VENICE — Retired circus performers, owners of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and local officials turned out recently to celebrate the new Circus Train Car Museum with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The museum – housed in a former sleeper car once used by the circus and located at the Historic Venice Train Depot, 303 E. Venice Ave. – was acquired and rehabilitated by the Venice Area Historical Society over the past decade. Exhibits tell the story of the circus’s impact on Venice, which was the winter home of The Greatest Show On Earth and many of its performers for 32 years. Venice was also home to Clown College from 1967 to 1992
“The ribbon-cutting ceremony is the culmination of years of hard work and vision by many,” said Franklin Wright, president of VAHS. “In 2014, VAHS kicked off fundraising efforts for the project with enormous support from the community. And it wouldn’t have been possible without two VAHS board members, George Miller and Mary Huba, who oversaw all aspects of the project.”
Several retired circus performers contributed memorabilia, personal effects and insights to help make the museum an authentic representation of life on the rails. Among the attractions:
· Authentically recreated living quarters of three performers, including famed animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams.
· A miniature of the Circus Arena modeled after Madison Square Garden that was built by Ringling Bros. in Venice in 1960.
· Archival videos about the circus during its winters in Venice.
· Exhibits recounting promoter Irvin Feld’s revitalization of the circus in Venice and the creation of Clown College.
Feld and Judge Roy Hofheinz purchased the Ringling circus in 1967. Feld's son Kenneth Feld, chair and CEO of Feld Entertainment, and Kenneth's daughter Juliette Feld Grossman joined Venice and Sarasota County officials at the dedication.
"The Circus Train Car Museum gives visitors a glimpse into life on the rails for members of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus family, as well as preserving the history of Venice with the circus community," Kenneth Feld said. "The Ringling train was a town without a zip code. It is where performers from around the world lived, traveled and worked together, sharing their cultures and love for The Greatest Show On Earth."
VAHS, which has donated the Circus Train Car Museum to Sarasota County, maintains and operates the museum, which sits on tracks put in place when the Historic Venice Train Depot was restored in 2003. On May 6, VAHS will hold a Grand Opening Celebration for the public.
VAHS purchased the car in 2016 from the Florida Railroad Museum. Built as a sleeper by Pullman-Standard in 1953, it was owned by the Ringling Bros. Circus from 1978 to 1994. It had its last brake check in Venice in December 1993. For details, visit VeniceAreaHistoricalSociety.org.
upport for the project came from the Kathleen K. Catlin Foundation at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County; the Gulf Coast Community Foundation; Julia Cousins Laning; Bill Jervey, Jr.; Carolyn Redlin; and 250 other donors.
Officials participating in the dedication included Venice Mayor Nick Pachota, Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert, and Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Director Nicole Rissler.
Click here to see the story as it originally appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on March 3, 2023. Photos by Venice Area Historical Society (VAHS)/Prion Photography