The Cole Bros. Circus has arrived on Long Island eager to entertain Long Islanders as the circus caravan travels throughout the area this month.
An enduring summertime tradition, the circus’ iconic Big Top is a familiar sight throughout our communities each year. It visits Eisenhower Park over the weekend, Friday through Sunday, July 11-13, then continues on to other locations, ending up in Oceanside, Monday through Wednesday, July 28-31, at Firemen’s Memorial Field.
The Cole Bros. Circus, which celebrates its 130th anniversary this year, is a throwback to an old-fashioned slice of Americana: the last of the large traveling tent circuses.
As the oldest continuing circus of its kind, according to Cole Bros. lore, it continues to showcase all those traditional circus acts – clowns, acrobats, aerialists, and animals — under its colorful “Big Top” tent. The innovative crimson and gold Big Top measures 136 feet wide by 231 feet long.
W. W. Cole, who inaugurated the Cole Bros. Circus title in 1884, began his circus career in 1871, amassing fortune and fame by bringing to cities and villages the most astounding marvels of the day. Among the amazing attractions promoted by W. W. Cole, incandescent light — a single, glowing glass globe, powered by a steam engine — drew record crowds, with young and old alike filling Cole’s tent to witness the seemingly impossible invention. The brightly lit tent of Cole Bros. Circus of the Stars bears slight resemblance to W.W. Cole’s 19th century Big Top, but the tradition of watching what appears unbelievable happen right before your eyes remains at Cole Bros. Circus.
The feats performed by the Cole Bros. troupe begin with the tent raising on opening day. Commencing before daybreak, the circus erects its massive Big Top, assembles some 2,000 seats, rigging and lights, and completes construction of its mobile city of entertainment before noon, under the watchful eye of longtime Ringmaster and Performance Director Chris Connors.
“As the ringmaster I’m the guy with the big mouth,” Connors says, with a laugh. “As the performance director, which is the hardest part of my job, I’ve got make sure the performers are ready to go, the animals are fed and happy, and the lights and sound and everything else is all in place.”
Connors, who has been at the helm of Cole Bros. Circus for 13 years, attires himself in traditional ringmaster garb: the top hat, tails, riding pants, and boots. “This year, for our 130th anniversary I’m going old school,” he says. “I’m wearing white pants, just like the ringmasters wore in the old days. I feel more like a ringmaster when I’m wearing that outfit.”
This year’s spectacle honors 130 years of circus history with a special show reprising legendary circus acts of the past along with featuring the talents of cirque nouveau artists. In the Angels in the Air performance, daring young men and women on the flying trapeze soar high above audiences. Circus daredevils cast caution aside in ThunderDrome, with the zany Cole Bros. Clown Crew arriving in the nick of time to provide comic relief. Elephants and acrobats, tigers and teeterboard artists take their turns in the spotlight, and, of course, The Human Cannonball gets fired at every show.
“We open with the show with a roar and end with a bang,” says Connors.
With parents who were circus fans and visited every circus that came within 300 miles of their upstate New York home, Connors enjoyed summer vacations on the Cole Bros. Circus “lot.” The circus fascinated him from an early age and he was thrilled when he was asked to step into the ringmaster role, upon the retirement of Jimmy Jones, who served as ringmaster for 34 years and mentored Connors. “It was a great honor to replace him,” says Connors, who shares his enthusiasm with his circus family and the audience every day.
“It is great family entertainment at a great value. We really try to be affordable for families,” he says. “The kids really get into the circus. Where else could they see elephants and tigers, daredevils, clowns, acrobats, and aerial ballerinas on the same day, and live right in front of them? We give them something special, something they will remember for years to come. Knowing that I feel I have the best job in the world.”
While staying true to its roots, the Cole Bros. Circus has, of course, evolved over the years. “We do everything in one big ring,” Connors explains. “This enables performers to work in different parts of the tent and the audience has a great view of everything. The show will keep you on the edge of your seat! Everywhere you look, there’s something going on.”
The many captivating acts include Vicenta Pages’ fascinating assemblage of white tigers; Argentina’s Fassio Family and their cavalcade of captivating canines — elegant Afghans, loveable St. Bernards, and a mighty Chihuahu; the artistry of aerial ballerinas Nan, Lana, Angelica, Petya, and Gergana: the art of equilibrium with German Fassio and Lana & Nik; along with daredevil turns in the ThunderDrome, the moto-globe of death; and The Human Cannonball, who bursts from the barrel of The World’s Largest Cannon at 5g velocity. They are joined by the members of Clown Alley, who try to steal the show one smile at a time.
Vicenta Pages and her six tigers are making their second appearance in the show. Pages, one of the few female tiger trainers in the circus world, is carrying on a family tradition: her grandfather performed in the Cole Bros. circus. “The tigers are individual creatures with their own personalities,” she says. “Everything I have them do is to show what they can do in their natural habitat.”
Hundreds of circuses have come and gone since the mid-1800s, when founder William Washington Cole introduced his circus to small towns throughout the U.S. Circuses large and small, carried by horse-drawn wagons or on dozens of railroad cars, three-ring circuses and dog-and-pony shows alike crisscrossed North America bringing entertainment to the public. Cole Bros. Circus has survived all this time still appearing much as it did over all those years ago under the Big Top. Since 1884, generations of Americans have been caught up in the sights, smells, sounds and feats of skill that typify the Cole Bros. Circus – including the new generation of young performers, such as 28-year-old Dale Thomsen, Cole Bros.’ newest Human Cannonball. “He brings a special charm and charisma to the show,” says Connors. Thomsen also displays his many talents on the trapeze with the Ponce Family’s flying trapeze act.
“We have lots of surprises in this show,” says Connors. “We have some incredible acts and look forward to surprising
This tight-knit ensemble of circus folk enthusiastically work and live together and are eager to share their love of the circus with the communities they visit. Despite “artistic temperaments” and an occasional flare-up of “sibling” rivalry, the cast members of the Cole Bros. Circus are “just like family,” according to Connors, “living in a small, very special
“We’re there for each other in times of trouble,” Connors says, “as well as when it’s time to get together and have fun.” Performers gather under the Big Top for birthday parties, to attend baby showers, and even celebrate weddings.
“The Big Top is definitely the heart of our mobile community,” explains Connors, “and our circus family puts it on loan every day, giving performances so that people along the circus route can bring their families to visit our home and experience the magic of the circus.”
Cole Bros. Circus of the Stars
Eisenhower Park: July 11-13, times vary. $16, reserved seat upgrade $4, VIP seat upgrade, $7. Free tickets for children available at www.gotothecircus.com.