Awards and honors are nothing new for Sarasota native Dolly Jacobs. She's been inducted into the Circus Ring of Fame and the Gallery of Acrobatic Legends. She received a Florida Folk Heritage Award three years ago from the Florida Department of State.
In 1988, in Monaco, she received the Silver Clown Award, one of the most prestigious awards in the circus world.
"How was the prince?," someone asked her soon after she received that award. "What prince?," she replied. Until then, she hadn't realized that the man who presented the award to her was Prince Albert, the son of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier.
But the award she received most recently was something special.
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Earlier this month, the National Endowment for the Arts named Jacobs a National Heritage Fellow. The NEA has been giving the award to a handful of people, usually about a dozen or so, each year since 1982. Jacobs -- a world-famous circus aerialist and a co-founder (with her husband Pedro Reis) of Circus Sarasota -- is the first circus artist to ever receive the award.
The award, according to the NEA recognizes "the recipients' artistic excellence and support their continuing contributions to our nation's traditional arts heritage." Other winners have included blues legends B.B. King and John Lee Hooker.
Jacobs had no idea she was up for the award. A phone call came from the NEA. Jacobs' husband answered. The person from the NEA refused to tell him what the call was about. Ja
cobs got the news from another NEA official later in the day.
There's a cash award, and, of course, a lot of personal prestige. But for Jacobs, what's important is that the NEA National Heritage Fellowship program has recognized the circus arts.
"The incredible part of it is not just for me," said Jacobs. "It's about our visibility. It's about my father and all the others before me who worked so hard just to make a living and never got this kind of recognition. It's on their behalf that I accept this award. It's to honor them."
Dolly Jacobs' father was Lou Jacobs, one of most iconic clowns in American circus history. He was one of the first six clowns to be inducted into the Clown Hall of Fame in 1989.
Lou Jacobs had worked in vaudeville, and was friends with such show business legends as Jimmy Durante and Red Skelton.
"We would get Christmas cards from them," Dolly Jacobs said. "I didn't think much of it at the time. It's only later, when you look back, that you realize how amazing it was that we got Christmas cards from Red Skelton and Jimmy Durante."
As Jacobs speaks, she is sitting on the stage of the Historic Asolo Theater. She is still resplendent in a red-and-gold sequined and feathered costume she had worn moments before as she sailed and twirled high above the stage in Circus Sarasota's Summer Circus Spectacular.
She smiles broadly as she recalls her years growing up in the circus. She attended schools in Sarasota until she was a teenager, and studied at Sailor Circus. She then joined her father and her older sister, Lou Ann, on the road. Her teacher was a clown who had a degree in education.
"I learned so much because it was all one-on-one," she said.
The air up there
While she was working on her education, she was also perfecting her aerial act. She had inherited the act from a Sarasota neighbor, the wife of one of the first-generation Flying Wallendas.
She had to teach herself some parts of her act, because there was no one else who was doing them anymore. She became known for a move in which she launched herself from rings, suspended 30-something feet in the air, did a full mid-air somersault and caught a rope a distance away.
She was working with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus when she met trapeze artist Reis. They fell in love and he proposed before long. Two days later, he was injured in a fall while performing with the Big Apple Circus, and their wedding was postponed for more than a decade.
These days, besides performing in the Summer Circus Spectacular -- a European-style circus on a proscenium stage with a succession of acts -- and Circus Sarasota's annual big top show in February, Jacob devotes herself to working with the 120 aspiring circus artist at Sailor Circus, and to being an ambassador for the circus in general.
"In this country, when people think of the circus, they think of Ringling Brothers, and rightfully so," she said. "In Europe it's considered more of an art form. What I want people to know is that there are all kinds of circuses. They're like restaurants."
Details: Summer Circus Spectacular, June 16-Aug. 1, Historic Asolo Theater, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota. Show times: 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 and 5 p.m. Saturday. Tickets: $15 adults, $12 children age 12 and younger. Information: 941-360-7399, ringling.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.