Ringling Brothers Circus' move to Venice

Herald-Tribune. May 12, 2003

The late 1950s proved to be a difficult time for many popular attractions in Sarasota County. Texas Jim's Reptile Farm, located on Fruitville Road since the 1930s, closed and moved out of the county. Sunshine Springs and Gardens, located off of Bee Ridge Road, closed due to financial reasons. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus winter quarters, located off today's Beneva and Fruitville Roads, was also experiencing changing times.

The 1956 circus season had been a rough one. John Ringling North, president of the circus, cut the 1956 season short due to "rising transportation and labor costs, for making the old style circus impractical and wanting to streamline operations." He announced that the days of the "Big Top" were over and that the circus would perform in air conditioned auditoriums.
North cut the circus staff from 1,400 at its peak to fewer than 600 by 1957. The circus would also tour for most of the year. The Tampa Tribune reported on March 29, 1957, that the "Circus left today for its first season without using tents. There was a noticeable lack of people. The train consisted of 15 cars. In the past there were two trains with 35 cars each plus a third train about two months later with the tent and seating equipment. The new setup has taken the 'circus out of the hotel business...' Trucks were used for the first time to haul equipment."

By the fall of 1958, the winter quarters site was basically closed. Rumors started that the site might be sold. As part of the incentive for Ringling to move the circus to Sarasota in 1927, the county agreed that the circus would not have to pay property taxes if Ringling advertised Sarasota in their circus programs. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported on Oct. 21, 1958, that "a motion to end the property tax benefit agreement with the circus was passed by the county commission." They were told that the circus has failed to live up to the terms of the contract. They stated that the circus program did not include a quarter page ad promoting Sarasota as the circus's winter quarters.

In 1959, John Ringling North decided to sale all his land holdings in Sarasota County. On Nov. 17, 1959, Arthur M. Concello, executive director of the circus, said, in an interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, that he handed "the sale of the winter quarters site to the Arvida Corporation. John Ringling North had held up the sale of the Ringling properties on the Keys until an offer had come in from 'a big reliable' outfit like Arvida that would 'buy the whole thing and develop it right.' The only thing John asked me about the winter quarters was if we needed it and I said no." The reported price for the site was $350,000.

With the winter quarters sold in Sarasota, Concello looked for a new winter home. After entertaining offers from St. Petersburg, Punta Gorda and the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport, Concello announced on Dec. 20, 1959, that the Ringling Circus would move to Venice on a site fronting US 41. An agreement on leasing 10 to 15 acres for $1,000 a year was announced by the Venice City Council. "I decided, under the circumstances," Concello said in a Dec. 20, 1959 article in The News, "to move from Sarasota to Venice. I am not mad with anybody. My deadline for the Sarasota and Bradenton chambers passed. Some of the Circus stockholders have been getting the feeling that Sarasota doesn't want us here."

By May, 1960 the land was cleared for the winter quarters and the construction of the new auditorium. Cleaning up work was being completed at the old winter quarters in Sarasota. Once finished, it was to be turned over to the Arvida Corporation for a housing development.

The circus train pulled out of the Seaboard railroad station in Sarasota for the last time on Aug. 1, 1960. When the circus returned, it stopped in its new winter home in Venice.

Mark D. Smith, archivist