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Circus workers park turning old Ringling Bros. train car into community center

SEFFNER — They don't swing from trapezes anymore. They sit on lawn chairs and joke about going to the doctor.

Instead of taming lions, they take out the dog.

Their big top is now a shady, three-acre lot just off the highway.

But despite their surroundings, the folks living in the Showpeople's Winter Quarters — a group of 10 trailers that are home to retired circus performers — will never forget their show days.

And now they're getting a reminder in the form of a 90-ton train car still painted with the logo of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

REMEMBERING THE CIRCUS: Shutdown brings back 146 years of memories

All day Wednesday and Thursday, movers were towing, guiding, and setting up the 85-foot, 6-inch aluminum car on tracks at the retirement park. Feld Entertainment, the Palmetto-based owner of the circus, donated the car.

Soon, it will become a community center for the residents, complete with a small library, televisions, a kitchen and space for people to play cards.

One of them is Thelma Kemp Frias, 84, who lives in a 25-foot-trailer. A native of a coastal town in England, she auditioned for an Irish circus as a teenager before taking the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth to the United States to join the Mills Brothers circus in 1952.

She had many roles in the circus — the ladder, the Iron Jaw, acts with seals, elephants, horses.

"You name it, I did it," she said.

"If I wasn't 84 years old, I'd go back on it in a heartbeat."

Frias spent Wednesday and Thursday with fellow residents, sitting in plastic chairs, watching the moving crew place the car. She's glad to have it here at last, as is Peggy Williams of the retirement park's board of trustees.

"We're so excited to have it here, finally," Williams said.

"You had the eclipse, but it's going to happen in another six years," said Carol Zabotinsky, also on the board. "This is once-in-a-lifetime. It's never going to happen again."

Williams said the car will give everyone room to spend time together indoors, especially in heat or bad weather.

"When it rains, they've got to umbrella over to the next trailer."

On hand for the setup was Father Jerry Hogan from Sarasota who serves circus workers across the country as chaplain. Hogan said having the car on site will be good both for the residents as well as circus history .

"This train car was on the show for 45 years and traveled 400,000 miles, and that will not be moved from this place again."

Zabotinsky agreed.

"That car was in the circus," she said. "It's part of circus history."

The circus, with its exotic animals and death-defying acrobats, had been a staple of entertainment in the United States since the mid-1800s before it shut down in May, victim of changing tastes and animal rights campaigns.

Feld Entertainment is selling a number of train cars and agreed to donate one to the retirement park.

"With the closing of the circus, it was important to our family that the donated Ringling Bros. train cars served a special purpose in local communities and functioned as a place to gather and make memories," Kenneth Feld, the company's chairman and chief executive officer, said in a news release.

Known as RBX No. 57, the gray aluminum car was built in 1953 and bought by the circus in 1972.

Tom Dillon, 63, worked 10 years as a trainmaster for the circus then as manager of rail operations for 20 more. He's slept in the car and came from Sarasota to see it.

"It's comfortable," Dillon said — an important quality for a space meant to house a trainmaster's family in one half and several guests in the other.

Showpeople's Winter Quarters, advertised as a community where circus people can come off the road, relies primarily on donations and charges only nominal rent, Father Hogan said.

The trustees hope a GoFundMe campaign will cover the cost of modifications.

Right now it's a tin box. But when it's done, they imagine an entrance platform wide enough for wheelchairs and decorated with plants.

Almost like a real train station.

Contact Langston Taylor at ltaylor@tampabay.com. Follow @langstonitaylor.

Circus workers park turning old Ringling Bros. train car into community center 08/25/17 [Last modified: Friday, August 25, 2017 7:18am]
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