A Tiny Obsession

By staff January 1, 2006

Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages! We now direct your attention to (drumroll, please) the Tibbals Learning Center, the grand new addition to the Ringling Circus Museum on the campus of Florida State University's John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, opening this month after years of planning and construction.

Passionate circus fan and major donor Howard Tibbals first approached the museum with the idea in 1998, but it was not until fall 2002 that the design for the nearly $9 million, 32,000-square-foot structure was approved and construction finally began. Judging from a pre-opening tour, it's been worth the wait.

From the canvas entrance canopy, an exact copy of the one used for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Big Top, to the scale of the folding chairs in the amazing Howard Bros. Circus model, everything in the Learning Center is about the highest-quality experience. The handsome two-story structure was designed by Harvard Jolly Cleese Toppe Architects of St. Petersburg.

Although celebrating America's-and Sarasota's-rich circus heritage at the museum of circus magnate John Ringling may seem like a given, it was not always so. During the 1920s, as Mable Ringling supervised the construction of their magnificent mansion, Cà d'Zan, and John focused on building an art museum, the idea of creating a museum for the circus on their bayfront property probably never crossed their minds.

More than 20 years passed before Chick Austin, the first Ringling Museum director, decided it would be a good idea to mount a circus display in the car garages along the service road leading to the Ringling residence. Since then the amount of space devoted to circus history and memorabilia has grown in a series of add-on structures that pale in comparison to the new building's splendor. (There are still circus displays in the smaller Circus Museum that stands near the Tibbals.)

According to curator Deborah Walk, "The Tibbals Learning Center will more than double the size of our circus exhibits, but equally important, the expansion will celebrate the people and the rich circus heritage of the area, and bring attention to Sarasota's rightful claim as home to the American circus."

Come along with us for an exhilarating sneak peek.

Step Right Up! When you first see the center from a distance, you notice the names of 30 circus owners (including P.T. Barnum, Irvin Feld, Carl Hagenbeck, John Bill Ricketts and, of course, John Ringling) inscribed near the roofline. As you enter the lobby, your eyes soar skyward 30 feet through a reproduction of a trapeze net. The stunning floor beneath your feet is polished pink marble, shipped in from Tennessee, and the nine-inch-thick walls are made of poured concrete that contains shell and red sand from north of Toronto. The architect wanted only one person to sandblast all the walls, many of which are curved, and hired a master blaster from Kissimmee to do the job. This decision paid off, as the walls are works of art themselves.

At the end of your procession you reach a small space where you can enjoy a five-minute video history of the circus. The wood on the floor in front of the first huge display case is white oak, purchased from the Tibbals Flooring Company in Oneida, Tenn. Before you is an 11-foot-high, 62-foot-wide glass case that rotates selections from Howard Tibbals' donated collection of 4,800 circus posters and works on paper. All have been digitized, and they're projected continuously on a wall to the right of the case. (You can see about 1,000 of them on the Web at

The Greatest Little Show on Earth The remarkable model circus, the main exhibition on the first floor, was created by master model builder Tibbals. He began building it in the basement of his parents' home in Oneida when he was 19. "The circus was the future," Tibbals, now 69, says of his boyhood passion for the Big Top. "The circus had electricity when most people did not; they showed us exotic animals we'd never have seen otherwise. It's an important part of our history."

Tibbals has traveled with his model circus over the years, packing it and unpacking it at every stop, the same way the real circus was unpacked and created afresh at every little town. While the circus often moved from town to town in 24 hours, Tibbals may take weeks to pack, because he's usually doing it by himself with some help from his wife, Janice.

For its final stop here in Sarasota, the arduous process of unloading and setting up Tibbals' Howard Bros. Circus-the largest miniature circus in the world-began 14 months ago. His model is a three-quarter-inch-to-the-foot replica of the American circus from a time when the tented circus was at its largest, circa 1925 to 1938. It contains hundreds of thousands of pieces: a four-foot-tall, 36-by-16-foot Big Top; 152 circus wagons; more than 500 animals; 1,500 performers, workers and staff; dinnerware for 900 working men; and 7,000 folding chairs (which actually fold and are stowed in five miniature circus wagons) to seat almost 3,000 circus patrons, whose individual clothes represent all walks of life during the 1920s and 1930s.

As you enter the miniature circus gallery you notice 10 rails, totaling 996 feet in total length and secured by 3,300 hand-driven spikes, each about the size of an ant. Tibbals has made 54 railroad cars, and he hopes to complete 31 more in the next several years. (While the display looks complete as you walk through it, Tibbals maintains a workshop on the second floor so he can continue to add to the exhibitions. And he says he's happy to answer questions and share circus stories with visitors.)

The cookhouse tent deserves some attention, as it was here that all the food for those 1,500 staff and performers was prepared, cooked and served three times daily. With painstaking labor, Tibbals has included all the details to ensure the model's authenticity. The refrigerator car has a small door that opens to the space where the butter was kept. Car 127 was the steam dishwasher. There's a hierarchy in the dining tent; guests and performers sat closest to the Big Top, while workers were seated the farthest.

As with the real circus, the dressing-room tent is divided into one section for men and one for women, and between them is the wardrobe section where everyone found their costumes. A small screen inside the tent runs a mini-movie of clowns applying their makeup.

The highlight of the walk around the circus model is seeing inside the replica of the Big Top. The inside of this tent would have measured 500 feet in length, with seven acts happening at the same time in rings on the ground and seven flying acts in the air. Tibbals' center ring shows a big cat act starring 40 leopards, lions and tigers. Next to the Big Top are two tents for the 500 different performing horses. The figures in these tents were hand-carved by a Ringling School of Art and Design student. Rounding a turn, you come upon copper telegraph wire on poles, hand-laid tiny bricks and a replica of the Knoxville, Tenn., train station.

Higher and Higher On the second floor of the Tibbals Learning Center, a 6,500-square-foot display area will tell the history of the circus in America from 1968 to the present, including the Big Apple Circus and Cirque du Soleil. These exhibits had not begun construction at press time, but are scheduled to finish in time for the center's opening.

Another series of models is encased on the outer perimeter of the second floor. Tibbals purchased these from Harold Dunn, former operator of the Dunn Bros. Circus, who spent 10 years making them in his spare time. Dunn's models, of a larger scale than Tibbals', are hand-carved from wood and plastic to resemble parade characters, costumes and floats circa 1910.

One of Tibbals' favorite wagon models is of the Mother Goose wagon created by circus legend P.T. Barnum in 1881. Also appealing is a team of elephants wearing giant clown faces over their heads followed by horses wearing giant rooster costumes.

On the second floor you can look out a window southeast to a pond and the new visitor's center. You can also look down at the 3,800-square-foot model circus platform on the first floor and appreciate the scale of the 20 acres a circus such as this would occupy on the edge of town. (Circus management actually preferred having 40 acres available.)

A big highlight of the second floor will be Tibbals' glass-walled workshop, where he will continue making more models after the museum opens. (A ribbon-cutting and VIP reception are set for Jan. 12, followed by a members-only opening Jan. 13, and the opening to the public Jan. 14.) When Tibbals is not in residence, visitors can activate a touchscreen that will have him appear to answer questions that have been entered into an archive.

While the heyday of the Greatest Show on Earth passed long ago, the Tibbals Learning Center provides a look into that time and a world that will thrill generations to come.

Model Matters

  • Howard Tibbals spent 18 years making the Big Top with all its components.

  • The miniature exhibition area is sealed by glass so it won't suffer from dust. Incoming air will be filtered four times.

  • The special fire protection system inside the glass is more advanced than halon, the fire suppressant used inside most museums.

  • An eight-foot-high pit under the model protects it from possible flood damage and allows for access and repairs.

  • The glass surrounding the model is a 9/16-inch sandwich with a 1/16-inch sheet of plastic in the middle.

  • The broad expanses of green are the highest-quality pool-table felt.

Circus Stories

  • Every single item, person and animal on view in the model was put in a wagon and loaded on the train to travel with the circus to the next town.

  • Refrigerated wagons held leftovers, which were also moved to the next town.

  • The 1,500 members of the circus rode in 26 passenger cars.

  • The boiler was the first thing unloaded when the train pulled into town, because it provided the hot water for everything. Wood to stoke it was purchased locally.

  • Circus performers were paid every week in cash from the commissary wagon.

  • The Ringling Circus began moving by rail across the country in 1872.

  • The Ringling Circus tents were illuminated by electricity as early as the 1880s, before most American cities were.

  • All the poles that held up the circus tents fit into one wagon that was then put on the train.

  • The Ringling Circus stopped bringing its circus parades through towns in 1919.

  • The only person who traveled by rail with the circus and had his own automobile carried on the train was John Ringling. A scale model of his green 1905 Rolls-Royce is part of the Tibbals Learning Center display.

  • South of the new building along the drive going west are six poles just like the ones that held up the real Big Top. They're spaced 60 feet apart-the exact distance between the 75-foot-high poles that raised the Ringling Circus tent.

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