What would possess a man to spend most of his life creating a miniature circus? Well, it helps that the person is Howard Tibbals, a philanthropist now in his 70s with plenty of spare time. It also helps that his wife, Janice, supports him in his project. In fact soon after they were married, Janice called her mother and said, “I finally found someone who loves to play with dolls as much as I do.”
The Howard Bros. Circus—so named because the Ringling Circus owners wouldn’t allow Tibbals to use their name—contains much more than dolls, however. Its eight main tents, 152 wagons, 1300 circus performers and workers, more than 800 animals, and a 57-car train occupy 3800 square feet of space in the Ringling Circus Museum’s Tibbals Learning Center in Sarasota, FL. Peter, son Ross, and our friend John joined me for an excursion to this magical place during our visit to the Gulf Coast over the holidays.
What strikes most visitors is the amazing detail of the exhibit. In the dining tent, performers and circus workers chat and chew while sitting at picnic tables spread with fare. Nearby in the mess tent cooks are preparing flapjacks. Elsewhere on the circus grounds workers prepare food for the hungry livestock. Of course, the “big top” is the center of attraction where performers entertain audiences with daring feats and ferocious tigers respond to trainers’ commands.
Howard Tibbals began his obsession with creating a miniature circus when he was a young boy. In fact, he sewed the first tents himself out of a bolt of muslin. He carved the first figures, too, although he eventually hired a master carver to create unique characters and animals to populate his circus. The end result is a colorful diorama depicting an age gone by, when the circus came to town early in the morning and pulled out at day’s end. Howard Tibbals captures this amazing display of logistics with accurate detail, but also reminds us of the excitement and thrill that the circus brought to America in the 1920s and 30s. More artifacts, such as circus costumes and posters, are also on display in the adjoining museum. Currently an expansion is underway, which will be opening in 2012. The new exhibits will celebrate circus performers and allow visitors to experience the magic of the center ring.
This was my second visit to the Ringling Museum of Art, a sprawling campus on Sarasota Bay that includes the Ca' d'Zan Mansion, a stunning example of Venetian architecture, which John and Mable Ringling built as a summer home; an art museum featuring paintings and sculptures by the Old Masters; as well as the circus museums. The beautifully landscaped grounds include several gardens and magnificent banyan trees, which Ross loved exploring.
In early 2011 a special exhibition called Gardens in Perpetual Bloom will go on display. It’s a collection of over 100 botanical illustrations from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. To kick off the exhibit, Ringling in Bloom, a special four-day event celebrating flowers, food, fashion and fine art, will take place from February 3-6, featuring tours, demonstrations, workshops, and more. Details are being finalized on a special package to include accommodations at the Ritz-Carlton Sarasota. Visit ringling.org for more information.