Cole Bros. Circus


There’s been much hoopla of late about the fact that the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus has a tented show out at Coney Island this summer. I plan to attend of course but – a word to the wise – if you need to get a sawdust fix this week, I’d recommend you point yourself east and head out to the Shinnecock Pow-Wow Grounds in Southampton (tonight and tomorrow) or Greenport Polo Grounds (Thursday and Friday) to see my favorite circus, that of the Cole Brothers. I saw this outfit for the first time two or years ago during their Coney Island encampment and for the first time, Yes! The FIRST time enjoyed myself at the circus without qualification.

The Ringling show was even too obnoxious and impersonal for me as a child, its corporate overkill spoiling any vestigial magic it may have possessed in its heyday. It ranks with New Year’s Eve as one of those joyless and depressing phenomena that people seem to put themselves through regularly in the hope that “this time it’ll be different.” As I said, I will be going this summer, but I’ll probably bring along ear plugs, sunglasses and a bottle of tranquilizers.

On the other hand, the “artsy” circuses (Big Apple and Cirque du Soleil) generally make me queasy on principle. I don’t want sophistication or cleverness or “ideas” in a circus, any more than I want soufflé at a hot dog stand. Elitist airs in a purportedly populist enterprise offend my prejudices. My dander is usually up around the time I spy the word “ecole” in the program.

At Cole Bros., I finally found what I’d been seeking all my life in a circus: simplicity, sincerity, Americana — maybe even a dash of patriotism. The actual acts in this show aren’t the finest in the world and the overall outfit seems a little down at the heels, but these are more than compensated for by the show’s straightforwardness and taste. Ultimately I’m after an aesthetic experience. If the costumes and music and atmosphere are not abhorrent to me (as they tend to be at the other shows) I am happy to take two aerial somersaults instead of four. The Cole Bros. show speaks to me in a way that the others don’t. It’s the one that seems the most like the circus that Toby Tyler ran away to.

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