The Iron Pachyderm Parade

Quick Circus History, What that has to do with Florida, and We Know Someone Who Lived on the Circus Train

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train car. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Belopavlovich)

Most people in the Tampa Bay area know about our long and intriguing history with the Ringling family of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus fame, but we wager to guess that our connection to the Greatest Show on Earth™ may be a surprising bit of history for other Americans and our international visitors.

It just so happens that the Ringling Museum in Sarasota is the state art museum of Florida, and its campus also hosts the Ringling Museum of the American Circus, which John Ringling established in 1948 to preserve circus history and elevate the status of circus arts from its traveling vaudeville reputation to a viable performing art form.

According to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey website, John Ringling and his brothers, the Wisconsin counterparts to the famed circus duo of P.T. Barnum and James Bailey, became known as the “Kings of the Circus World.” Their show, a titillating pile of superlatives titled “Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals” played in their home state and Illinois in 1887.

Their show took to the rails two years later, in 1889, a full 17 years after P.T. Barnum launched his equally superlative “P.T. Barnum’s Traveling World’s Fair, Great Roman Hippodrome and Greatest Show on Earth” across America on the railroad.

A Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train carrying the show to the next city.
A Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train carrying the show to the next city. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Belopavlovich)

By the time the Ringlings caught up with Barnum, there were 12 circus trains traversing the American tracks, taking the eye-popping spectacle of the big top to small town and big city America. With the simultaneous promoting powers of the Barnum/Bailey empire and the Kings of the Circus World chugging over the country, it is no wonder that the traveling circus and the circus-comes-to-town motifs captured the hearts and imaginations of the American public.

The circus, and the circus train, embedded into our cultural psyche. The fantasy of the circus traveled on its own rails across the minds of the generations, carrying the notions of running away, joining the circus, and spending life surrounded by fascinating people and the daily adventure of waking up in a new town.

By 1907, the Ringlings had acquired the Barnum & Bailey enterprise (both patrones had died; Barnum in 1891 and Bailey in 1906). Twenty years later, John Ringling and his wife Mabel found an over-wintering site for their massive circus conglomerate on the shores of the Tampa Bay in a small Florida paradise called Sarasota.

Today, Sarasota bills itself as the Circus Capital of the World, and the train used to transport the still-thriving circus parks for a long holiday break in Port Manatee, an old Florida port between St. Petersburg and Sarasota.

A Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train is over a mile long, made up of about 50-60 cars.
A Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus train is over a mile long, made up of about 50-60 cars. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Belopavlovich)

All Aboard the Circus Train!

Today, the Greatest Show on Earth™ belongs to Feld Entertainment, a 21st century entertainment conglomerate worthy of its predecessors, which is headquartered in Ellenton, FL. They run two circus trains, a Red Unit and Blue Unit, which tour for two years at a time before getting revamped with a new show.

Over a mile long and comprised of anywhere from 50-60 cars, each train literally carries on Barnum & Bailey and the Ringling Bros. traditions of caravanning the circus all over the country to thrill and amaze audiences with death-defying acrobatics, animal acts and—of course—their trademark cadre of clowns.

We found this interesting article on the chef of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey train, who makes 1500 meals a week and is the only member of the 300-person “traveling city” who gets real whipped cream for his birthday pie-in-the-face (it’s a circus train, people) instead of shaving cream.

In compliance with full disclosure, Caught in the Act would not have known anything about this performing arts obscura known as the circus train had it not been for Matthew Belopavlovich, one of our beloved theater faculty members at the Patel Conservatory, who did the very thing P.T. Barnum embedded in our collective subconscious: he ran away and joined the circus. As a clown.

Patel Conservatory theater instructor Matthew Belopavlovich performing as a clown.
Patel Conservatory theater instructor Matthew Belopavlovich performing as a clown. (Photo by Tatton Jacob)

Matthew’s lifelong dream to perform as a clown with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus came true a few years ago when he won a spot with the show during an audition in the middle of Grand Central Station. He attended clown college, now more of a “clown boot camp” he says, and boarded the train for a two-year adventure around the country as part of the 142-year-old tradition.

“The novelty never wore off,” he says. “It sometimes faded when the water pipes froze or the power went out, but these issues were rare. Nothing beats seeing the country by train and knowing that you are living on a piece of American history. My favorite thing to do on a travel day was to stand out on the vestibule between the coach cars with my morning cup of coffee and watch the scenery go by. So peaceful. It was truly amazing.”

Matthew’s room was about 6×8 feet and had a mini-fridge, microwave, sink, window, fold-down dining area and a bed. “There are different layouts of a coach car,” Matthew says. “Some have six, eight, 11 or 13 private rooms and others are private cars. If you’re not in a private car, it’s like living in a college dorm.”

Naturally, we were curious about sleeping arrangements and if everyone was grouped on the train according to skill set.

Patel Conservatory theater instructor Matthew Belopavlovich on the “clown car."
Patel Conservatory theater instructor Matthew Belopavlovich on the circus train. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Belopavlovich)

“Car 189 is considered the “clown car” on the Blue Unit. Rooms are assigned based on your act, seniority, troupe needs and sometimes the time of the year you join the show.” It’s tradition for the Car 189 clowns to transform their quarters into the circus haunted house every October, and while Matthew retained the secrets of the horrors he and his clown crew unleashed on their co-workers, he admits, “the entire unit gets to test their courage. It’s an awesome event.”

Matthew left us with these lyrics from “Join the Circus,” a number from the musical Barnum:

Just join the circus like you wanted to, when you were a kid.
Climb aboard before it moves on and you’ll thank your lucky stars you did.
Go to bed in Minneapolis, wake up in PA.
Pack your roll, your brush and your comb again,
Ready to roll again, ready to stray.

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