Cole Bros. Circus returns to South Jersey

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Action sequence photography tracks human cannonball Dale Thomsen from the barrel of the cannon into the safety net. Action sequence photography tracks human cannonball Dale Thomsen from the barrel of the cannon into the safety net. America's 'oldest big top circus' brings 130th anniversary show to Rio Grande, Seaville and Mays Landing

The 130th anniversary edition of the Cole Bros. Circus will celebrate great acts from circus history and the rising stars of today’s American circus at three South Jersey locations in the coming weeks – Rio Grande and Seaville in Cape May County, and Mays Landing in Atlantic County.

Elephants and acrobats, tigers and teeterboard tumblers will all take their turns in the spotlight, according to circus organizers.

Soaring high above the ring on the flying trapeze will be Mexico’s Angels in the Air. In the circus ThunderDrome, motorcycle daredevils will risk life and limb at breakneck speeds, with the Cole Bros. clowns arriving in the nick of time to provide comic relief. And the famous “human cannonball” adds an explosive finish to every performance.

Shows are scheduled for 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 4 and 5 at the Robert “Ockie” Wisting Recreation Complex next to Menz’s restaurant in Middle Township’s Rio Grande section; Wednesday through Sunday, Aug. 6-10 at the Atlantic City Race Course on the Black Horse Pike in Mays Landing; and Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 11 and 12 at 2065 S. Shore Road (Route 9) in the Seaville section of Upper Township, just north of the Acme shopping center.

The Cole Bros. Circus was founded in 1884 by William Washington Cole, who exhibited the marvels of his day in towns across America. Crowds turned out to witness the seemingly impossible before their very eyes – all under the giant big top.

Jesse Adkins and Zack Terrell acquired and rebuilt Cole Bros. into a circus equal in magnitude to Ringling Bros., the largest American circus of the era. In 1935, they transported the show on 35 double-length railroad cars, treating townsfolk to a giant street parade from the railroad yard to the circus grounds. Some of the ornate parade wagons used then have been preserved and are on display in the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisc.

A new chapter in circus history was begun in 1935 when matinee idol and legendary animal trainer Clyde Beatty was featured with the circus, initiating a long association.

Cole Bros. Circus also featured the Zacchini human cannonball act, the Cristiani family of bareback riders, the Great Wallendas, and a young Burt Lancaster on the flying trapeze, according to promoters.

The advent of television in the 1950s had circuses going down for what seemed like the final count. John Ringling North sounded the death knell for American Big Top circuses in 1956 when he ordered Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey to fold its tents, scale down, and retreat to arenas, according to a news release. The management of Cole Bros. Circus, however, believed in the viability of the tented tradition, and instead of downsizing combined with Clyde Beatty Circus to maintain the tradition of presenting the three-ring circus under the big top.

For its 1957 season, Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus converted from rail cars to trucks and moved to new winter quarters in DeLand, Fla.

Under the ownership of Frank McClosky and Jerry Collins, the show flourished in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1981, after several years of operating the show alone after the death of his partner, Collins donated the circus to Florida State University, home of the FSU Flying High Circus. FSU sold its $2.5 million gift to Cole veteran John W. Pugh in 1982.

Today the Cole Bros. Circus is still on the road, raising its big top in rural towns and metropolitan areas up and down the East Coast. Tickets are $16 to $28, and free tickets are available for children age 13 and younger. For details or tickets see www.gotothecircus.com.

The elephant act is a perennial crowd pleaser. The elephant act is a perennial crowd pleaser.

  The Angels in the Air of Mexico perform a flying trapeze act. The Angels in the Air of Mexico perform a flying trapeze act.

  Petya Milanova performs aerial acrobatics. Petya Milanova performs aerial acrobatics.

  The royal Bengal tigers perform for trainer Vincenta Pages. The royal Bengal tigers perform for trainer Vincenta Pages.

  Trainer Vincenta Pages rewards one of the tigers with a hug. Trainer Vincenta Pages rewards one of the tigers with a hug.

Human cannonball Dale Thomsen. Human cannonball Dale Thomsen.


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