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Circus Arts Conservatory brings Sarasota locals center stage

Two circus acts will return to their hometown to perform in Circus Sarasota.

Besides being a ringmaster, Sarasota's Joseph Bauer performs death defying stunts on the Wheel of Death.
Besides being a ringmaster, Sarasota's Joseph Bauer performs death defying stunts on the Wheel of Death.
Courtesy Photo
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Sarasota’s Joseph Bauer Jr. has always admired ringmasters. 

It was their ability to capture the audience’s attention with just their voices. 

He wondered if he fit the bill. 

In 1991 in Saskatchewan, Canada, Bauer Jr. he got a chance to find out when the ringmaster wasn’t going to arrive on time for the tour in which his family was performing. 

Bauer Jr. had always announced the ringmaster, so Bauer Jr.’s father, Joseph Bauer Sr., asked him to step in.

“I said, ‘Dad, there’s no way, I don’t know all these people’s announcements and introductions,’” Bauer Jr. says. “He said, ‘Hey, are you going to let the circus down?’”

Bauer Jr. went around to the different acts to get information on them to prepare his introductions. 

He went out there and did his best. 

“I still don’t know how I pulled that off,” he says. “I just thought, ‘Do it.’ And I did, and I loved it ever since. As soon as I got on the mic the first time I knew it was something I was going to keep doing.”

Now, 32 years later, Bauer Jr. will take center ring once again under the Big Top as the ringmaster for Circus Sarasota.

Sarasota's Joseph Bauer has spent his career in the circus arts being a ringmaster and performing on the sway poles and Wheel of Death.
Courtesy photo

For Sarasota natives Bauer and Sylvia Zerbini, returning to the Big Top at Nathan Benderson Park means having another opportunity to perform in their hometown. 

“It’s a blessing,” Bauer says. “It’s something special that not many people can do, and believe me, it has its challenges. I feel gifted and thankful that I can still be in this industry and be here in Sarasota. What history is in this town. This is Circus City USA.”

Zerbini says performing in her hometown is a great pleasure. 

“Every time you go back, you just feel the warmth of the audience,” she says. “Sarasota is a great city that appreciates the circus arts. It’s an honor to be a part of a production that does so much with the Sailor Circus Academy teaching newer generations the understanding of the discipline.”

Bauer says being under the Big Top in front of a sold out crowd during Circus Sarasota is electric. 

“The opening night is just always wow,” he says. “It gets you no matter how many times you step foot in the ring. That night in that tent when it’s jam packed and they’re waiting to see what they brought us this year, it’s great.”

Family affair

The circus arts are a family legacy for Bauer and Zerbini.

Bauer’s family has been in the circus arts for more than 250 years, spanning 15 generations. His parents, Elizabeth Bauer and Joseph Bauer Sr., each came from circus families in Switzerland.

Zerbini’s family has been performing for nine generations. 

Bauer learned everything he knows about aerial stunts from his father and grandfather.

“They taught me the basics I needed to get up in the air, and once I was up there, then the sky was the limit for me,” Bauer says. 

Performing at Madison Square Garden as a family, Bauer remembers Lonnie Shrine, a reporter from the New York Times, interviewing the family of four daredevils. He says Shrine was in awe of seeing his family flying around and risking their lives. 

“He said, ‘I guess you guys stay together, and the family that sways together, stays together,’” Bauer says. “That made the headlines of the greatest show on earth, and that was the truth. We all weren’t scared. We all learned from them. We carried on, and we were swaying and staying together as long as we could.” 

Zerbini grew up watching her father, Tarzan Zerbini, work with wild animals like elephants, lions and tigers, while her mother, Jackie Zerbini, was a trapeze artist. 

Their backyard was literally a circus, but to Zerbini, that was normal. She would wake up every morning to do chores and care for the animals before going to school. She traveled eight to nine months out of the year, and the rest of the year she was back at school in Sarasota.

“Growing up on a flying trapeze and having animals around was normal — we didn’t know anything different,” Zerbini says. “It was quite an amazing way to grow up, learning how each animal had their own language and learning how to respect different animals. It was nothing out of the ordinary for us.”

At 5 years old, Zerbini quickly took an interest in horses and also loved aerial work. 

Sylvia Zerbini's Liberty Horses performance is like an "equine ballet."
Courtesy photo

“Horses are super sensitive,” Zerbini says. “You can look at a horse and he can literally tell you what he wants. It’s the emotion and a connection that a horse has with a human being that’s like no other. There were all these subtle cues that as a child I picked up on, and I use a lot of that body language and energy connection with the horses.”

It wasn’t until Zerbini was performing with the Ringling Bros. in 1998 when Kennedy Feld proposed she combine her trapeze act with her horse act. She went on to descend from the air to meet her Liberty horses on the ground. 

Bauer remembers his first time performing on stage. 

He was in Osaka, Japan at Toshimaya Park where his parents and sister were performing. At only 7 years old, Bauer was used to watching from the sidelines in awe of what his family could do.

The director of the park questioned why Bauer Jr. wasn’t performing. Bauer Sr. said he was too young; the park director insisted Bauer Jr. be in the show. 

When it came to the end of the Fearless Bauer’s performance, Bauer Sr. called his son onto the stage. Bauer Jr. ended up doing a handstand on his father’s forearm. 

“I was a little nervous, but seeing my mom and dad and my sister on the stage, I felt kind of protected,” Bauer says. “It was a very quick thing, and then I took my little bow on one knee.”

Bauer Jr. went on to have a small part in the show whether it was doing handstands or juggling. It was until he was 15 that he followed in his parents’ footsteps and started practicing to perform on the sway poles that were more than 100 feet in the air. 

Bauer continues to perform on the Wheel of Death, most recently in Fort Wayne, Indiana at the Shrine Circus. At 57 years old, Bauer says he has to remind himself of the dangers of performing on the big wheel because it’s become second nature to him.

“You need to still respect it,” he says. “My biggest concern is always things around me while I’m on that wheel because it is 50 feet to the top. My job is to thrill audiences as much as I can on it and be careful at the same time. It’s good to be that comfortable, but it can also be a little risky because you take it for granted that it’ll be fine. That’s usually when you get hurt.”

As much as he loves performing on the big wheel, Bauer is contemplating retiring his daredevil act, possibly at Circus Sarasota in 2024. 

“If that could happen, I think it would be a very, very special and rewarding place to end,” Bauer says. 

Zerbini doesn’t travel to perform anymore because there aren’t many circuses that allow horses. When she’s not performing, she’s doing independent work at different facilities such as the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida. 

She can’t wait to show people the beauty of her 11 Liberty horses in an “equine ballet.” 

“It’s great to have an audience sit back, relax and disappear into your world,” Zerbini says. “I have amazing music, and I choreographed a routine the horses dance to. There’s a ring full of horses so there is no room for mistakes. If you’re sitting in the ringside seats, you will feel the wind and smell the horses just blowing by your face.”



Liz Ramos

Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.

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