"The Greatest Show on Earth" Was Filmed in Sarasota in the '50s

A behind-the-scenes look at what the filming of Cecil B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show on Earth" in the 1950s was really like.

By Larry Kelleher July 21, 2015

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Courtesy of Sarasota County Historical Resources

The 1951 tourist season was a special one for Sarasota. For approximately three months, residents and visitors were caught up in the production of Cecil B. DeMille's Oscar-winning The Greatest Show on Earth. The local press followed the activities almost, daily, beginning in early January. Detailed accounts tell of the arrivals of stars "Blond Bombshell" Betty Hutton, "sultry" Dorothy Lamour and Gloria Grahame.

Charlton Heston, Cornel Wilde and Lyle Bettger rounded out the glitterati that came to Sarasota. Jimmy Stewart played a clown in the movie, but he filmed only in Hollywood. More than 1,000 Sarasotans were paid members of the cast, most as extras who earned 75 cents an hour. Local participants were recruited through the local office of the Florida State Employment Service. Norma Brownell, manager of that office, later recorded her memories of that frantic and exciting season. Not only did she screen potential stand-ins and extras, but also found a maid for Hutton's and Lamour's children and a chair boy for DeMille.

Deluged by requests for auditions and stars' autographs, Brownell recalled, "I never thought it possible to be criticized, scorned, loved, hated, congratulated, admired and ridiculed by so many at one time."

About half of the filming for the movie took place in Sarasota, and most of that at the Ringling Brothers and, Barnum and Bailey, Circus winter quarters northeast of the intersection of Fruitville and Beneva roads. For approximately three months the Big Top was filled with movie as well as circus equipment for the six weeks of actual filming, and was closed to the public.

Just outside, a mess tent served the Paramount Pictures crew, housed the press headquarters, and sheltered a two-way radio system that enabled DeMille to be in touch with his headquarters at, the John Ringling Hotel.

On a Saturday, in the middle of February, the camera crews went outside to film a circus parade. Although the parade itself was only two blocks long, it featured the stars in the lead and a crowd estimated at up to 100,000 that packed the circular route it traveled twice - First Street, Central Avenue, Main Street and Orange Avenue. DeMille preceded the parade on a mobile camera truck, shown in the above photo from the Elizabeth McCall Collection.

The following winter The Greatest Show on Earth premiered at the Florida Theater (now the Sarasota Opera House). Before the screening, a parade led by Florida's Governor Fuller Warren and circus clown Emmett Kelly entertained the thousands who lined the streets. Members of the audience applauded as they saw themselves, friends and relatives in the movie that had so captured their attention the year before.

Special thanks to Ann Shank, former Sarasota County Historian for her time and research in preparing this article.

Brought to you by Sarasota History Alive, "Where History Happens Everyday."

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