A Little Big Top

Step Right Up to the Howard Bros. Circus Model at The Ringling

The meticulous replica of a traveling circus has been decades in the making.

By Alice Murphy June 14, 2017

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The Howard Bros. Circus model

The Howard Bros. Circus model opened at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art on Jan. 14, 2006. Since that time over 2.9 million ladies, gentlemen and children of all ages have been captivated by the more than 42,000-piece replica that’s the largest miniature circus model in the world. Howard Tibbals began building models of circus wagons when he was 7, and hasn't stopped yet!

For 60 years he has been working on this astounding replica and continues to add new pieces. It took Tibbals 18 years to complete the big top, from the canvas top with its three rings and four performance stages to the wagons that carried all the equipment related to the tent. To maintain the accuracy of the model, all the pieces are based on his extensive collection of vintage photographs, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, supplemented by historic posters, heralds, programs, route-cards and oral histories.

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The model features miniature performers


Now covering 38,000 square feet, the Howard Bros. Circus shows the entire operation of the American circus at its zenith. Visitors can see the show's arrival on 55 train cars, the parade of 154 wagons, the side shows, life on the back lot, and the main event under the big top.

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Elephants on parade


Tibbals built his model to be 1/16th of life size; the tallest pieces are the center poles of the big top, at 5 feet, 2 inches. Of the 42,000 figures (and counting!) the tallest is The Giant, at 6 1/8 inches. There are 925 animals, including horses, parrots, armadillos and bison. To feed such a crew, there are over 900 sets of miniature silverware and dishes, with tiny monitors installed showing actual footage of meals being prepared in the dining tent. All of the circus equipment is designed to be packed up into wagons, just like the real tented circus, moving on to the next town after just one day.

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Another view of the model


For the next six weeks, daredevil clown Bello Nock will be presenting his circus show, Incredibello! in the Historic Asolo Theater—a nice complement to the Tibbals circus model. For tickets, visit ringling.org.

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