There’s a new circus tent in town, and it’s looking for a name.
Circus Arts Conservatory co-founders Pedro Reis and Dolly Jacobs decided to acquire the $500,000 tent in honor of Circus Sarasota’s recent 25th anniversary and the 75th anniversary of the youth Sailor Circus.
Former circus performers and husband-and-wife team Reis and Jacobs founded the Sarasota-based nonprofit CAC in 1997 to promote circus arts through education, enrichment and entertainment. Circus Sarasota put on its first show the following year.
The CAC’s new tent arrived from Mexico a couple weeks ago, in time to make its public debut at Circus Sarasota 2024’s run Feb. 16 through March 10 at Nathan Benderson Park.
The CAC’s old tent, the Ulla Searing Big Top, is still around and is available for rentals. It was used for “Brave New Wonderland,” the holiday-themed circus staged by Nik Wallenda and the CAC that premiered on Nov. 18 east of the Mall at University Town Center. “Wonderland” was scheduled to close Dec. 31 but was held over until Jan. 7 due to popular demand.
“The Ulla Searing Big Top is still in very good condition, despite being around 20 years old. But it’s time for something new, different and exciting,” says Reis.
The new tent, which was manufactured by Carpas El Caroussel in Mexico, can accommodate the same number of seats — up to 1,645 — as its predecessor, but it’s safer and more waterproof, Reis says.
“The cupola is much bigger,” he says. “That’s the main difference. With a larger cupola, there’s better space for rigging and lighting. The emergency exits have much more room so everyone is safer.”
Reis has put up hundreds of tents during his circus career, which began in his native South Africa in his teens, but this time was particularly challenging.
The timeline was “uncomfortably tight” for several reasons, including a design change made while the tent was already in production and the Martin Luther King holiday, which delayed the tent’s arrival in the U.S. But crews managed to get the tent up in time for the Circus Arts Gala on Feb. 2.
The No. 1 circus tent manufacturer in the world is Canobbia, which is based in Italy, but Reis says the CAC decided to go with a Mexican manufacturer so the tent could be transported overland. The big top’s components were delivered to Sarasota by flatbed trucks, which were accompanied by a security detail to make sure they made it out of Mexico safely.
Acquiring a shiny new tent is just the latest step in the ongoing efforts of the CAC to elevate the image of the circus. Unless you’re new to town, you probably know that John Ringling made Sarasota the winter home of his circus in 1927. The circus magnate’s legacy helped create The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and Ringling College of Art and Design, but the circus as an entertainment form fell victim to changing consumer tastes and concerns about animal exploitation.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil and New York City’s Big Apple Circus all ended up in bankruptcy, although they were rescued and revived. But the circus arts evolved and endure, thanks to Sarasota residents like Reis, Jacobs and Wallenda as well as many other performers, patrons and benefactors, both here and around the world.
Reis says the biggest marketing challenge faced by Circus Sarasota is “having circus in our name” because of the unpleasant associations some people have from the days of defecating elephants and scary clowns. Along with his wife, Reis has championed a one-ring, European-style circus that exudes glamour and excitement.
Reis believes he and his circus compatriots are making headway. “Circus is becoming cool,” he says. As evidence of the growing attraction of circus arts, Reis points to the expansion of CAC’s summer season at the Historic Asolo Theater in The Ringling Museum.
“When we started 15 years ago, we were two weeks. Now, we’re up to nine weeks with 97% occupancy,” Reis notes. Some of that success is due to Sarasota’s population growth and the demand for entertainment outside of “season,” but the CAC deserves the lion’s share of the credit.
In talking about Circus Sarasota 2024, Reis wants to let it be known that there is no overlap between the acts featured in the wildly successful “Brave New Wonderland” and the show opening later this month. In fact, Reis says it is rare for the CAC to bring the same performers to Sarasota more often than every five years.
“We work very hard to make sure that no two productions are ever alike,” says Reis. “Our goal is to recruit the perfect balance of talent and variety to ensure patrons of all ages will be thrilled, inspired and entertained each and every year.”
Making his debut with Circus Sarasota this year is Caleb Carinci, a horseback rider who made his performing debut at age 6 as an acrobat with the Pennsylvania Renaissance Festival. Along with his horses, Carinci has toured through Europe, Canada and Peru and was featured in the Big Apple Circus.
Of course, Reis is a fan of all the acts in this year’s Circus Sarasota lineup, but he named two that he’s sure will be crowd pleasers: Quick Change Duo Elena and Victor Minasov, who use illusion to change outfits in the blink of an eye, and the Flying Tabares, a mostly female trapeze troupe who nabbed a Silver Medal at the prestigious International Circus Festival of Italy.
The Minasovs are an example of a circus arts team who has changed with the times. Before the married couple introduced their quick-change act, they had a bear and wolf training act. Given prevailing attitudes, that would definitely not fly today in the U.S.
One familiar face to audiences at Circus Sarasota 2024 may be its ringmaster, Joseph Bauer Jr. A Sarasota native, Bauer is a 15th-generation member of one of Switzerland’s oldest circus families. A multitalented performer, Bauer got his start in circus arts early, performing such death-defying feats as riding a motorcycle on an incline wire and skywalking on a high-wire. But you may have seen him shopping at Publix.
Reis didn’t disclose the financials of naming rights to Circus Sarasota’s new tent, other than to say the CAC is looking for a benefactor. If you’ve ever wanted to have your name attached to a big top, step right up.
Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.