A smallest version of the Greatest Show on Earth

Sarasota Herald-Tribune, December 5, 2004


SARASOTA -- The "Greatest Show on Earth" in Howard Tibbals' world is also the smallest, with its diminutive circus acts, tiny spectators and a "big" top that measures just about 4 feet tall.

It is a magical world more than 50 years in the making, its seeds planted in Tibbals' imagination as a child when he watched the circus roll into town.

He has since handcrafted nearly 1 million pieces to make up his miniature circus, which will soon have a permanent home at the John and Mable Ringing Museum of Art in a grand $9 million building.

The Tibbals Learning Center -- built with a $6.5 million donation from Tibbals, the retired head of a successful flooring company -- is scheduled to be completed in January 2006.

When it's done, the display also will be another milestone in the renaissance of the Ringling estate. Museum officials said the tiny circus is central to the effort to create a collection of artifacts that will be a tribute to the American circus.

Visitors will be able to see Tibbals' 1/16th-scale miniature circus fully assembled in an area that's large enough to park 11 school buses. Dubbed the "Howard Brothers Circus," it will depict a circus coming to town on rail cars, complete with its sideshows, a parade of exotic animals and a big top with 7,000 intricately carved folding chairs.

Howard Tibbals leans on one of his miniature rail car replicas at the
John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota.

Tibbals, 68, began the painstaking installation in November.

"It's going to take me an entire year to do what they did with 1,200 employees in just hours," he said during a recent interview in the new 30,000-square-foot center. "How in the world did they move that stuff every day? An awful lot of muscle, both human and animal." The creation of Tibbals' circus is both a tale of a man fascinated and charmed by circuses and remarkable devotion to recreating a bygone era. Since he was a young man, Tibbals has spent two or three hours a day working with wood, plastic and cloth to construct the tiny elements that make up the traveling big top.

The circus has been on display a few times before, including at the World's Fair in Knoxville in 1982 and at the National Geographic Society in Washington. But for most of its existence, it has been in storage at Tibbals' home in Oneida, Tenn.

Tibbals had been searching for a permanent home for his circus when he made the $6.5 million donation in 2000 for the construction of the facility. Additional financing is coming from the Ringling endowment and the state.

The center will also become home to the massive collection of circus documents, photographs and posters Tibbals amassed in his effort to accurately recreate every detail of the circuses of the early 20th century.

The display is designed to replicate the shows that toured from 1919 to 1938, although Tibbals said he did depart to include exact replicas of some costumes from the 1952 film, "The Greatest Show on Earth," "It's the story of American culture," said John Wetenhall, executive director of the Ringling Museum. "It was your television, your radio, your opera, your zoo. And all of it came to your town." Wetenhall said the opening of the Tibbals center will be another important step in the rebirth of the once-ailing museum complex. The museum is now operated under the auspices of Florida State University, which took over the Ringling mansion, the art museum and the circus museum four years ago.

The Tibbals center will be one of the new highlights of $76 million in restoration work and new construction that will remake the Ringling complex by 2007. Other highlights include creating a new home for the 18th Century Venetian Asolo Theater, new art galleries and the 2002 renovation of the Ringling's winter mansion, Ca d'Zan.

Wetenhall said the Ringling museum in the past had been so focused on its world-class collection of Reubens paintings and other fine art that it had not fully developed its circus museum to reflect the important historical and cultural role the shows played.

The 66-acre estate on Sarasota Bay that became Ringling's winter home in 1926 is the appropriate place to do that, he said. John Ringling was one of five brothers who created what became the world's most famous circus in the 1880s.

"It was the winter quarters of the greatest names in the of the circus," Wetenhall said. "We are the hometown of the American circus." That is not lost on Tibbals, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the circus is only matched by his love for it.

He was just 3 years old and too young to remember the first circus his parents took him to in 1939 in Pittsburgh. But Tibbals does remember every detail of the show he saw in 1941, even that he sat on a bale of hay.

After that, Tibbals said he would pretend all his toys were part of the circus parade. As a child, his best days were spent watching the circus come to town in the many places throughout the eastern United States the Tibbals family called home as they llowed his father's early career as a mine safety officer.

Tibbals said it wasn't so much the circus acts that captured his imagination, but the amazing ability to quickly transport the huge shows with their hundreds of performers, animals and workers.

"I never watched the acts," he said. "I watched them move things." The family eventually settled in Tennessee. By the 1950s, Tibbals had begun crafting the miniatures in the evenings, much to the dismay of his six children who also loved the circus but hated, he said, how much time he spent on his miniatures.

A winter resident of Longboat Key, Tibbals continues to build the miniatures and the center will include a workshop where visitors will be able to see him create new pieces.

Tibbals said it might have taken him years to create a permanent home for his miniatures, but that was his plan all along.

"If you go through all the effort to make it, someone ought to see it."