Tibbals' lifework is a tribute to all things circus

By CHARLIE HUISKING, HeraldTribune. January 8, 2006

Like many American kids in the 1940s, Howard Tibbals was thrilled the first time he saw the circus come to town. But the daring tightrope walkers and the roaring lions and tigers weren't the main attractions for Tibbals that summer in West Virginia. Peering through binoculars from a neighbor's hillside front porch, he was mesmerized as he watched roustabouts pound the stakes of the big top, unfurl thousands of yards of canvas and unload hundreds of red wagons. "I was struck by what a massive operation the circus was, the 69-year-old Tibbals said. "I was fascinated by the mechanics of it, by how they'd travel to a new town each day and set up a virtual city. It left quite an impression."

Visitors to the Ringling Museum of Art's new Tibbals Learning Center will get a sense of what Tibbals was feeling that day. About to go on permanent display in the center's first floor is the sprawling, handcrafted miniature circus that has been Tibbals' passion since he began work on it 50 years ago.

Built on a 3/4-inch-to-1-foot scale, it is the largest model circus in the world, occupying 3,800 square feet.

It encompasses eight main circus tents, including a big top with 7,000 tiny folding chairs and three rings and four stages full of clowns, aerialists and showgirls. Lined up in an adjacent rail yard are 55 railroad cars and 152 circus wagons. Each bears the hand-lettered name of the Howard Bros. Circus. The model, which also has dining and dressing tents, a sideshow, a menagerie and a cookhouse, is actually a carefully researched replica of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, during its tent-show heyday in the 1930s.

Tibbals began working on the project in 1956, when he was studying engineering at North Carolina State University. But when he wrote Ringling circus officials for permission to use their name and logo on his models, they declined. "They actually saved me a lot of trouble," Tibbals said, laughing. "I didn't have to put that long, 'Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey' name on everything." Portions of Tibbals' circus have been exhibited at the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tenn., at the National Geographic's Explorer's Hall in Washington, D.C., and at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis.

The retired owner of a Tennessee wood flooring company who winters in Sarasota, Tibbals gave his collection to the Ringling Museum of Art in 1999. At the same time, he he donated $3 million for a building to house it, and another $3.5 million for an endowment. The museum, which is operated by Florida State University, obtained additional donations and matching state funds for the $16 million project. Opening to the public on Saturday, the 30,600-square-foot building also will showcase some of the 5,700 vintage circus posters and 1 million circus photographs in Tibbals' collection.

Another model exhibit -- this one of a 150-foot-long circus parade -- will be displayed in the building's second floor. Acquired by Tibbals, it was crafted by Harold Dunn, his modeling mentor. The center's second floor also is devoted to a history of the circus, from Roman times to Cirque du Soleil. The colorful exhibits cover everything from P.T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill to Sarasota's circus heritage. "The focus has rightly been on Howard Tibbals' circus, but I think people are also going to be astounded by the historical exhibits on the second floor," said Debbie Walk, curator of the museum's circus collections. (The Ringling's existing circus museum, which contains wagons, photos and other artifacts, will continue to operate.) Guests will approach the Tibbals Learning Center through the ticket office in the museum's new Visitors Pavilion, which also opens this week.

Before entering the contemporary-style Tibbals building, they'll pass through a tent with circus-red letters proclaiming, "To the Big Show, Main Entrance." "The tent is an exact replica of the Ringling show's main-entrance tent in the 1930s," Tibbals said. "The architect for this building came up with the idea for a tent. But I had the exact dimensions. I have all that stuff."

Indeed, Tibbals has spent the past 50 years researching every aspect of circus life, so that his scale-model could be as accurate as possible. "Howard's mind is incredible -- the things he can remember," Walk said. "I could only hope to attain the knowledge of the circus that he has. It's in his bones. "And he has such amazing creativity and determination. Nothing is daunting to him."

Tibbals was involved in every aspect of the building's design and construction. And he spent the last 14 months installing his exhibit, piece by tiny piece. It took him almost six months to lay 900 feet of miniature rail lines, complete with 7,500 wooden cross-ties. "The level of authenticity is amazing, and it extends to things p ople will never see," said Larry Kellogg, a former Ringling circus publicist who is working on the project. "The three ticket wagons have tiny typewriters and adding machines inside them, for example."

Tibbals' wife, Janice, helped with some aspects of the installation. Using a pair of tweezers, she put miniature tablecloths and hundreds of tiny knives, forks and glasses on the tables in the dining tent. She outfitted the dressing tent with minuscule bars of soap and tubes of lipstick, and scattered sawdust on the exhibit's floor. "All I did was help put the picture frame around the picture that Howard created," she said. "I'm so pleased for him, because this circus been his life's work. It wasn't his job, but it was his life's work. He was as focused on this project as a racehorse with blinders on. And the (Tibbals Center) has turned out even better than either of us could have dreamed of." Tibbals is a good-natured, unassuming man who would rather wear a comfortable old coat than a suit or a tuxedo. "Howard is solid and stable, and not at all interested in impressing the world," his wife said. "He's not impressed with himself -- or with anybody else." Tibbals' philanthropy didn't begin with his Ringling donations. He contributed millions to support public-school construction in Oneida, Tenn., the small town where he and his wife spend much of the year.

Tibbals, who has nine children and 15 grandchildren, is particularly pleased that his circus collection is being housed in a building called a learning center. "I believe strongly in education, and that's why I'm pleased that FSU has played such a role in making this happen," he said. "Visitors here will be able to learn so much, not only about the circus, but about the railroads in America, about small-town life, and about how entertainment and advertising evolved."

During a recent tour of his circus, Tibbals pointed out things the casual visitor might miss, including a sign for the Tibbals Flooring Co. in the 1930s skyline of Knoxville that's part of the exhibit. "All the other signs, White Lily Flour, for instance, were actual businesses in Knoxville," he said, smiling. "My business was actually 70 miles away. But we made an exception." Tibbals is feeling a mixture of accomplishment and relief as opening day approaches. "We'll be delighted to get back to normal, and spend more time with the family members," he said. "We've been kind o f divorced from them in the past couple of years while focusing on this." But he doesn't plan to walk away once the ribbon is cut on Saturday. A workshop has been reserved for him on the second floor, where visitors can watch him create new pieces.

"This model isn't totally built yet," he said. "I'm a little light in railroad equipment, for instance. There's still a lot I want to add."