Regarding the closing of The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus this past May, “the end of an era” would not be an improper turn of phrase. Founded in 1919, two traveling shows combined and rose to become a marvel of entertainment and wonder, sparking curiosity and lifelong memories at every stop for nearly 100 years. Now that it’s gone, it also wouldn’t be improper to think that maybe a place like Sarasota-Bradenton would feel the loss most keenly.  “The Feld Family is grateful for all the support of our fans here in Sarasota and for the millions of fans around the country that made Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey the American institution that it became for well over a century,” says former Ringling Bros. Producer Nicole Feld. “Ringling Bros. always prided itself in providing affordable family entertainment to the masses. It allowed moms, dads, children and grandparents to come together to watch incredibly skilled performers do the impossible, live before their very eyes. The Greatest Show On Earth was a truly special and magical place, where families created once-in-a-lifetime memories.”

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And in the town where circus posters serve as family albums, Dolly Jacobs stands as a living legacy to an artform. A legend who routinely dangled 10 feet under a helicopter while performing death-defying stunts, the Sarasota-bred superstar in 2015 earned the National Heritage Fellowship award from the National Endowment for the Arts and this summer took Circus Sarasota acts to Washington, D.C. for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. We spoke to The Circus Arts Conservatory co-founder about her memories in and around the ring.   

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The life lessons of Lou Jacobs My father was my role model, even though he was a clown. I would stand on the sidelines and watch. He was larger than life. I saw how he could reach the people at the very top of the arena just with his gestures. That helped mold me as a performer. But he was also a strict German father; he was born Johann Ludwig Jacob. Even though he was on the road, we were a close-knit family and I cherished every word that came out of his mouth. I wish he could be here today to see how much we accomplished. He always said it’s what you are born with. He was born with a funny bone, and natural comics become clowns or comedians. I knew it was a matter of time before I was flying through the air. He had the funny bone. I had the feather. My father was famous but didn’t have the fortune, and he taught me to save my money. My mother, Jean Rockwell Jacobs, brought us up with simple means. Growing up, I learned a lot about saving, not buying something unless you have the money for it. Today, kids spend money they don’t have. My father, he was scared to death of the taxman, and taught me to respect the money you make.

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A generational art form  Margie Geiger, my godmother, trained me to do my aerial act. She was married to one of the original Wallendas, Joseph Geiger, and she had a Roman Ring act she passed down to me, which turned out to be one of the greatest gifts of my life. Her passing knowledge to me about her art is basically what it’s all about. When I received the Folk Heritage award, that’s all about passing the torch. Even though it’s physical, the circus arts is an art form, like painting or sculpture. You create it, and you give your art form to the next generation. What was given to me and created into an act took me around the world. I accepted the award with great pride, but also on behalf of those who came before me. That’s the thing with the art form. Years ago, it was passed to family and close friends, and it was very protected. Even when I was training in my backyard with Margie, when someone would come over we would stop practice. We were creating a piece of art, and you never know. Some people may want to see what you are doing and try and do it first. 

Home-sewn artifacts   When I started performing my Roman Ring act, I had a cape that was professionally done, but the bikinis I wore I would make myself. I had every color of the rainbow. But when you are wearing a bikini and a pair of tights to perform, it has to stay on really tight, and when you’re dangling 30 feet in the air, you don’t want to have to worry about it. It has to be made only for you. 

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Legends meet in Monte Carlo  The first time I performed there, in 1977, was just my second year in the act. I was green but my father was with me. I performed in front of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, who were still alive at the 1977 show. John Ringling North was on the jury, and at this dinner, my father reached over the table to shake hands and John Ringling North stood up and shook hands. For me, it was like time stood still. Here were these two men who went back so far and appreciated each other. As a young sapling just starting out in this business and witnessing such a thing, I get choked up because it was just such a powerful moment.

Mastering a signature trick   I knew I wanted to be a solo artist, one of the women I admired as a little girl, so I wanted a finish trick. I wasn’t satisfied until I got there. Margie and her husband mentioned that 40 years prior, someone had performed a full flyaway somersault, releasing the ring and catching a rope. Nobody wanted to help me practice; they said I’d kill myself. Four people had ever done it—one was paralyzed, another was killed and the others did it with a net. Even though I’d never seen it, I was willing to try it. Then a bear trainer, Willie Naughten, told me ‘You can do it, Dolly. Go for it.’  It was like I had waited for those few words. This was the only trick I ever learned with a safety mechanic. The hardest part was taking that belt off the first time. But I was able to conquer it, and I lived many years off of being able to do that trick. I got to be one of the solo stars in the Ringling Bros. circus. Of course, one of the reasons you do it is for the applause, but you also so it for yourself. Every time I performed. I had beautiful music that I loved. I was literally dancing to that music in the air. Every show, I was challenging myself to do better. That self-pride you get from accomplishing something nobody else is doing is something money can’t buy. It’s not an instant overnight success. It takes a lot of work and lot of practice. It takes passion to be the best. I still don’t consider myself the best. I appreciate that there are
always people better than me. 

Continuing a legacy   Here in Sarasota, we have a treasure trove of incredible artists who are world-renowned but have their homestead here. I have always said we have to tap into these greats who are still alive, because when they are gone, they take that knowledge with them. That’s what we try to do with the Sailor Circus. I was in it myself when I was younger. It’s a great after-school program. Most who come to us don’t go into the circus, though a select few do, the ones who get hooked. I was the little girl on the sidelines watching the aerialists in the show. SRQ