Miniature circus brings big joy: Tibbals Learning Center at The Ringling

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.

Lining up for the Big Show -- in miniature -- at Tibbals Learning Center at The Ringling, Sarasota, Florida

Lining up for the Big Show — in miniature — at Tibbals Learning Center at The Ringling, Sarasota, Florida

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.”

Using the scale of 3/4 inch to one foot, Howard Tibbals fashioned animal cages, train cars, people and tents for his miniature circus. Looking at the back side, you can see the behind-the-scenes action in miniature.

Using the scale of 3/4 inch to one foot, Howard Tibbals fashioned animal cages, train cars, people and tents for his miniature circus. Looking at the back side, you can see the behind-the-scenes action in miniature.

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 elephant peeks out the door of a yellow train car belonging to Howard Bros. Circus.

An elephant peeks out the door of a yellow train car belonging to 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.)

Just sittin' a spell before the show starts -- Howard Bros. Circus at The Ringling

Just sittin’ a spell before the show starts — Howard Bros. Circus at The Ringling

 

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.”

Feeding the workers: Howard Bros. Circus.

Feeding the workers: Howard Bros. Circus.

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!

Knoxville warehouse district forms the backdrop for the entrance exhibit to the Howard Bros. Circus at The Ringling.

Knoxville warehouse district forms the backdrop for the entrance exhibit to the Howard Bros. Circus at The Ringling.

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.

  1.  Behind-the-scenes work — transporting the animals, setting up tents, hiring workers, and feeding the people who make it all happen.
Workers in action moving crates of produce to feed those who make Howard Bros. Circus come to life.

Workers in action moving crates of produce to feed those who make Howard Bros. Circus come to life.

2.  Here comes the parade! — animals and performers prepping townspeople for what’s to come under The Big Top.

The parade is where you get to know the performers before you see them under The Big Top. And oh, what a show it is!!!

The parade is where you get to know the performers before you see them under The Big Top. And oh, what a show it is!!!

3.  Selling the circus — ticket sales, concessions, programs, and seats.

Popcorn anyone?

Popcorn anyone?

Get yer Frozen Delight before the show starts, ladies and gentlemen!

Get yer Frozen Delight before the show starts, ladies and gentlemen!

Tall Man? Tiny Man?Bearded Lady? Well, step right up!

Tall Man? Tiny Man?Bearded Lady? Well, step right up!

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.

And, now, ladies and gentlemen, may I direct your attention to the flying trapeze?

And, now, ladies and gentlemen, may I direct your attention to the flying trapeze?

5.  Animals — always charming the crowd.

The king of beasts!

The king of beasts!

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.

Under The Big Top at Howard Bros. Circus at The Ringling

Under The Big Top at Howard Bros. Circus at The Ringling

Tiny is big, if you’re looking closely at the wondrous Howard Bros. Circus.

Working hard for Howard Bros.

Working hard for Howard Bros.

For more information:

Tibbals Learning Center at The Ringling; 5401 Bay Shore Rd., Sarasota, FL 34243; www.ringling.org/circus

References:

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&region=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well&_r=0

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Oh, the Places We See

Met at University of Tennessee, been married for 47 years, and still passionate about travel whether we're volunteering with Habitat Global Village, combining work at Discovery with pleasure, or just seeing the world. Hope you'll join us as we try to see it all while we can!
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28 Responses to Miniature circus brings big joy: Tibbals Learning Center at The Ringling

  1. I took my kids to the Ringling museum back in 2008 – they still rave about it… Sorry to see the circus close, but I have never been a fan of how the animals were treated, so perhaps it’s for the best…. (I still cry during “Water for Elephants”) Thank you for the great article!!

    • It was sad reading accounts of the last performance of the circus this week. But I’m even more appreciative of the work Howard Tibbels did to preserve the circus way of life, even if it is in miniature. The whole exhibit is outstanding and will now preserve the memories for generations to come. Thanks for taking a look!

  2. ralietravels says:

    As noted, I enjoyed your post the first time and it was good to see it again. Your photos of the details were great. Reading my previous comments again, Alie fell ill and we never did make it to Knoxville that time, but the bridal couple visited us here last year. You live in a great town.

  3. Personally as an animal lover I was and am deliriously happy at the news of Ringling bros closing. Hallelujah! I actually have hated the circus since being a young child, for the cruelty and abuse that it obviously inflicts on wild animals who are caged and used as entertaintment for humans in a totally unnatural environment that there could possibly ever be. I just always felt so bad and sad for the animals, even at age six!

    That said, the miniatures, the history etc are fascinating and your photos are excellent. And I do think all the circus acrobatic stuff such as Cirque de Soleil, is amazing. This post gave me good insight though to why anyone would not be cheering at the news of the closing… it is always good to hear other view points.

    I read that the elephants are finally “free” in a sanctuary for the first time in decades! Joy oh joy.

    Peta

    • We really have feelings in common. I miss the gatherings — my whole family looked forward to going to the circus when it was in town — but I’m not in favor of hauling animals around or training them to perform for us. (I may be contradicting myself.) Anyway, it’s time for Ringling to make this announcement. It’s just that it was a part of Americana that I’ll miss. Thanks for taking a look. And please go see the miniatures. The whole set-up is amazing!

  4. I, too, was saddened by the announcement of the closing of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, Rusha. The passing of an era for sure. Thanks for sharing the work of Howard Tibbals. What a passion! –Curt

    • Howard Tibbals lives, at least part-time, in Knoxville. His home was on a Christmas tour to benefit the Museum of Art, and, as you might expect, the furnishings were as colorful and interesting as the circus itself. Mr. Tibbals (now in his late 80s, I think) stood in the kitchen and greeted people and answered a couple of questions I had about some vintage circus pieces that are now priceless. I will miss the circus, but it’s probably time to retire the idea of training, hauling, and parading animals for our enjoyment. Thanks for taking a look.

      • That would have been an interesting visit, I’m sure— especially after you had seen the exhibit in Florida!
        The animal rights folks have certainly made an impression. Now if we could only apply the same strict guidelines to human rights… –Curt

  5. OMG, this is amazing!! So much work and effort for this project, he is an artist and a genius.
    I love miniatures, I used to play a lot with them when I was a kid, since then I always appreciate miniatures! 😀

    Thank you for linking up with #MondayEscapes 😀

  6. Great post!
    Thank you for linking up with #MondayEscapes, though don’t forget to add the badge. If you need our help with it let us know 😀

  7. Tish Farrell says:

    Miniature worlds are always completely captivating. These views are fascinating, and a wonderful (almost living) social history too.

    • You’re so right, Tish. This really is social history — the way life used to be in small towns when the circus came to town. And the creator, Tibbals, strives for accuracy in crafting costumes, poses, areas of activity, etc. It’s fascinating, and if you haven’t been, I hope you’ll find time to see it. Appreciate the comment.

  8. Touring NH says:

    What a neat exhibit. All the time I lived in Sarasota, I never went to the circus museum.

    • So glad you liked the post. That circus is phenomenal. But we know what you mean when you say you never saw it. We have several landmarks right in our own city that we’ve got to see! Just haven’t done it yet.

  9. Amy says:

    They tell great stories! Great photos, Rusha!

  10. cindy knoke says:

    I love miniatures! Great shots~

  11. ralietravels says:

    We love the place, have long-time friends who live in Knoxville and another friend who built a couple cars for Tibbals. I did a post on it a while back, but yours has much better photographs.

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