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A tiny obsession: Howard Tibbals' lifelong passion has produced a marvelous miniature circus at the Ringling Museum.

Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages! We now direct your attention to (drumroll drum·roll  
1. A rapid succession of short sounds produced by beating a drum.

2. Emphatic support for a cause: "The drumroll for sustainable agriculture . . .
, 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 The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is the state art museum of Florida, located in Sarasota, Florida. It was established in 1927 as the legacy of Mable and John Ringling for the people of Florida. Florida State University assumed governance of the Museum in 2000. , 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 BROS Brothers
BROS Benefits and Retirement Operations Section (King County, Washington)
BROS Barnes and Richmond Operatic Society (London, UK) 
. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Big Top, to the scale of the folding chairs in the amazing a·maze  
v. a·mazed, a·maz·ing, a·maz·es
1. To affect with great wonder; astonish. See Synonyms at surprise.

2. Obsolete To bewilder; perplex.

 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 John Ringling (May 31, 1866 - December 2, 1936) was the most well-known and the most successful of the seven Ringling brothers, five of whom merged the Barnum & Bailey Circus with their own Ringling Brothers Circus to create a virtual monopoly of traveling circuses and helped shape  may seem like a given, it was not always so. During the 1920s, as Mable Ringling supervised the construction of their magnificent mansion, Ca d'Zan Ca d'Zan, a Mediterranean Revival mansion in Sarasota, Florida, was the dream home of circus magnate John Ringling and his wife, Mable. Lovers of the Venetian esthetic, the Ringlings chose their building plot overlooking the Gulf of Mexico for its view, which reminded them of the lagoon , 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 according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.

2. In keeping with: according to instructions.

 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 Irvin Feld (born May 19, 1918 in Hagerstown, Maryland; died 1984) was an impresario and long time owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He was a music promoter [1] , Carl Hagenbeck Carl Hagenbeck (1844-April 14, 1913[1]) was a merchant of wild animals who supplied many European zoos, as well as P.T. Barnum. He is often considered the father of the modern zoo because he introduced "natural" animal enclosures that included recreations of animals' , John Bill Ricketts John Bill Ricketts, an Englishman who brought the first modern circus to the United States, began his theatrical career with Hughes Royal Circus in London in the 1780s coming over from England in 1792 to establish his first circus in Philadelphia.  and, of course, John Ringling) inscribed in·scribe  
tr.v. in·scribed, in·scrib·ing, in·scribes
a. To write, print, carve, or engrave (words or letters) on or in a surface.

b. To mark or engrave (a surface) with words or letters.
 near the roofline roof·line  
The profile of or silhouette made by a roof or series of roofs.
. As you enter the lobby, your eyes soar skyward sky·ward  
adv. & adj.
At or toward the sky.

skywards adv.
 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 sandblast, stream of sand or other abrasive particles driven by a jet of compressed air or water or by centrifugal force against a surface to clean or abrade it.  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 a·fresh  
Once more; anew; again: start afresh.


once more

Adv. 1.
 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 tent·ed  
1. Covered with tents.

2. Sheltered in tents.

3. Resembling a tent.
 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 cook·house  
A building used for cooking, as at a camp.

Noun 1. cookhouse - the area for food preparation on a ship
caboose, ship's galley, galley

cuddy - the galley or pantry of a small ship
 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 away.

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 Cirque du Soleil (French for "Circus of the Sun") is an entertainment empire based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada and founded in Baie-Saint-Paul in 1984 by two former street performers, Guy Laliberté and Daniel Gauthier. . 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 en·case  
tr.v. en·cased, en·cas·ing, en·cas·es
To enclose in or as if in a case.

en·casement n.
 on the outer perimeter The Outer Perimeter was an expressway originally planned to encircle Atlanta about 20-to-25 miles further away from the city than the existing Perimeter Highway (I-285). The original plan of the highway would have roughly gone through or near the communities of Cartersville,  of the second floor. Tibbals purchased these from Harold Dunn, former operator of the Dunn Bros Dunn Bros Coffee is a chain of coffeehouses founded in St. Paul, Minnesota in December 1987 by Ed Dunn, who was inspired while attending college in Eugene, Oregon. He later established the franchise with his brother Dan. The first store was opened on Grand Ave. in St. . 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 Mother Goose, name associated with nursery rhymes. Most English nursery rhymes have been ascribed to Mother Goose. The origin of the name is still a matter of dispute.  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 rooster

its crowing at dawn heralds each new day. [Western Folklore: Leach, 329]

See : Dawn


symbol of maleness. [Folklore: Binder, 85]

See : Virility

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.


* Howard Tibbals spent 18 years making his model 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 ha·lon  
Any of several halocarbons used as fire-extinguishing agents.


Any of several compounds consisting of one or two carbon atoms combined with bromine and one or more other halogens.
, the fire suppressant used inside most museums.

** An eight-foot 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 fell.



* 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 re·frig·er·ate  
tr.v. re·frig·er·at·ed, re·frig·er·at·ing, re·frig·er·ates
1. To cool or chill (a substance).

2. To preserve (food) by chilling.
 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 COMMISSARY. An officer whose principal duties are to supply the army with provisions.
     2. The Act of April 14, 1818, s. 6, requires that the president, by and with the consent of the senate, shall appoint a commissary general with the rank, pay, and emoluments

** 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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Author:Ormond, Mark
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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