Lessons from the Circus - Part IV: Volunteers are Important

There is a place in Sarasota where you can go to see an old-time circus. However, it is a circus with a difference. It is called the Sailor Circus and is located on the grounds of the old Sarasota High School.


It is that time of the year again: I get to run away and join the circus. My running buddies and I from the Windjammers Unlimited, Inc. circus music preservation association gather in Sarasota, FL, every January to relive the glory of circus music from the golden age of circuses in America. So it was this past week. It was great.

As best I can gather from my Windjammer associates, these golden years ran from the 1860's until the early 1960's. This would seem right, as I can recall that there was a traveling circus which visited my hometown, Freehold, NJ, on a fairly regular basis during my youth in the 1950's. Mom and dad would take my brother and I to the circus which would generally be set up across the street from the Freehold Raceway on State Highway 33 in their parking lot.

There were elephants, lions, tigers, trapeze acts, and some really great circus band music. Then the circus stopped coming to town one year. I guess it was because of the really neat fight which broke out after the show one night between a number of the local toughs and the circus's gang of roustabouts. I do not remember much, as my dad hustled us out of there before the blood began to flow.

Circuses are quite a bit different today. I guess the best way to describe the difference to you is to state that the last modern circus I attended seemed more like a Broadway show with elephants than a real circus. The music was a combination of recorded music and synthesizer music. It really was not what a circus tuba player like me would consider to be a real circus.

Like many aspects of our society, there have been great changes in what constitutes a circus. They are, after all, businesses, and how long would they remain in business if they did not consider the preferences of today's audiences? I guess it would be somewhat akin to a modern fire department operating horse-drawn steamer apparatus. We no longer use them, however you and I can still find places to go where we can see older apparatus and equipment, and perhaps dream a bit.

So it is too with the world of circuses. There is a place in Sarasota where you can go to see an old-time circus. However, it is a circus with a difference. It is called the Sailor Circus and is located on the grounds of the old Sarasota High School. In an earlier era, it was a vocational school program which served as a training ground and feeder service for the Ringling Brothers, Barnum, and Bailey Circus system, as well as a number of smaller shows.

Over time, the need for the program began to diminish. After a number of liability issues arose, the school system shut down the program. However, there was a strong support network for the Sailor Circus. These supporters approached the local Police Athletic League (PAL) chapter and asked for their help. After a period of time, it was decided that the circus was worth saving and a series of fund-raising efforts were mounted to keep it going. The efforts have been successful and the circus just celebrated its 61st anniversary.

On Sunday. Jan. 24, 2010, our Windjammer's Center Ring Band and our Circus Band played at a special Sunday afternoon performance. We were also privileged to play opposite the all-volunteer Sailor Circus Band. This fine musical group is a combination of musicians from the Sarasota High School Band and volunteer adult musicians from the community. They were truly outstanding.

During the initial welcome to the show, the Ring Master made it abundantly clear just what sort of an organization the Sailor Circus is. She stressed that it is an all-volunteer organization dedicated to the young adults of the Greater Sarasota area. She noted that the circus performers ranged in age from fourth grade through high school. It was also emphasized that all proceeds from the operation of the circus were plowed back into the PAL organizational fund and that none of it went to salaries.

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