of a better place to put such a school. Even as a child in South Africa, Reis had dreamed about Sarasota, the town where circuses wintered and where all the circus greats lived. But when he got here, there was very little to commemorate the connection. There's the Museum of the Circus at the Ringling Museum of Art and the Circus Ring of Fame on St. Armands Circle, but many feel that Circus Sarasota is long overdue.

"If you had to name one city in America that's the home of American circus, that's Sarasota," McCary says. "It's not often a city has an opportunity to make a national statement on anything like that."

Jacobs points out another practical benefit of having a circus in this town: the decades of knowledge contained in the heads and bodies of veteran performers who have retired and settled down in Florida.

"When they die, they take their knowledge with them," Jacobs says.

Ultimately, the whole community can benefit, Reis insists. He visualizes a college staffed by the best teachers, drawing the best students from around the world. He imagines Circus Sarasota outreach programs extending into local schools. He imagines people driving from all over to watch Circus Sarasota in season, and Laughter Unlimited snowballing (which it already has started to do) into a massive, well-connected program serving all area nursing homes.

"Circus can be a provider; we just need assistance from people in the community," Reis says. "Circus is a viable business. Once there, we can give back."

And there's something else that drives this couple and those who believe in their dream. It's the electricity that only surrounds a circus, the anticipation that crackles through the stands when the lights dim; when a performer takes a deep breath and waits, poised in the cone of a spotlight, to begin an act.

"When you walk into a tent, there's a magic and you can't describe it," Jacobs says. "It doesn't matter how old you are or how young you are: Anyone who's been to the circus knows what I'm talking about. I don't want to lose that magic."

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