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John Ringling – Circus Magnate, Art Patron, Showman, Entrepreneur

The Ringling Brothers - The Greatest Show On Earth
On a spring day in 1874 eight-year old John Nicholas Ringling, born Johan Nicholas Rüngeling, and his brothers were sitting on a dock on the Mississippi in MacGregor, Iowa. A one-tent circus was unloading from a steamboat and setting up across the way. This heady scene led to a unanimous decision by the boys – the circus was to be the life for them – and so it was.

John and his brothers Al, Charles, Otto and Alfred put on their first show in Baraboo, Wisconsin, in 1882. The banner read: “Ringling Brothers Classical Comic Opera”. John was 16 and played the part of the clown. Other names for the Ringling Brothers fledgling shows included "The Royal European Menagerie, The Ringling Brothers United Monster Shows, and The Congress of Trained Animals," charging a penny for admission.

Time passed and the troupe gave more than 1,000 performances, earning money and absorbing smaller circuses as they travelled, converting from wagon to rail in 1890. In 1907, twenty five years after the beginning, for $400,000, they purchased the Barnum and Bailey Show. The two circuses were not combined into the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus until after the colossal debut at Madison Square Garden on March 29, 1919. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, welcome to the greatest show on earth”. Unfortunately Otto, Al and Alfred had died leaving only John and Charles of the original five brothers to enjoy the success and to continue the tradition.

John Ringling Standing
John married Mable (Armilda, per her birth certificate) Burton in Hoboken, N.J. in 1905 and had profits from his circus invested in railroads, oil, real estate and cattle.

Charles N. Thompson, a manager of the Ringling Brother’s Circus for six years, had come to Sarasota with his wife and built a showplace home called Palms Elysian in 1905. The home was sold to Ralph Caples in November 1911. Early in 1912 John and Mable came to Sarasota and it has been reported that on January 31, 1912 John Ringling said to Caples, “Tell you what, Ralph, if you sell me the Thompson place cheap, just like it stands, I’ll buy it tonight”. The response was, “Mr. Ringling, you’ve bought yourself a home”. A handshake sealed the deal. John and Mable moved in. John’s brother Charles’, wife Edith, and two children came to visit and they bought the adjacent property shortly thereafter.

In 1917, the Pullman Co. built the 83 foot long car named JOMAR (JOhn MAble Ringling) for them. The lampshades were by Tiffany, it even had a metal cigar holder in John’s bathroom. John bought Bird, St. Armands, Coon, Otter and Wolf Keys in 1923 and employed three dredges to build the keys (islands) up. Streets were paved, water and sewer lines were laid and statues purchased and brought from Italy were placed along the boulevards.

Construction of the wood plank causeway connecting the keys to the mainland was begun on January 1925 and it was opened to traffic on February 7, 1926. The sale of real estate on St. Armands Key was said to exceed one million dollars on that day. John’s income that year was one million dollars, equivalent to about 40 million in 2011 dollars. John built Ca d’Zan (House of John) in 1926 as a place for Mable to rest at the end of each year’s circus season. It became Mable’s project from the design of the facade to selecting furnishings.

Around 1925 the real estate bubble had burst. There were no jobs. On March 23, 1917, Ringling announced that the winter quarters of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus would move from Bridgeport, Connecticut to Sarasota. Sarasota was ecstatic. It meant spending half a million dollars just for the required buildings. During the first week in November, 100 railroad cars arrived with animals (including "Gargantua the Great" and Mmle. M’Toto) and dozens of performers with their familes. In addition to the jobs that the move created, Sarasota became an even bigger tourist attraction. Also, in 1927, John hired John H. Phillips to design the Ringling Museum of Art; a venue in which to display the vast collection of paintings that he purchased at auctions throughout Europe.

Mable developed pneumonia while she and John were in Europe and she died of complications on June 8, 1929, she was only 53 years old. The stock market crashed in 1929 and Sarasota was hard hit. Sirloin steak sold for .15 cents/lb... and John’s fortunes disappeared. Ringling remarried on June 19, 1930 to Emily Haag Buck twenty years his junior. Ringling was voted out of control of the business in 1932 by its board of directors. John and Emily divorced on July 6, 1936. The man who had entertained the worlds’ most famous, and smoked and drank only the best, died of pneumonia on December 2, 1936 with $311 in the bank. He was 70 years old.

Although his will bequeathed Ca d’Zan and the Ringling Art Museum to the State of Florida, the moneys owed were enormous and it took Ida Ringling North (John’s sister) until February 9, 1946 to obtain clear title to both buildings. Florida Governor Caldwell and his entire cabinet came to Sarasota to accept.

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Ringling Brothers (circa 1880-1890) image is in the public domain in the US. - Wikipedia®

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