R.I.P. Cole Brothers

Something sad seems to have happened on the quiet; even as we were busy mourning the demise of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus last year, an organization of comparable age and eminence also winked out and for pretty much the same reason. I’d seen the Cole Brothers show a couple of times and it was my favorite — much more “American” than the Big Apple Circus, and yet lacking the aggressive, craven commercialism of RBBB. It was also clearly down-at-the-heels when I saw it, which was undoubtedly WHY I loved it. This 2016 article seems to refer to their last booking, which was cancelled, making their final performances likely in 2015. The scuttlebutt in the article, admittedly hearsay, is that, as with Ringling, public distaste for the exhibition of trained animals was the final nail in the coffin. And here is some reporting on the sale of their winter quarters a few weeks later. They seem to have taken their website down. Unlike the much more famous Ringling organization, they died quietly in the night while no one was looking. No official announcement seems ever to have been made.

The roots of the Cole Brothers show went back to the early 19th century. It all began with a contortionist named William H. Cole and his wife, the tightrope walker and equestrienne Mary Ann Cooke. (Cooke’s circus lineage went back still farther; her family started in the circus business in Scotland in the 1780s with an organization that became Cooke’s Royal Circus.) Their son, William Washington (“Chilly Billy”) Cole (1847-1915), founded W.W. Cole’s New Colossal Shows in 1884. Cole is said to have been the first man to make a million dollars in the circus business.

In 1906, the brand was purchased by a Canadian entrepreneur and altered to “Cole Brothers Circus”. In the late 20s it was bought by an impresario name Floyd King who kept it going for a few years, touring the far west. In the 1930s it expanded immensely. It was bought by Zack Terrell (who’d managed the Sells-Floto Circus) and Jess Adkins (who’d managed Hagenbeck-Wallace and the John Robinson show), and they bought up assets of lots of smaller shows (animals, equipment, etc), creating a show comparable in scale to RBBB. It now took 35 train cars to move. In 1935, their biggest star, animal trainer Clyde Beatty added his name to the brand, and for decades it was the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus. Big names who performed with the show during its heyday included clowns Emmett Kelly and Otto Griebling, the Zacchini Family (human cannonballs), the Wallendas, and an early-career Burt Lancaster (he started out in show business as a trapeze artist). In 1982 it became the property of John W. Pugh, who took it into the modern age.

But today of course we are in the POST-modern age, terra incognita for the circus, which may now well be as dead as vaudeville as an art form. We refer you back to last year’s post on the topic, to which we now append this update. When we mourned the end of RBBB we were sad about an organization we traced back to the 1830s. In the case of Cole Brothers, dating from the Cooke shows, the 1780s. Animal lovers, you can feel free to dance on its grave. My feelings are somewhat more mixed.