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Florida would become the final home for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. John Ringling would be the final surviving brother of the five who built the circus. He would build his mansion in Sarasota and call it Ca'd'Zan. John would also build a museum for his art collection. This whole complex would eventually house the Circus Museum as well. Several buildings here and other locations connected to the Ringlings are rumored to be haunted. Join us on our final episode of the Haunted Circus Mini-Series as we talk about the Ringlings in Florida.
We spent an entire day exploring what Sarasota calls The Ringling. This campus is home to the historic Asolo Theater, Bayfront Gardens, Museum of Art, Johnson-Blalock Education Center, Circus Museum and Ca' d'Zan. As we talked about on the first episode, we were joined by our listener Debbie and The Ringling's PR Specialist Virginia Harshman. You will hear their voices on this episode again as well as Joe Colossa who will share some ghost stories about Ca' d'Zan. That's something the docents here don't like to talk about, the hauntings. But not talking about ghosts doesn't make the experiences just go away. Before we get into the spooky stuff though, we need to talk about the circus moving down here to Florida and talk about John Ringling and his nephew namesake John Ringling North. These would be the last two men in the Ringling family to have control of the circus before the Feld Family would take ownership.
John Nicholas Ringling was born on May 31, 1866 in McGregor, Iowa. As mentioned in episode 3, John was one of the brothers who founded their circus and he would eventually come to be known as the Circus King. He was the second tallest of the brothers, standing at 6'1" and although he had a commanding size, he was soft-spoken. He wore his hair in a non-fashionable round hairstyle that became his own distinctive style. One thing we noticed from his closet is that he wore the clothes of a dandy with lots of straw hats and his shoes were remarkably thin and long for a man of his stature. And although John started out from humble beginnings, he became a very rich man who liked to spend his money on fine things. His spending habits would eventually lead to financial ruin when The Great Depression hit.
John was the clown in the family. His first role with the circus was that of the Dutch clown. As the circus became more of a business, he took over the bookings, signing contracts and scheduling. He was the advance man. As we said in the previous episode, he took care of moving the circus where it needed to go. He was the one who moved the circus from wagons to railway in 1890. Most people described John as "a human encyclopedia on road and local conditions." The success of the circus soared and after they bought the Barnum & Bailey Circus, they made back their investment in that circus in one season. John then turned to investing to make more money. He invested in oil, railroads and real estate. His brother Charles was buying land in Sarasota, Florida and he did the same. The two brothers were the last of the five and they co-owned the circus. In 1926, John would become sole owner when Charles died. He would move the circus headquarters to Sarasota in 1927.
John married Mable Burton in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1905. Mable had come from a small farming community in Ohio and didn't talk much about herself. She was very private about that and only gave one interview. The couple would be a mix of big city life with apartments in Chicago and New York and small gulf coast living with a home in Sarasota. The Ringlings first home in Sarasota was Palms Elysian and they bought it in 1911. This was a frame clapboard house that was built by Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show manager Charles N. Thompson. The house was nice, but it didn't really reflect their life. They wanted something bigger and we would say, ostentatious. The Ringlings bought more land and increased their estate to thirty-six acres. Then they chose architect Dwight James Baum of New York to design their mansion. They had spent a lot of time in Europe touring, looking for new circus acts and buying art, but for Mable, Italy was like a home away from home. So it is no surprise that this mansion would be designed like a Venetian palazzo.The style would be Venetian Gothic and they would call it Ca' d'Zan, which means "House of John."
We approach Ca d'Zan and Virginia starts to talk about the house, which
is fairly gawdy in style. (Ca d'Zan 1) So yeah, the house went way over
the budget as Mabel headed up the design using postcards, photos and sketches to inspire the architect. The mansion is 22,000 square feet and has 32 rooms and 15 bathrooms with four stories. Terra cotta "T" blocks, brick. concrete, stucco and glazed tiles were used in the construction and what gives the mansion that "gawdy" feel are the embellishments of ornamental cresting in a variety of colors from blue to red to yellow to green and decorative medallions, tiles and balusters. Sixteenth century tiles were imported from Spain and used to build the roof. We arrive at the front door, which is fashioned in the Renaissance style and made from weathered walnut and mahogany. The stairs leading up to it are made from purple Formosa marble made in Germany. After entering, we see one of the many painted ceilings we will see in the
house. This is in the ballroom. (Ca d'Zan 2) There were twenty-two dancing couples painted on this ceiling.
We go into the breakfast room, which was the family dining room, and Virginia shares about why there are gates that can be closed going into this room. (Ca d'Zan 3) We love the idea that there might have been circus animals in the house. And we think it is hilarious that John would seat the least favored guests facing this picture of what was basically an eviscerated boar. We enter a side room that had many pieces of their silver service and dishes on display. Much of this stuff was emptied out of the house when it sat for 10 years as the house sat in probate and such. There was a large sink in here that Debbie commented had something special about it, but couldn't remember and the security guard in this room proved that they weren't just there to protect, but they know some history. (Ca' d'Zan 4) I had no idea that they made sinks that were of a softer metal to protect china. The more you know! Ca' d'Zan had refrigerators, not ice boxes. Another big upgrade for the time. There were nine of them in the house.
One of the most magnificent room in the house is the Court, which served as a living room. It's a big open room and this is where the Ringlings would entertainment, many times featuring music. There is a little balcony on the top story where someone could serenade the guests and get the best acoustics. This was originally supposed to be an open court. The Ringlings filled it with 17th, 18th and 19th century furnishings and other objects. A crystal chandelier hangs from the 30-foot ceiling and this originally hung in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. To the side is an Aeolian organ that has 2,289 pipes installed in a hidden chamber covered over with tapestries. The organ, unfortunately, does not work anymore. And the Aeolian Organ Company was an American manufacturer that made player pianos and organs. The side of the Court facing the water had seven sets of French doors with an array of colored glass. The other floors look down on the court with wraparound balconies making it easy to see the black and white checked tile floor.
The most opulent room with an amazing ceiling was the formal dining room. There is a dining room table that accommodates 22 chairs and 20 leaves. The walls are made from English black walnut with mahogany trim. The ceiling is made from cast plaster and is painted to make it look like it is actually wood. There is a Maltese cross at the center and the rest of the decor reflects Moorish and European Renaissance forms. Adjacent to the dining room is John's Tap Room, which really looks like a little bar. The wood paneling and stained-glass panels came from the bar at Cicardi's Winter Garden in St. Louis. This was a place that hosted society dinners and banquets and wedding receptions. Obviously, Prohibition was going on while the Ringlings lived here, but that didn't stop alcohol from being served here. John had his own private reserve that he kept locked away.
We climbed several staircases as we made our way up to each floor as we made our way up to the Tower. The stairs were all made from marble. There was also an elevator. Going up to the second floor takes us into the private spaces of the Ringlings. The couple did not share a bedroom and they are very different rooms. But before we visited those spaces, we saw John's office here at the mansion and his exercise room. The floor in the exercise room was made from coquina. The shower just off of here was another upgrade and there was a hydraulic barber chair. The ceiling in John's bedroom was just wow! Robert Webb painted the ceiling and while today there is just a large oval painting in the center, it used to cover the entire ceiling, but John felt it was a bit too busy. The furniture in here is French Second Empire and made from mahogany with gilt bronze ormolu. Opposite the two beds in here is a painting of Napoleon's sister. John's bathroom is interesting particularly because it is made from gold Siena marble. Everything is made from this including the sink, bathtub and toilet. This marble is now extinct and the bathroom alone is probably worth $35,000.
Mable had a smaller bedroom than John, but there was a dressing room attached that was fairly spacious. Here is a soundbite featuring one of the tour guides talking about her room. (Ca' d'Zan 5) The bed was really neat with the little monkey on the headboard. And the punctuation marks on the ceiling certainly were unique. And I can understand her reservations about having her bedroom below the vault, which was very large. The hand-painted walls were amazing too. There are five guest rooms on the second floor. One of them had a neat medicine cabinet that Mable had painted on the inside to make it more interesting.
The third floor is home to the Game Room, which is very whimsical. The walls are painted as though you are within a circus tent. The ceiling was painted by Willy Pogany and he was given free reign and he went hogwild, painting himself prancing out of the room, Mable and John appear in Venetian carnival costumes in the center of the ceiling and all their pets are included, the dogs and birds. There are supporting posts throughout the room and these are decorated with carnival masks. There is a poker table and billiard table in here and the little balcony that overlooks the Court is off the Game Room. The fourth floor has only one room that is a guest room, which has its own bathroom. We got a special treat by being able to go up onto the tower and look out over the water and the entire Ringling estate. There is a rose garden on the property and the whole 66 acre site is a large arboretum. They even had a Rainbow Eucalyptus there.
Mable Ringling had Addison's disease and diabetes and in 1929, she became seriously ill while the couple was in New York. She was taken to a nursing home and within a few days, she had died. John took it very hard and distanced himself from friends. There are those who claim that John was an angry and domineering man whom the circus performers feared, but there were others who claimed he was just private. Whichever is true, his drive to own more art and to invest in projects would start to hurt his finances and then with the Great Depression, he was hit with a devastating financial blow from which he could not recover. He owed taxes and his Ritz-Carlton project that he had started in 1926 was bleeding him. He entered into a doomed marriage with a young widow named Emily Buck in 1930. John had a stroke and his health just continued to deteriorate. He divorced Emily in 1936 and shortly thereafter, died of pneumonia on December 2, 1936. He had been one of the wealthiest men in America, worth millions, but he died with less than $400 in the bank. He willed his entire estate to the state of Florida and gave his nephew, John Ringling North, the circus, who was 35 at the time.
John North had grown up under the tutelage of his uncle John. He took to the family business and made the circus even better, by developing themes and bringing in aerial ballerinas. He had the style of his uncle and became a playboy and loved to party. He made the circus more sophisticated, but he was still a showman at heart and he bought a 550 pound gorilla named Gargantua from a woman in New York who could no longer house him. A gorilla anywhere was rare, but especially in the circus and he was a hit. They added a female gorilla later and dubbed her Gargantua's wife. This acquisition probably kept the circus out of bankruptcy. North debuted a new act in 1942 that came to be known as the Circus Polka and incorporated 50 elephants doing a ballet with music written by Igor Stravinsky and choreographed by George Balanchine. North then joined with Cecil B. DeMille to make the motion picture The Greatest Show on Earth, starring North, Jimmy Stewart, Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton and Dorothy Lamur. In 1967, North sold the circus to the Feld Family and you know the rest of that history.
Before we explore the other buildings at The Ringling, there are two off-site locations we want to talk about that are connected to John Ringling and also have ghost stories. The first is the Ringling Ritz-Carlton, or what was supposed to be the Ringling Ritz-Carlton. As we mentioned, John Ringling basically went bust financially. The Ritz-Carlton would prove to be one of his missteps. He had decided to build this deluxe hotel on the south end of Longboat Key, which he could see from his office at Ca' d'Zan. The plan was to have 200 rooms, a rail line to bring customers in and also a dock. Ringling signed a contract to pay $5,000 to use the Ritz-Carlton name. A contract was signed in February of 1926 and completion was to happen that December. The builder was the Hegeman-Harris Company, Inc. of New York. Building commenced, but John soon had to stop it because of other financial obligations. John would never start the project up again even though he had already spent $650,000.
John Ringling North had become the executor of the estate and he committed to finishing the hotel, but the plan never materialized and the building project sat abandoned. The Arvida Corporation approached North in 1959 and he sold them the land so they could develop Longboat Key and Bird Key. There were many who thought that the Ritz-Carlton would be perfect to turn into a convention center since Sarasota did not have one. But the Arvida Corporation was not interested in finishing the hotel. Demolition began on December 2, 1963 and it was rough because they hotel was really well built. Some described it like a fortress. The wrecking ball barely made a dent. The structure was eventually brought down and the debris was used for fill behind the Civic Center and City Island. There is a resort there now called Longboat Key Club and on the exact site is the Chart House Restaurant.
Before being demolished, the skeleton of the abandoned hotel became a place for people to hang out and party. They called it the Ghost Hotel. Today, people who stay at the resort or eat at the restaurants, claim to have had some weird experiences and the main reason why could be that many people fell to their deaths during construction. A construction worker had brought his son with him to the site and tragically, the boy fell down an elevator shaft. Now people claim to see a small boy in the Men's Restroom at the Chart House. Employees also claim to see him after hours playing with a ball or sitting in the seating area. Patrons of the restaurant claim to feel cold spots. And outside there have been disembodied screams heard.
The other off-site location is the Keating Center at the Ringling School for Art and Design. This is about two miles south of The Ringling. This had once been the Bay Haven Hotel. The hotel had been built in 1925. In 1931, John Ringling bought the hotel and transformed it into the art school. A student named Nate Greco had returned to his room to find a hairbrush levitating above a desktop. Another student named Randy Morris had been doing art in Harmon Hall and he went to the bathroom. As he washed his hands, he noticed that there were a set of female feet under the stall door. Over three hours, he went into the bathroom four times and the feet were always there. Many students and staff are sure that a spirit named Mary roams Keating Center. The story about Mary is that she was an eighteen-year-old woman plying her trade at the hotel. She became depressed and hanged herself in a stairwell on an upper floor or was murdered depending on who is telling the story. And this is where many stories of haunting activity take place. Her apparition has been seen hovering in the halls. Christina Sicillano who was a former student said that she had several run-ins with Mary. On night, she saw Mary run across a room in a black dress or nightgown. She awoke one night to the crashing of a vase and then a ghostly face appeared just in front of her's, scaring her. She yelled, "Go to bed, Mary!" And the spirit disappeared. Mary sometimes knocks over furniture and knocks on doors. Disembodied footsteps are also heard.
The Asolo Theater was originally a historic theatre that was located in Asolo, Italy. This is a town just outside Venice. Built in 1798 by Italian impresario Antonio Locatelli, it was within the Queen of Cyprus' castle of Caterina Cornaro. The theater was horse-shoe shaped with four tiers and stood for many years, but was eventually dismantled in 1930 and put into storage. The director of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art had heard about the theater and he approached the State of Florida to see if they would be interested in purchasing it and they did. When it first was included on The Ringling property it fit into a gallery in the museum, but was then moved and reconstructed to where it is now. We haven't heard of any hauntings in here, but we thought it was really cool that this had been part of a theater in late 1700 Italy.
The Circus Museum was founded by the first director of The Ringling, A. Everett Austin. This was the first circus museum of its kind and inside there is circus memorabilia, posters, wagons, costumes and John and Mabel's private Pullman railroad car. When we went, there was also a wagon wheel display that was really colorful and cool. The Tibbals Learning Center is part of this complex too and within this building is that giant mural of the performers and the Howard Bros. Circus Model that we shared about on previous episodes. This is a great place for kids as this has hands-on experiences, so kids can walk the tight rope, shoot a figure from a cannon and sit in a clown car. So basically Kelly and Diane are just big kids since they tried it all out. There is so much memorabilia inside that it would not be surprising to hear of hauntings in here. We picked up nothing on our recordings. The main ghost that has been reported here is said to belong to a circus priest who traveled with the Ringlings in the 1920s. Others claim that the apparition that wanders the museum is John Ringling. Their train car is inside the building.
John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is a great place to wander if you enjoy both classical art and modern art. All forms are represented here depending on what exhibits they have on display. John and Mable were big collectors of art and John had a large number of art books. He was an expert on many aspects and the design of the museum was to his specifications. There is a statue of David outside and the interior features the Ringling Crest that John had designed. When John died, the museum was given to the state of Florida and it became the official state art museum. There are approximately 10,000 pieces of art inside including sculpture, photography, paintings and drawings. There is a world-renowned collection of Giambattista Pittoni and Peter Paul Rubens paintings. The state wasn't taking very good care of the museum, so Florida State University took over in 2000. Docents and guards in the museum claim to see the apparition of John walking through to visit his art collection.
Even though there were no deaths at Ca d'Zan, there are stories of ghosts. Current caretakers and docents don't like to talk about them, so we had no luck getting any stories from them. Virginia did tell me that there had been a house on the site before John and Mable bought the property and that at least one of the residents there had died in that previous home. It is also important to note that although Mable and John died in New York, their bodies are buried here on the property, along with John's sister Ida. Mable's spirit is often seen on the terrace of Ca' d'Zan or out in the Rose Garden. The doors to her dressing room open and close on their own on occasion. People who take tours claim to feel cold spots and to hear footsteps.
When Diane was interviewing Joe Colossa, he shared that he had been friends with the prior caretaker, Ron, who was not shy about talking about the ghosts. Joe shares what he had heard about paranormal activity at the mansion. (Joe Ca' d'Zan)
There are many reasons for The Ringling to have haunts. There is so much energy here from not only the circus, but parts of the Ringling family. Mable and John loved this home. Did they decide to return to it in the Afterlife? Are The Ringling and these other locations haunted? That is for you to decide!
Ringling, The Florida Years 1911-1936 by David C. Weeks; University Press of Florida, 1993