Philanthropist and Master Model Builder Howard Tibbals has given the world a behind-the-scenes look at the Ringling Bros. Circus at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota
The light overhead is dim as the train sputters and churns its way to a stop into Anytown, USA. A brigade of 50-plus railway cars announce their arrival with several bursts of compressed steam as the crew of carnies start the early morning process of unloading each train section, one by one.
The first cart unloaded is the flying squadron, which carries all of the equipment and crew that hold the circus together. Next come the canvas and poles used to hold up the tents and the big top. The concession wagons, wardrobes and props follow. Lastly, and most importantly, come the very people who made the Ringling Brothers traveling circus so special: the many men, women and animals of the show.
By the time you hit the end of the train station, the lights inside Howard Tibbals’ miniature circus—which mimic a sunrise and sunset—have brightened, unveiling the remainder of the 3,800 SQ FT room housing the 42,000-plus pieces that comprise Mr. Tibbals’ model. The collection, located at the Ringling Museum of Art, was started more than five decades ago by the wealthy businessman from Tennessee, who made his fortune in his hometown as the head of the family’s flooring company.
As a young boy, Tibbals remembers visiting the circus in West Virginia and Ohio and starting building his own tiny circus with his toy trucks and scraps of cloth for tents. But it wasn’t until he read “Here Comes the Circus” by Clifford Hicks in the May 1952 Popular Mechanics magazine that he got the idea to replicate the beloved Ringling Bros. Circus.
The article listed the specs of the big top and the behind-the-scenes engineering involved with each circus performance. Tibbals, fascinated by the amount of effort that went into these daily shows, started to recreate the six-pole big top tent where all acts were performed. That was 1956 and Tibbals was just a student at North Carolina State University. More than 55 years later, he’s still perfecting what has been deemed the world’s largest miniature circus, even though he’s running out of space—and materials.
“I’m about to run out of life, too,” he jokes.
Before the age of television, cable, internet and smart phones, towns all across the country anticipated the arrival of the circus. Five brothers in Iowa started the most famous of those brands, the Ringling Bros. Circus, in 1884. The circus grew incredibly in just a 10-year span. Nearly 100 rail cars brought the world-class show to a new city nearly every night.
In 1907, the Ringling Bros. bought the Barnum & Bailey show, making it arguably the biggest—and best—circus show in the country. But ringmaster John Ringling didn’t stop there. He bought the American Circus Corporation in 1929 and made sure the Ringling name would forever be synonymous with all things circus.
Inside Tibbals’ mini circus, you get a feel for what it was like during the heyday of the Ringling Bros. empire—on a 1/16th scale of course. From the train station where all of the equipment, performers and crew are unloaded, to the main entrance, sideshows, dressing and rest tents, ring stock tent, cookhouse/dining area, the figurines highlight the many facets that went into producing the “Greatest Show on Earth.” For Tibbals, the exhibit is about showing people the massive effort it took in making this feat possible.
“My interest has always been more than the circus itself,” he admits.
The circus in miniature is dubbed the Howard Bros. Circus, which is often confusing to guests expecting to see the Ringling name. Tibbals requested to use the Ringling brand but was denied by the agency that now owns the rights to the circus. Instead, he settled on his own name.
Each piece has been installed by Tibbals and some have even been handmade by him personally. He has dedicated years of his life to constructing the pieces. Each baggage wagon took 60-70 hours to make. The more elaborate parade wagons looks up to 700 hours to build. The big top alone took 18 years—from 1956 to 1974.
Needless to say, after starting the project, Tibbals realized that he wouldn’t be able to make each piece individually on his own. So he did the next best thing: he shopped the chore out to a good friend, Chuck Caldwell of Gettysburg, PA, who handmade a bulk of the several thousand figurines.
More than 42,000 pieces make up the exhibit, but the number doesn’t truly explain the power and effort that is represented in Tibbals’ work. It’s the type of exhibit that reveals something new every time you exhibit. That’s how it was intended, Tibbals says. Here’s one little known fact that he recently revealed during an interview: there’s a man and woman with six kids that is a replica of his own household.
It’s these small details that make the exhibit so fascinating. It’s the kind of delight that stems from our inner child, when the most important things in the world were holidays, afternoons with our toys and imagination and that one time of the year when the Ringling Bros. would wow us with startling and exciting acrobatics and performances. Where words like goliath, colossal, calliope and big top were all regular nouns in a world created—and then removed—in a day’s span.
Tibbals admits that it’s an environment that has never seemed to escape him. Over the years, dozens of people have asked him why he didn’t just run off and join the circus as a child. His response: “making grandkids means building a home, not running around.” As old-fashioned and curt as he might sound, Tibbals exudes a certain boyish charm that only seems to show up when he’s talking about his grandchildren and his miniature circus. Since he installed his exhibit at the Ringling, Tibbals has donated $10.5 million total to the museum in efforts to keep the history alive.
In addition to his models, he recently gave the foundation $7 million to develop the Howard Tibbals Learning Center, a new interactive exhibit that educates families on the history of the traveling circus. These days he spends most of his time in Tennessee with his loved ones, leaving his models to the hands of hired help at the museum. Starting in January, he’ll be Florida to escape the cold and tinker with his models.
He spent the majority of his life carrying on his family’s legacy in the flooring industry but if you ask Mr. Tibbals what he’s most proud of these days, he says the museum. But don’t expect him to give you a sappy story to back it.
“Right now, my mind is on [the exhibit], so that’s what I’d say,” Tibbals confesses.
Howard Bros. Circus: By the Numbers