The circus — especially in Sarasota — is defined by legacies.
Between the rich history of the circus in the area and the local circus families who have raised their children to follow in their steps, history is never far away from the Big Top.
The Sailor Circus Academy paid tribute to that history with its Spring Show from April 22-24.
The show has a theme each year that plays to the academy’s performative strengths — last year featured a movie theme that had students dressing like secret agents and more — and this year paid tribute to the classic circus acts as “The Greatest Little Show On Earth.”
The program showcased a mix of classic acts including trapeze feats, clown shows and aerial silks performed by around 50 Sailor Circus Academy students. Some students spent the performance putting on different costumes and hats for different acts as generalists while others performed solo.
The annual show, which culminates the season for the school’s many young performers, also says goodbye to the senior students each year. It’s a more poignant show for many, as its their last.
“The spring show is always heartfelt,” 16-year-old silks and lyra performer Emma Clarke said. “It’s when our seniors leave and go on their own paths. I was backstage and saw people already crying and hugging the seniors.”
This year had a special solo act that recognized Lou Jacobs, the iconic circus clown who spent 60 years with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Beyond being the face of the Ringling organization for decades, he was also the father of Dolly Jacobs, renowned circus aerialist and eventual founder of the Circus Arts Conservatory in Sarasota.
“He was an inspiration to so many of the coaches teaching clowning and obviously is a huge part of Dolly’s legacy and Sarasota itself,” Mitchell said.
There was Lou the image, and then there was Lou the father. Dolly Jacobs remembers waiting anxiously for her dad’s return home from performing. At times she’d help him build the props he’d use for his act.
“He was larger than life but he was still our Papa,” Jacobs said. “The love people have for him is almost as much as the love I have for him.”
The tribute act was performed by Sailor Circus senior Sarah Catalano, a clown performer who has been in the field since the sixth grade.
She started off just wanting to act goofy but as time has gone on, she says she’s found value in sharing joy giving audiences a feeling of curiosity and wonder in the moment.
But paying tribute to one of the greatest clowns in the industry 30 years after his passing was another matter entirely. In the act, Catalano sits and watches footage of Jacobs performing his act before picking up the torch and doing a clown act of her own.
When Catalano — who has been coached by professional clown Karen Bell who herself was coached by Lou Jacobs — was approached to perform the piece, she understandably felt a mix of honor and pressure to do the figure justice.
“It was a challenge and I knew it had to be air tight,” Catalano said. “I love being a clown because you access a wholehearted enjoyment of the world. Stepping into a different range of emotions (for the act) was something I’d always really wanted to do.”
When Dolly Jacobs watched Catalano’s rehearsals of the piece and felt it was in safe hands, she allowed Catalano to use her father’s prop trunk in the act.
“It’s almost like your baby, you don’t want to let it go because you don’t want it damaged,” Jacobs said. “But (the act) brought tears to my eyes every show. Having it in the show made this year very special to me.”
Jacobs wasn’t alone in crying during the show. By the last show’s last performance on April 24, many of the graduating seniors were fighting — and some failing — to hold back tears as they realized their time together was done.
“We give all of our energy to what we do,” Catalano said. “We’re all so close. I know no matter what I do in the future, these people will be with me for the rest of my life.”