Sarasota’s “Big Five” Art Organizations

For many who come to Saraso­ta for a weekend, week or season­long stay, the white sands and turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico may be the primary draws.

But Sarasota also treasures its reputation as Florida’s cultural capital, with theater, visual art, opera, ballet and classical music available for top-caliber enter­tainment after a day at the beach or on the water.

Sarasota’s “big five” arts orga­nizations – the John and Mable Ringling Mu­seum of Art, Sara­sota Opera, Sara­sota Ballet, Sara­sota Orchestra and Asolo Rep­ertory Theatre – each work in their own way, and sometimes collective­ly, to let tourists know there’s more to do here than pick up shells.

John and Mabel Ringling



HE WAS A BOATER HAT-WEARING SHOWMAN WHO GRACED THE COVER OF TIME MAGAZINE FOR HIS TRAV­ELING CIRCUS MONOPOLY.  She was a style icon, a connois­seur of exotic furnishings and a lover of visual art. Together, John and Mable Ringling were the darlings of the Edwardian Age and the royal couple of the Roaring ’20s.

Many society people saw them as disreputable circus folk with little taste in what constituted good living.  John and Mable Ringling labored to distance themselves from their humble pasts, to uphold their presents with dignity and to become two of the most noted trendsetters of the 2oth century. “They certainly led the good life, with all the accoutrements of luxury. But John was born poor and he wanted to show that he was more than just a circus guy,” says Jeff LaHurd, a Sarasota Florida author and historian. “Someone in his line of work may not have been as highly regard­ed as another captain of industry. He had to set himself apart.”


As a boy in McGregor, Iowa, John Nicholas Ringling was the fifth son of seven children born to German immigrants. In 1907, alongside his entrepreneurial brothers, John created the “Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows,” which burgeoned to the most successful circus in its class. John’s investments in railroads, oil, steel and land, coupled with his circus fortune, earned him Time’s title as “one of the wealthiest men in America” in 1925. He was worth$2oo million at the time. Manhattan was one of John’s primary stomping grounds, and he occupied an apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York City. By serving on the board at Madison Square Gardens and cavorting with J.P. Morgan, John Jacob Astor and President Calvin Coolidge, John became abreast of the must-haves of the era. “He hobnobbed with people of very refined tastes, and his closest friends were politicians and entertainers,” says Ron McCarty, keeper of the Ca d’Zan at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. “He was always moving in wealthy circles.”

A CIRCUS KING AND HIS QUEEN Mable Burton, a soft-spoken, fashionable woman from meager beginnings, became John’s bride in t9o5. “She was said to have been a kind, elegant woman, but very strong, with a great deal of taste,” says Maureen Thomas-Zaremba, associate curator of education for the Ringling Museum. “She was active in the com­munity and gave lots of parties for women’s groups.”  With her husband, Mable traveled Europe avidly by railcar, scoping out sideshow acts for the circus empire. When they visited Sarasota-at the advice of John’s brother, Charles-the couple became entranced by the shoreline. They moved to the area in 1912. In 1925, they built the Venetian-Gothic mansion on the bay, the Ca d’Zan (or “House of John”) for $1.5 million. Designed by architect Dwight Baum, the exterior was sheathed with mosaics, stained-glass windows, glazed tiles and cast stone, and rose bushes were planted in the gardens.

The Ringlings owned a $50,000 organ that could be played manually or electronically and kept boxes of cov­eted cigars and the finest whiskeys, even during Prohibition. They adorned their home with Tiffany ster­ling silver, genoise velvet fabrics and Jules Allard furni­ture. The Calvinator, an electric refrigerator, was one of their newfangled devices in a decade when most people were still using iceboxes. They installed an in-ground mar­ble pool -half-saltwater, half-chlorine-for the benefit of their health. What intrigues me most about their style is that they carved out their own particular niche;” Thomas Zaremba says. “Mable had a definite style of her own. She was very confident in her taste and left that imprint on her home. It was luxurious without being overwhelming:”

The Ringlings’ summer home was a too-acre estate in New Jersey on the Hudson River, in a neighborhood known as “millionaire’s row.” The Ca d’Zan became a winter retreat. While in Sarasota, John developed Bird Key and St. Armands Circle and owned a hotel and stretches of real estate.

The Ringlings took a vested interest in art, and as rookies, enlisted Munich art dealer Julius Bohler to oversee their purchases. John appreciated the 17th century Baroque period, even though it was not in vogue at the time, and Bohler selected pieces for his client to buy at discounted prices. “The collection is known for being one of the five best collections of Baroque art outside of Rome;’ McCarty says. “It had a lot to do with Ringling’s taste as a collector. He was a showman, and the drama and spectacle in Baroque art appealed to him.”

Gilded Age architectural artifacts from Astor’s Fifth Avenue mansion (post ­Titanic sinking) added to John’s collection of work by Peter Paul Rubens, Titian. Velazquez and EI Greco. In 1928, he acquired 2,800 Creek, Cypriot, Roman and Egyptian antiquities, and later, stocked up on American, Dutch, German, Italian and Flemish paintings.

Inspired by Morgan. Isabella Stewart Gardner and Henry Clay Frick, John dreamt of con­structinghis own museum to house his wares. In 1927, he commissioned New York archi­tect John Phillips to design a building resembling an Italian palace, and the museum opened its doors four years later. It became the largest art museum south of New York’s Metropolitan museum of Art in 1931, and that same year, Ringling School of Art and Design was established.

Mable died in 1929 at age 54, and the Great Depression ground John’s art collecting to a halt. Creditors attempted to overtake his circus, so John bequeathed his wealth to the state. When he died in 1936, John left his museum, mansion, possessions and $1.2 mil­lion in cash to the citizens of Florida. “The Ringlings have left a tremendous legacy for us.”  Zaremba says. “What we have is very unique and incredibly luxurious.”

Siesta Key Beach

Siesta Key Beach in Sarasota, Florida.  Chances are it’s the first place you take out-of-town guests who are looking for a day in the sun and it’s often one of the top locales national beach gurus think of  when they check off the best beaches in the country-sometimes the world. Siesta Key Public Beach is a symbol of our area and its mascot is the sugary soft sand that makes up its long, wide expanse. “It’s the finest, lightest-sand you’ll find,” says Troy Syprett, 16-year co-owner of Siesta Key’s Daiquiri Deck and for­mer Siesta Key lifeguard. “The fine sand is great for building sand castles.” In addition, the sand is 99 percent pure quartz and its lighter-than-usual color makes it more than bearable to tread sans sandals during the hottest times of the year.

The Travel Channel rated the Siesta Key beach “Best Sand Beach in America” from 2002 to 2004. Dr. Beach named it third best in the country on his 2008 list-and it made his 2007 list well. So what is it about Siesta Key that bears the gift of such great sand? For starters, a low energy coastline line Florida’s west coast is more conducive to keeping the fine grains in place. Head to the east side of the state and you’ll notice all that’s left are the coarser granules due to the Atlantic’s battering waves. Curtis Smith, project scientist for Sarasota County’s capital management services, explains that Siesta’s sand secret lies in Point of Rocks, a jet of rocks south of the beach that reaches about 200 feet into the Gulf. As the current moves in its general north to south direction, the wall holds the finer, lighter grains in place, rather than letting them carry their journey further down the coast. With all this work­ing in its favor, its no wonder the Siesta Key beach has never needed renourishment and is actually expanding.

Lido Key’s Mangrove Tunnels

Lido Key’s mangrove tunnels haven’t always been the serene Sarasota icons they are today. In the 1940s they were nothing more than troughs dug out to attract pesky mosqui­toes and keep them away from local residents. But the ditches weren’t quite doing their job, so the County decided to take the plot of South Lido Park in a different direction. Workers made three of the larger trenches navigable, and what we have today is hardly reminiscent of the tunnels’ early roots. “What’s really cool is you don’t have to travel far to visit a world-class kayak and canoe route. It’s right in the shadow of downtown,” says George Tatge, manager of beaches and nat­ural areas for Sarasota County Parks and Recreation. The tun­nels buzz with biodiversity, Tatgeex plains, in large part because of close proximity to the Gulf, which lends a high salin­ity to the water. Sponges, shellfish and crustaceans make a home among the clear, shallow paths. It’s also a great locale for bird watching-wading birds rest on exposed mangrove bases just a few feet away from passing paddlers. In Florida’s warmest months, the tunnels are a cool retreat-the shaded trails are generally 10 to 15 degrees cooler than their sunny surroundings, and a Gulf breeze is often in no short supply.

All that’s left of the tunnels’ early days are several large mounds of dirt-the fill from those original ditches. But the County is on that, too. It has already applied for a $1.2 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that it hopes to use to remove the old mounds, along with the non-native plants perched on top. It should all lead to further biodiversity and growth of the majestic tunnels that lie in the shadow of our city.

Asolo Theater, America’s European Theater in Sarasota

German antiquarian, Adolph Loewi, had the foresight to purchase the Asolo Theater at that time for storage in his private collection.  A. Everett Austin, Jr., who served as the first director of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, saw the theater in Loewi’s collection and it was love at first sight.  Austin purchased the theater and it was brought to Sarasota in the late 1940s.

Today, the Asolo is the only 18th century theater on American soil. During a recent renova­tion, completed in 2006, the theater moved to a new location on the museum grounds and under­went an extensive cataloguing, cleaning and conservation of the pieces, which were in desper­ate need of repair. “The theater is historic. You step into it and look to the past. But when it came to Sarasota, it brought possibility and promise and represented a future,” says Dwight Currie, associate director for museum programs at the Ringling Museum.  The Historic Asolo Theater was the birthplace for a lot of the theater and music that we enjoy today in Sarasota. It’s not just a dead museum piece. It’s very much alive and forward looking.” What was once a playhouse fit for royalty is now a theater worthy of iconic status in Sarasota’s rich arts community.