Everybody knows about the Ringling Museum’s extensive collection of colorful circus memorabilia. But another privately owned circus museum, the Circus Hall of Fame, also operated from 1956 until 1980 in a seven-building complex just north of the Ringling on Tamiami Trail, across from the Sarasota Bradenton Airport.
Originally founded to house the famed Two Hemispheres bandwagon—when built in 1896 at the then-almost inconceivable cost of $40,000 it was the largest bandwagon in the world (its owner happened to live on St. Armands)—the Circus Hall of Fame was the brainchild of two former Ringling Circus Museum curators who contributed to it their own personal collections of circus ephemera.
According to Sarasota History Alive, some 80,000 ticket buyers every year visited the Circus Hall of Fame to watch professional circus acts and marvel at such exhibits as Tom Thumb’s coach, Jenny Lind’s sleigh; and a gun used by Annie Oakley in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. Each year, circus luminaries from around the world were chosen for induction into its Hall of Fame. In 1970, that led to a TV show broadcast nationally on NBC, The Circus Hall of Fame All-Star Circus, hosted by Johnny Carson’s sidekick, Ed McMahon.
Despite robust attendance, the private museum was unprofitable. When the lease on the property expired in 1980, the Circus Hall of Fame held its last performance and closed its doors.