The Greatest Show on Earth

Reader Riverside Dog Walker, now a full-time Sarasota Florida resident, sent in this Great Story and I’m delighted to pass it along to you all.

RDW words and photo:

On Aug 18, we went to a screening of The Greatest Show on Earth at the Sarasota Opera House. The opera house, originally a movie theater, is screening a number of old movies (in HD) as part of fund raising for their youth programs. This movie, named best picture in 1952, was mostly filmed in Sarasota. It had its world premiere at this same theater on Jan 31, 1952. I’ve attached a photo of the opera house taken today, and a newspaper article with a picture taken at its world premiere, along with some description of the goings on.
Sarasota Opera House

Sarasota Opera House opened in 1926.  In his opening remarks, the director of the opera house said he considered showing the silent movie that was the first movie shown there, but he was afraid no one would come.  He thought this movie a better choice.  He also introduced three people in their 90’s who appeared in the original movie.  A high spirited fellow who used a walker to come on stage was the stunt man who did the trapeze work for Cornel Wilde’s character, and also a stunt woman who was in the scene where an elephant has his paw just over the face of actress Gloria Grahame’s character.  I don’t recall what the third lady did.

Next up, he introduced the founders of the Circus Arts Conservatory, which is what is left of the circus in these parts. They were just back from a performance of their group in Washington, DC.

Dolly Jacobs recalled growing up in Sarasota in the 1960’s when one of the mom’s would drop a load of kids at this movie theater.  She encouraged us to watch for the scene in the movie where her father, Lou Jacobs, is the clown who gets out of a tiny car.  She also had some of her young current circus performers in attendance, who put on a brief show outside before the movie, but we missed this.  The lady sitting next to me in the theater showed me her pictures.

While probably not the best movie we have ever seen, it was quite entertaining.  Everyone’s favorite scene was near the end where the circus paraded down Sarasota’s Main Street, and being able to see how that street looked in 1951.  Of course, all those businesses are long gone.


Dolly Jacobs was born into circus life and wouldn’t have it any other way. Her father was Lou Jacobs, the legendary clown for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for over 40 years. Dolly’s mother, a model in New York, quickly transformed her career to become a circus artist as well. As a girl, Dolly trained with the Sailor Circus in Sarasota learning a variety of the circus arts. In 1976 at age 16, Dolly launched her career with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as an aerialist. For eight years, she toured the world, establishing her own well-deserved reputation as a daring and creative circus aerialist, thrilling audiences with the “Roman Rings” and earning her the title “Queen of the Air”. From 1984 -1988 (except 1986) Dolly was the star aerialist with The Big Apple Circus, further underscoring her exceptional talent and creativity throughout the world. Dolly was one of a handful of circus artists invited to participate – twice – in the International Circus Festival of Monaco – each time winning the Dame du Cirque (Lady of the Circus) award along with being awarded the coveted Silver Clown in 1988. In January 1997, Dolly was inducted into the Circus Ring of Fame at St. Armand’s Circle and in January 1998 the Ringling Circus Museum Hall of Fame, both in Sarasota, Florida. In 2015 Dolly became the first circus artist in history to be awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the highest arts award in the US, recorded in the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

A PS from RDW:  Somewhat related, when the Ringling circus decided to no longer use elephants, they all went to a preserve in central Florida. Now that Ringling is out of business, the word is that the elephants are quietly being placed in zoos in the US.

My voice now: Being a graduate of the Big Apple Clown College, I know first-hand how difficult it is to be a clown. We had to decide for ourselves during the course if we wanted a sad face or a happy face, a white face or not. Lou Jacobs is a legend to clowns and circus performers and I can’t help but think that with Ringling now gone, the art of being a clown, or aerialist for that matter, is gone with this generation.

As for the circus elephants, I ache for elephants who are placed in a zoo. I suspect there’s not much alternative. There’s no “wild” to place them back into, and the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee can’t take EVERY circus elephant. They are such social animals, they thrive on others around them. I think they are among the most incredible creatures on the planet – so smart, so gentle (until they need to kill)..and the best protectors of baby elephants too.


Happy Sunday. Woke to temps in the 50s, chilly but a good chill as autumn is my favorite time of year. No air conditioning. No heat. Just wide open windows. Aaaah.


4 thoughts on “The Greatest Show on Earth

  1. Thanks for the story RDW. Years ago my husband tried to convince me we should buy a house in Sarasota and I balked. I didn’t know a soul there but having seen your stories from Sarasota posted here and the vibrant arts community you describe now, I can see I made a mistake. Have you come back to Greenwich since you moved? We’re still hanging in, more or less.

    1. My dad tried to convince my mother to buy a house in Florida as far back as the mid 1960s. My mom always refused. Looks like your husband and my dad knew something…alas, we women-folk balked. Oh well.

    2. My wife went back to Greenwich about a month ago to see her friends. I didn’t make that trip, but we are coming up this week to go to the US Open. We love the Open and go every year, but this year we will stay in a Manhattan hotel and don’t have plans to go to Greenwich. We hope the clear, cool weather stays there (a welcome break from Florida summer) and all the rain stays here! 7 inches of rain has fallen over the last two days and it is supposed to rain thru Monday night.

      These days, there are a range of housing options in Sarasota. While we opted for a house, we have friends from Greenwich who have a condo here, and it is simple for them to just lock the front door and go back to Greenwich for the summer, or wherever.

      1. Looks like your trip north for the Open is going to be glorious weather continued. I can’t think of a better stretch of weather we’ve had. Have a fun time in the city and watching the tennis. Andy Murray is already out.

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