John was born in Iowa, the fifth son in a family of seven sons and a daughter born to German immigrants, Marie Salomé Juliar and August Ringling (a farmer and harness maker). The original family name was "Ruengeling". Five of those sons worked together to build a circus empire.
The Ringlings started their first show in 1870 as "The Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals", charging a penny for admission. In 1882, it was known as "The Ringling Bros. Classic and Comic Concert Company". By 1889, the circus was large enough to travel on railroad cars, rather than animal-drawn wagons.
In 1905, John married Mable Burton. In 1907, the brothers bought the Barnum & Bailey circus for $400,000 and ran the two circuses as separate entities until the end of the 1918 season. John worked the circus with his brothers, declaring "We divided the work; but stood together." John took the advance position, traveling ahead and booking the appearances and Charles was the operating manager.
After purchasing Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth from the estate of James Bailey in 1907 the Ringling brothers were recognized as the "Circus Kings" in the United States.
The ranks of the brothers began thinning as Otto died unexpectedly in 1911. Four years later, the oldest sibling, Al also died, followed by brother Henry in 1918. At the same time that family management was evolving, the Ringlings were challenged by keeping two mammoth circuses touring during World War I. Manpower shortages, combined with railroad restrictions and the 1918 flu pandemic all contributed in the decision to merge the Ringling Bros and the Barnum & Bailey at the end of the 1918 season. On October 8, 1918 the Ringling Bros. circus trains were routed to the Barnum & Bailey Winter Quarters where the two circuses were combined into one enormous show. On March 29, 1919 the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus debuted at at Madison Square Garden.
After the death of Alf in 1919, brothers John and Charles made the decision to move the Winter Quarters to Sarasota, Florida in 1927 where the brothers were having success in real estate speculation. Although a resident of Sarasota, Charles died in 1926 before the move was complete. With the death of brother Charles, John was now the last of the Ringling brothers. Although other family members had inherited stock in the company, as President he continued to manage the circus in the years prior to The Great Depression.
In 1909 John and his wife, Mable began spending winters in Sarasota. The couple bought bay front property from Mary Louise and Charles N. Thompson, another circus manager who engaged several members of the Ringling family in land investments on the Florida Gulf Coast. Ringling commissioned a 30-room mansion which was inspired by the Venetian Gothic palaces, designed by New York architect Dwight James Baum, and built by Owen Burns (The same architect and building of the building to your right of this painting.) It was completed in 1926 and named Ca'd'Zan, "The House of John" in the Venetian dialect of Italian.
Later a museum was built on the grounds of John's estate for his art collection. Because of their investments in real estate and the later development of the circus winter quarters as a tourist attraction, John and his brother, Charles are seen as pioneers in the development of Sarasota. After some 40 years in the entertainment business, along with his ownership of railroads, oil field and ranches John had become one of the richest men in the world. In addition he was a world traveler as he was always looking for new acts for his circus. It was during these travels to Europe that he began establishing a collection of old world masterpieces and a collection of Baroque art including four pieces by Peter Paul Rubens, known as cartoons.
In 1929, John Ringling bought the American Circus Corp., which consisted of six circus' such as Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show for $1.7 million (approximately $25,622,000 today). With that acquisition, Ringling owned all of the major traveling circuses in America.
Ringling's health soon began to fail and the Great Depression (which gripped the nation almost as soon as he acquired the American Circus Corporation) dealt a severe financial blow to the John Ringling empire. He lost virtually his entire fortune, but was able to retain his home, the museum and his extensive art collection. His wife, Mable, died in June 1929 and he remarried on June 19, 1930 to Emily Haag Buck. John and Emily Haag Buck divorced on July 6, 1936.
Ringling was voted out of control of the business in 1932 and Sam Gumpertz was named vice president and general manager of the circus. After his death, the circus was operated by his nephew, John Ringling North, who sold the circus to Judge Roy Hofheiz of Houston and Washington DC promoters Irvin Feld and Israel Feld in 1967.
He was the last Ringling brother to die, as well as the longest-lived of the Ringling brothers. He was the only brother to reach his 70s. Once one of the world's wealthiest men, he died with only $311 in the bank. At his death, he willed his Sarasota mansion, the museum, and his entire art collection to the state of Florida. The house, Cà d'Zan, and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art offer visitors a glimpse into the lifestyle of the Roaring 20s and a renowned art collection. A museum devoted to the Ringling Brothers Circus has been established on the estate also.
In 1991, John and Mable Ringling and his sister, Ida Ringling North, were exhumed from their original resting places and reburied at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, just in front and to the right of the Ca d'Zan. It is called the secret garden and John is buried between the two women.
Jeff Pilkinton is an American full time artist from Fort Wayne IN. Jeff specializes in Murals and Chalk Art traveling the country doing chalk and street paint festivals. Although not limited to just murals and street painting Jeff loves all forms of art and creates in acrylic and oil portraiture, plein air painting and live sketching. Jeff was a pavement artists at the Sarasota-Venice Chalk Festival in 2019.
"I was honored to be a part of this event. I met so many great people in Sarasota that welcomed me and made me feel at home. I always loved the circus and that's why I wanted to do the portraits of the Ringlings. I also did the VW van because It had such a great coastal Florida vibe."
Jeff Pilkinton painted:
John Ringling North
Siesta Keys VW Van
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