Circus Confidential: Little people in Sarasota

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Posted: Monday, April 28, 2014 10:45 pm

SARASOTA, Fla. -- All this month we are taking you back in time, discussing Sarasota and its circus history, including the story of the most famous group of little people in the circus, their time in Sarasota, and an urban legend about two homes that some speculate John Ringling constructed for the little performers in his circus.

Dating back to the late 19th century, clowns, animals and aerial artists with the Ringling Brothers Circus have entertained millions across the globe. In the early days, little people -- like the famous Doll family -- performed in the Greatest Show on Earth and had roles in films like The Wizard of Oz.

“They were just part of the circus family. There was no difference one way or another. Everyone was equal in the circus; that was race, color, size…and they found a home,” says former Ringling clown Jackie Leclaire.

A home in the circus, and a home in Sarasota.

The Doll Family – Grace, Tiny, Daisy and Harry -- siblings from Germany, resided here many, many years. Ringling's winter quarters were just a short drive away.

Doll Family

Leclaire and former trapeze artist Mary Jane Miller knew the family well. “The Doll Family was part of Sarasota. Sarasota wouldn’t be what it is without the circus, and the Doll Family was part of the circus,” says Miller.

The Doll Family and many other little people involved in the circus made their homes off of Bee Ridge Road; we know that to be a fact. But there's this old, old urban legend about two homes on Sarasota Avenue. “The legend is that they were built by John Ringling himself as housing for the diminutive people associated with the Greatest Show on Earth,” says Bob Collins, owner of Sarasota Big Top Tours.

Just by looking at the unique 2-story homes, it's not a bad guess. Small in size, they resemble structures right out of a fairy tale. “They really are very cute, and very unusual, and they have a nice story associated with them,” says Collins.

A story that would be even nicer, if it were true. According to Collins, the homes --already built -- were brought to the Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores neighborhood in the 1930s by contractor Paul W. Bergman. “The legend of the little people's houses is a great legend. We want to perpetuate it, but the fact is they were not built by John Ringling, nor were they built for little people with the circus.”

But John Ringling did provide a home at his circus for little people, including the Doll Family; a good thing for the Greatest Show on Earth that came in a small package.

The last member of the Doll Family, Tiny, died ten years ago in Sarasota. She was 90 years old.

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