With the announcement that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus will perform for the last time in May 2017, we are re-publishing our post of August 19, 2015, on the Tibbals Learning Center at The Ringling in Sarasota. Although the understand the position of the owners, we personally regret the loss of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus because, for us, it was “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Even though the show cannot go on, we are grateful that the miniature circus created by Knoxvillian Howard Tibbals will remain a testament to the creativity, hard work, and showmanship of traveling circuses everywhere. If you haven’t visited The Ringling in Sarasota, Florida, put it on your bucket list. There’s a lot of greatness in miniature under the Big Top!
At the end of this post, check out the links to articles in The Knoxville News-Sentinel and The New York Times as well as vintage photos from past visits by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus in Knoxville.
It’s not often you get to see a lifetime project laid out as meticulously as this, but when you go to the Tibbals Learning Center at The Ringling to stare at the tiny circus — figures, tents, animals, wagons, and more — you become enthralled with the lifetime labor of love of Howard Tibbals. Housed on The Ringling campus in Sarasota, Florida, the million-piece miniature Howard Bros. Circus Model that Tibbals began crafting in his teens is ready to take you back to simpler times, the years from 1919 to 1938 when the biggest thing to hit small town America was the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Extraordinarily, Tibbals (now in his seventies) created almost all the miniatures himself, fashioned after the old-timey circuses he watched as a kid. Today, it’s on exhibit daily for “children of all ages.”
The former owner of Tibbals Flooring Center in Oneida, Tennessee, Howard Tibbals financed the development and set-up of this remarkable miniature circus, including a $6.5 million donation for the current installation on the grounds of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. But when he asked if he could use the Ringling name for his miniature version, he was turned down. No problem, though. He just named it Howard Bros. Circus.
And what a circus it is! The stats alone tell a story of determination and stick-to-itiveness: over 500 circus animals, 1500 performers, 152 wagons, and enough chairs and dishes to seat and serve over 900 people. (Source: Florida State University website.)
A sign at the exhibit offered an insight into what a production it was just keeping the workers fed: “Typical day’s order: 30 gallons of milk, 226 dozen eggs, 285 pounds of butter, 2,220 loaves of bread, 2,470 pounds of meat, 200 pounds of tea and coffee, and 50 bushels of potatoes.”
Since we’re from Knoxville, we were surprised to see so many familiar buildings from our city used as backdrops in the first part of the exhibit. But we shouldn’t have been — after all, Howard Bros. Circus debuted at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville. The new, more permanent, even larger, glassed-in exhibit at The Ringling measures 1.5 times the size of a football field!
As you walk the perimeter of the circus (and it’s a long perimeter), you get a feel for every aspect — and Tibbals’ keen eye for what humans do.
- Behind-the-scenes work — transporting the animals, setting up tents, hiring workers, and feeding the people who make it all happen.
2. Here comes the parade! — animals and performers prepping townspeople for what’s to come under The Big Top.
3. Selling the circus — ticket sales, concessions, programs, and seats.
4. Performers — trapeze artists flying through the air with the greatest of ease, lion tamers, horseback riders, and stars taking center stage in spangly suits.
5. Animals — always charming the crowd.
6. Clowns — making us laugh even when in miniature!
In Tibbals’ own words, it’s a “magical world over 50 years in the making.” And even now at our age, we’re fascinated beyond belief. Save time to look closely and longingly. You, too, will feel like a kid again.
Tiny is big, if you’re looking closely at the wondrous Howard Bros. Circus.
For more information:
Tibbals Learning Center at The Ringling; 5401 Bay Shore Rd., Sarasota, FL 34243; www.ringling.org/circus
Cox, Billy. “Howard Tibbals and the huge miniature circus.” Herald Tribune (January 19, 2012). Retrieved from http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20120119/ARTICLE/120119467
“Miniature circus finds home at FSU’s Ringling Museum.” Retrieved from https://fsu.edu/news/2005/07/21/miniature.circus/
Boomer Travel note: The Tibbals Learning Center is easily accessible for all with ramps leading around the circus. There is ample parking at The Ringling and golf cart transportation is available for those who need assistance getting around the complex.
Inclusions in updated post: January 22, 2017
Articles of note after the announcement that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus will no longer perform.
Bledsoe, Wayne (January 20, 2017). “Circus memories: East Tennessee Veterans of ‘The greatest Show on Earth’ share their stories. Knoxville News Sentinel. Retrieved from: http://www.knoxnews.com/story/entertainment/2017/01/20/circus-memories-east-tennessee-veterans-greatest-show-earth-share-their-stories/96745696/
Knoxville News Sentinel (January 15, 2017). “Archive photos: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus in Knoxville.” Retrieved from: http://www.knoxnews.com/picture-gallery/news/2017/01/15/archive-photos-ringling-bros-and-barnum–bailey-circus-in-knoxville/96611250/
Rosen, Kenneth R. (January 22, 2017). “Retired Big Apple Circus Animals Prepare for their Second Act.” New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/22/nyregion/retired-big-apple-circus-animals-prepare-for-their-second-act.html?hpw&rref=nyregion&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region®ion=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well&_r=0