Sarasota gleams. There are bright, expansive beaches that lead to warm, dappled waters. Everywhere the bustle of development gives rise to examples of modern architectural elegance. Restaurants reflect evolving tastes and trends, while theaters and museums cater to the area's appetite for culture. Sarasota is young and fresh indeed, hosting a constant tide of visitors. But behind its sunny faade lurks a curious past, kept alive by legend and through the city's oldest landmarks. Circus lore, ghosts, baffling creatures. Where there's history there's haunting, and Sarasota's got more than a few skeletons in its closet.
It's said that there are more circus performers buried in the Sarasota area than ever lived here, a rumor sure to delight John Ringling's spirit. The renowned circus magnate and his brother gave Sarasota its circus identity in the mid-1920s. After snapping up many of the country's circuses, including London's Barnum and Bailey, the wildly eccentric duo brought their newly cultivated European sensibility to Sarasota, making the city the winter restinggrounds for their famed troupe.
But Ringling collected more than circuses. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art soon sprung from a private collection, which has grown substantially and includes a rare Old Master selection. Today the estate encompasses the museum, as well as John's decadent manse, the C d'Zan. Inside the newly renovated home, guests can mingle with Mable Ringling. Purported to haunt the mansion's terrace, by day Mable's spirit lives amid the plush Venetian Gothic interior. Sought by historians and mediums alike, perhaps she can be found in the courtyard, or among the Greek and Roman statues that dot the estate.
Is John himself tooling around? In 1948, the estate's garage was given new life as the Ringling Museum of the Circus. Vivid posters, wagons and rare props and handbills are on view, shining the spotlight on circus life in America. And the new Tibbals Learning Center houses the world's largest miniature circus.
Just a headstone's throw from the Ringling estate is Sarasota Jungle Gardens. This tropical paradise was resurrected from a swamp bog in the 1930s. Teeming with kookaburra and spider monkeys, bunya bunya trees and pink flamingos, this strange landscape brings rare and unorthodox species together in a mysteriously peaceful coexistence. The lagoons, paths and ponds are surrounded by lush, entangled growth, and the Jungle's exhibits introduce the curious to great horned owls and rainforest birds.
Colleges unify a rare breed as well, and The Ringling College of Art and Design is no exception. Established in 1931 in what was previously the boomtime Bay Haven Hotel, the Ringling School, its original name, was in part financed by John Ringling.
Legend has it that a young woman who roomed at the hotel met an untimely death in the stairwell. The building eventually became the Keating Center, where the woman's ghost, it's said, is inclined to walk the corridors or stir the paintbrushes in rinse cups on many an art student's desk. The Selby Gallery, a space devoted to major exhibitions, invites all who enter to have a good look around.
A trio of Sarasota theaters stage haunting portrayals of the past. Opened in 1926, the Sarasota Opera House has played host to Will Rogers, Tommy Dorsey and Elvis. Established to accommodate vaudeville acts and silent films, the theater also premiered Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth in 1951, parts of which were filmed in Sarasota.
Employees attribute things that go bump in the night to a phantom theatergoer who is still trying to collect his friend after a performance.
The Golden Apple Dinner Theatre, which is separated from the Opera House by a pavilion, also claims the busy ghost. Florida Studio Theatre, built in 1915, was haunted by a bevy of riotous spirits until the space was officially exorcised. Now it may continue its run of contemporary shows in peace.
Though John Ringling intoned, "For though life is short, Art is long," it seems that many of his contemporaries disagree with him.