Circus Confidential: The Ringlings

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Posted: Monday, May 19, 2014 11:00 pm

SARASOTA, Fla. -- All this month we've taken a look back at Sarasota and its circus history. Now we conclude our series with a story on the most iconic family of the American circus, The Ringlings.

It's a name synonymous with Sarasota. Of the five Ringling Brothers, two of them would help put what was then a small fishing village on the west coast of Florida on the map: John and Charles.

“It's nice to think of them as a combined force here in Sarasota, because the family was co close. They made an impact together that I don't think any family at the time could do anything near that impressive,” says Ron McCarty, curator of the John Ringling mansion, Ca’ d’Zan.

Outside of their circus duties, the two purchased and developed a lot of real estate. Among other projects, Charles constructed the Sarasota Terrace hotel -- now a county-owned building at the corner of Ringling Boulevard and U.S. 301.

John purchased St. Armands and Bird Key. In fact John wanted to convert a mansion on Bird Key -- known as the New Edzell Castle -- into the winter White House for President Warren G. Harding, but Harding died before that could happen.

“What we forget sometimes is his drive as a real estate developer. That was part of his dream: to turn Sarasota into a world-class vacationing spot that we know it as today.”

And today many vacationers make a stop at the ‘House of John”, better known in Venetian as the Ca’ d’Zan. “Considering that it was built in 1926, it was $1.5 million when they built it and that equates to about $85 million today.”

John Ringling at Ca' d'Zan

That's a lot of money, and a lot more money was spent by John to dock his yacht, the Zalophus. “He had so much money that he could have Sarasota dredged so he could bring his 125 foot yacht up to the Ca’ d’Zan. That really is a lot of money when you can afford to do such a drastic thing.”

Ca' d'Zan

Life at the Ca’ d’Zan was anything but drastic for John and his wife Mable. There was at times a lot of monkey business going on. The Ringling's had pet primates.

“There are all kinds of stories about the chimps going into the mansion next door, going through lingeries, putting it on. Ripped off the chandelier in the living room,” says Mable Ringling’s great-nephew, Chris Schueler.

His father was Mable's nephew, and he reflects on a story his dad told him about a gorilla that escaped her cage at the Ca’ d’Zan named Miss Congo. “Dad scampered up into the tree with a leash. The gorilla had a collar on. Dad ran up and sat next to him and said ‘bad girl’, and he said the gorilla started crying.”

An interesting fact many may not know is that many of the Ringlings are buried on the Suncoast, including Ida, John and Mable, in the secret garden next to the Ca’ d’Zan.

After a family dispute over where to bury the bodies, it wasn't until 1991 that Mable, John, and his sister Ida were finally interred there.

A few miles north, a huge mausoleum at Manasota Memorial Park holds the coffins of Charles and his wife Edith. Additionally, the mausoleum is surrounded by the graves of many former employees.

Decades after their deaths, the Ringlings continue to be a fixture -- not only in the circus, but throughout Florida's Suncoast.

Chris Schueler recently donated some of Mable's old and very expensive outfits to the Ca d'Zan. Some of those clothes are now on display.

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