Pedro Reis was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and at the age of 12 began developing his circus skills at the local YMCA. He became a master on the flying trapeze and soon found himself making his American debut in 1984 with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Dolly Jacobs grew up in Sarasota in a circus family and followed in her father’s footsteps, clown Lou Jacobs, and began her career as an aerialist in 1976 with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The two high-flying acts soon fell in love love, and after years of traveling all over the world performing solo and together, decided they wished to return to Sarasota.
Reis and Jacobs founded Circus Sarasota in 1997 in hopes of honoring Sarasota’s circus past and representing the present and future of the circus industry. However, when Reis and Jacobs took on their dream of running their own circus, they started with little. When they first put up the big top in 1998, Reis and Jacobs put it up along with two other people.
“We did it all on our own,” said Reis, “It was four of us putting up this huge Big Top. When we were done it was the same four of us having to take it down as well.”
“Yeah, and two of the four were girls,” chimed in Jacobs.
Although they may not have started off with a large crew, they have grown with a staff of 10 full-time employees and up to 60 contracted employees throughout the year. The organization also has 12 members serving on its board of directors.
One aspect of Circus Sarasota that is close to Reis’ and Jacobs’ hearts is the impact they have made for the last decade with their community outreach programs, Laughter Unlimited and Big Top Education. Laughter Unlimited, which began at the Pines of Sarasota, serves more than 15 different facilities and uses “humor therapy” to brighten up the lives of those who are in hospital or nursing home facilities within Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties. The Big Top Education program helps to bring academics to life for children in kindergarten through eighth grade in the local public schools. The program also is able to donate approximately 3,000 tickets each year to low-income families who may otherwise be unable to experience the thrill of what goes on under the Big Top.
One of Jacobs’ favorite memories involving their community outreach programs from this year involved United Cerebral Palsy.
“We brought in a group from there and they had been rehearsing their own show, and after they saw our show we brought them down into the ring to do their skit,” said Jacobs. “One girl, Katie, who was 21 and in a motorized wheelchair, had this dream to fly … we made straps, and I made her a white cap and put feathers in her hair, and even before we got her up in the air she was smiling so big. We were able to have her fly under the Big Top. That is very rewarding.”
This past season’s Big Top show, “The Edge,” was a success and like every year was completely different from the previous season’s show. The two pride themselves on being able to produce a unique, never-before-seen show each season under their Big Top. This year’s biggest act was ring master Joseph Dominick Bauer Jr. and his whirling Wheel of Destiny.
The couple will soon be back on stage as part of the “Grandma and Friends” show that starts June 22 at the historic Asolo Repertory Theatre.
When it comes to the future goals that Reis and Jacobs have for Circus Sarasota, there are many things they hope to be able to accomplish.
“We have lots of goals,” said Reis. “As a small non-for-profit business, we would like to grow our programs and eventually buy our own building so that we have a permanent place.”
Reis and Jacobs have proved that with persistency and passion, anything is possible.
“There’s something magical about having a circus under a tent,” Reis said. “From start to finish, it is a good experience.”
AT A GLANCE
Address: 8251 15th St. E., Unit B, Sarasota
Start date: Incorporated the organization in 1997 with the tent going up in 1998
Number of employees when started: Four
Number of employees now: 10 full-time; throughout the year up to 60 contracted employees; 12 on the board of directors
Advice: “Persistency prevails,” said Dolly Jacobs, founder and associate director of Circus Sarasota. “Product has to be of high quality, and you have to believe in your dream. Live it, eat it, sleep it … it really boils down to being passionate about your business.”
Biggest challenge: “Generally speaking as a non-for-profit organization is funding,” said Pedro Reis, founder and CEO. “As a non-for-profit, our mission is to give back to the community, and we have outreach programs. Generating the funds to support these programs.”
“Getting the word out of who we are that we are part of the arts and that the circus is part of the arts,” said Jacobs.
Best place for a power lunch: Bijou Café
First day on the job: “There wasn’t a real first official day,” Reis said. “I guess the day we put up the tent, all by ourselves was a really big day.”
Another job for the day: Charter-boat fisherman – Reis; A lifeguard – Jacobs
Business hero/inspiration: “Fran Zeisler, creator of Circus Tehani, who came to America with something like $20 in his pocket with his family and created his dream and that is very inspiring and someone to admire in our line of work,” Reis said.
What have you had to do differently in this economy? “Reworking our PR and marketing,” Reis said. “Hiring Jennifer Mitchell was one thing we did that was a big help. We didn’t really have our own PR and marketing — we were going around with stickers and putting flyers on cars. Having a team to get the word out has been very helpful.”
“Circuses have constantly thrived in depressions… it is a release for people,” Jacobs said.
What is one advantage of having your business in Sarasota? “We get to do what we love where there is so much history with the Ringling Brothers,” Reis said. “The Ringlings represent the past, and we get to represent the present and the future of the circus.”
Contact Rachel S. O'Hara at [email protected].