Big Top Rock

Florida will soon be getting a new music venue, this time under a circus tent.

Sarasota’s PAL Sailor Circus Arena, longtime training ground for students of the Big Top, will host its first rock concert February 12th, and arena officials hope it’s the start of more events like it.

Jim Shirley, director of development, said booking Foreigner is part of a plan to rent out the 2,300-capacity, Big Top-themed facility about 60 or 70 times a year once some much-needed renovations have been completed.

“We’re experimenting right now, but we do know we have an arena that will hold up well to a concert of the right size,” Shirley told Pollstar. “Our goal is to definitely move in this direction.”

The Sailor Circus was founded in 1949 as part of the city’s youth gymnastics program. Since then, the program gained an affiliation with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s and has continued to teach students ages 8-18 the art of circus performing as part of its after-school programs.

The Police Athletic League took over running the facility in 2004 when the county school board decided to end its relationship with the facility and its programs.

A fund-raising campaign is under way to raise $6 million to upgrade the facility, which also features a four-ring circus, with $1 million already in hand. Improvements will include replacing the roof and seating, air conditioning, restrooms, dressing rooms, an upstairs gym and a second building to house a circus museum, according to the Bradenton Herald.

Shirley said the success of country star Tracy Lawrence‘s performance last year led to plans to bring in similar entertainment.

“The acoustics in the arena are very, very good because it has a treated canvas top with a sub-ceiling on the inside that’s parachute cloth, so it dampens a lot of the reverb and echo,” he explained.

“In a concert-type set-up like with Foreigner or Tracy Lawrence, we can put the stage at one end of the arena and put additional chairs on the floor, which gives us the ability to seat about 2,300 people. We’ve got a nice-sized, intimate venue.”

Fantasma Productions’ John Valentino, who’s co-promoting the Foreigner show with local promoter Barbara Strauss, said the arena is a good addition to the market, which also includes the 1,736-capacity Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and the 3,500-capacity Robarts Arena at the Sarasota Fairgrounds.

“We are trying to develop the market and the venue. We do shows at Van Wezel, which is a gorgeous performing arts center,” Valentino told Pollstar. “There are some options in that area, but we really feel like this could be another good place to do shows.”

In the meantime, Shirley said the Foreigner concert will help gauge what future acts could be a good fit for the venue.

“We’re not going to turn into a constant concert venue, but what we want to do is use the arena 15 or 20 days a year for the right concert,” he said. “We’d hope to do somewhere around 15 to 30 concerts a year, depending on how things shake out.”

– Tina Amendola