Flying high in Ringling's winter home

By Eleanor Berman
Travel Arts Syndicate / February 13, 2005
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SARASOTA, Fla. -- Pedro Reis knows firsthand the lure of the circus. As a poor 12-year-old in South Africa, he gazed so long and longingly at performers practicing on an outdoor flying trapeze at the local YMCA that they finally invited him in. A few years later, he was an aerial star.

After appearing in big-time circuses all over the world, Reis's performing career ended when he was injured in a fall in 1990, but his love for the circus was undiminished. With his wife, Dolly Jacobs, Reis brought circus performance back to Sarasota, formerly the winter home of circus impresario John Ringling and once known as the ''Circus Capital of the World."

Jacobs, daughter of the legendary clown Lou Jacobs and one of the premier aerialists in the world, is among the headliners in Circus Sarasota, which she founded with Reis in 1997. Through Feb. 27, she will perform an aerial ballet with Russian star Yuri Rjkov.

There are no bad seats in the red-and-white Big Top, where the atmosphere is warm and welcoming. Reis and Jacobs wanted a traditional circus that would depend on thrilling the audience with the abilities of the performers.

''Great circus performers are awesome entertainers," says Reis, who draws on his connections to bring world-class acts to Sarasota. ''I wanted to bring the kind of acts that would wow people and bombard the emotions," he says. Among this year's headliners will be Cuban star Ricardo Sosa with his famous hand balancing act on the trapeze. Others include aerial acrobats from Beijing, a tumbling troupe from Africa, Swiss tightrope performer David Dmitri, gymnasts, and clowns.

Ringling (1866-1936) made Sarasota the winter home of his Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1927, and it became the biggest tourist attraction in the state. Ringling also did much to develop the community.

The Ring of Fame, honoring former circus greats, now lines the center of St. Armands Circle, the shopping-dining complex that Ringing conceived and built. The Ringling estate remains the city's biggest attraction, now overseen by Florida State University and known as the Ringling Center for the Cultural Arts. It includes the Museum of the Circus and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, which holds the couple's collection of more than 600 paintings plus thousands of examples of sculpture and decorative arts.

Sarasota remained the winter home of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus for 33 years. The city is still the permanent home of many stars like the Jacobs family and the Flying Wallendas. Reis first visited in the 1980s. ''I had always heard about Sarasota, it was legendary," he recalls. ''And I was so disappointed to find there was almost no circus left, just one small museum."

Sarasota stayed in his mind, and after faulty rigging caused the fall that ended his performing career, he returned to the city, where he met and married Dolly. Together, they struggled to find backing to bring a real circus to town. ''So many people thought of the circus as a kind of freak show," he says. ''I wanted to raise their perceptions."

When local support was slow, Reis took out a personal bank loan for $115,000 to buy a tent. The first performances, held on the Ringling Museum grounds during the summer of 1997, drew 15,000 people. Then Florida State University took over the Ringling complex and did not continue the circus. Reis moved his tent to a plot not far from downtown, and says he had to give away tickets to get people to come.

His entertainers cheered residents at children's hospitals and homes for the aged. In an unusual and successful experiment, he began teaching circus skills such as juggling and clowning to the developmentally disabled at the Loveland Center in nearby Venice.

Slowly, community support began to grow and audiences began to build. Last summer, the troupe was invited back to the Ringling estate for performances in July.

Jacobs and Reis have dreams of starting a permanent circus school in Sarasota. ''The circus can give young people the opportunity to channel their energy in a positive way, to make good choices and lead productive lives," says Reis. ''I know. It happened to me."

Eleanor Berman is a freelance writer in New York.

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