Academy Award-winning 1952 movie launches a classic film series at Sarasota Opera House

Editor’s Note: The Sarasota Opera launches a special series screening film classics at 7;30 p.m. Friday with the 1952 Academy Award-winning Cecil B. DeMille film “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Performers from the Circus Arts Conservatory will be on hand before the film to entertain audiences and create some of the aura of the film’s 1952 Florida premiere at the Opera House.

The “Greatest Show On Earth” refers, of course, to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which wintered in Sarasota from 1927 until 1960 when it moved to Venice. But it also refers to an Academy Award-winning movie, much of it filmed in Sarasota, which was known throughout the world as The Circus City.

The film with the proverbial cast of thousands was a Paramount production, directed by the great Cecil B. DeMille, and, if you lived in Sarasota during the six weeks or so that the production company was here, you may remember it as if it were yesterday.

Sarasota immediately fell into the throes of Hollywood mania. And the buzz crossed all age groups, affecting men, women and children who were drawn to follow the local goings-on of the silver screen’s top stars.

And what a cast. Paramount Pictures, whose motto was “Famous Players in Famous Plays,” brought a half a dozen of their top stars to town in 1951, and the excitement they engendered during their stay was palpable.

Heading the troupe was lead actor Charlton Heston, whose role was based on John Ringling North, President of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Darkly handsome Cornel Wilde played the trapeze ace the Great Sebastian, while the beautiful, frenetic, multi-talented Betty Hutton, “Hollywood’s Blond Bombshell” whom Bob Hope dubbed “A Vitamin with Legs,” played Holly. Sultry film noir star Gloria Grahame, who won an Academy Award for “The Bad and The Beautiful,” played Angel; Dorothy Lamour, known as “The Beautiful One” and the “Sarong Girl” and who starred in many “Road” movies with Hope and Crosby, was cast as Phyllis. Lyle Bettger, the great character actor who usually played the “steely eyed villain” in many productions was Klaus; and Jimmy Stewart, who filmed his role in Hollywood and did not come to Sarasota, played a mysterious and sad Weary Willie type clown named Buttons, who never removes his make-up.

During their stay in Sarasota the Sarasota Herald’s long-time social writer Helen Griffith, who wrote the “Main Street Reporter” column, had a field day keeping starry-eyed locals up to date with all of the goings-on.

Articles in the paper tell the story: “BLOND BOMBSHELL LANDS IN SARASOTA,” “BOMBSHELL (AND SHORTS) CHARMS THE CIRCUS LOT,” “DOTTY GETS OFF TRAIN AND CAPTURES SARASOTA.”

Griffith described Hutton as, “Looking even more pulchritudinous in person than in pictures. And Cornel Wilde, w-e-l-l he is handsome and personality plus! Looks like quite a season.” And on it went.

The production meant a lot to Sarasota. Besides the worldwide publicity, local businesses earned some of the $22,000 a day the movie cost to make, and the townspeople were treated to six weeks of glitz, glamour, and even an old time circus parade through downtown.

Many locals were cast as extras in the big-top scene (it took 3,000 who were paid 75 cents an hour and a box lunch to fill up one end of the tent) with plenty of youngsters rushing to the Social Security office to get their first cards.

The countywide population in 1950 was less than 30,000 people, with just under 19,000 in the city. So “sightings” were frequent at such places as The Plaza Spanish Restaurant, The M’ToTo Room Lounge in the John Ringling Hotel, the Orange Blossom Hotel, at the city pier, and in the mom and pop retail establishments along Main Street.

For their part, the cast and crew were equally taken with Sarasota, marveling at the weather, the beauty of the town, and the friendliness of the locals. When he left, DeMille referred to the “unexcelled cooperation of the city, the circus and all the people whose cordial relations made our work here a pleasant task and now a happy memory.”

The film went on to score two Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Story, and was nominated for Best Costume Design, Best Director, and Best Film Editing. The Golden Globe gave it to nod for Best Cinematography, Best Director, and Best Dramatic Motion Picture.

It also did well at the box office. Reported to have cost $4,000,000, the production drew in $36,000,000.

For its Florida Premiere, the Florida Theatre, today’s Sarasota Opera House, was decked out as a circus tent, the perfect setting to give wide-eyed locals another opportunity to cheer at some of Hollywood’s brightest stars.

 

Jeff LaHurd is a Sarasota resident, historian and author.