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home : considered comment : rochester's circus saga May 24, 2016

Rochester's circus saga: A spectacle renewed

3rd in a 5-part series

For five seasons, 1935 through 1939, the three-ring Cole Bros. Circus toured America from its Rochester winter quarters as a glorious spectacle that, almost incomprehensibly, was created anew as many as 170 times from May to November.

The circus began each season indoors and then took to the railroad to perform under canvas, usually at a different city each day. The touring season always began in Rochester and ended somewhere in the South. The route reached major cities of the Midwest, Northeast and Canada and in some years was extended west to Colorado, California, Arizona and Texas. Typically, a season's travel covered 16,000 miles.

Just how big was this show? Well, at its biggest Cole Bros. Circus was so large that transporting it required 35 double-length railroad cars divided into three separate trains. They were needed because this circus was made up of:

• 1,080 people, who were fed 3,240 meals a day.

• 30 elephants.

• 800 jungle animals in their menagerie cages.

• 300 draft horses and wagons of all types.

• 250 ring-stock horses for performances.

• 60 clowns ranging in age from 18 to 78.

• A gigantic big top tent, 430 feet long and 140 feet wide, that covered 60,000 square feet and could seat 7,000 persons. Its center poles were 54 feet high.

• Other tents for side show, cooking and dining that altogether required 2,200 stakes to be driven and pulled at each stop.

The fact that all of this could be accomplished smoothly for seven months, day in and day out, acknowledged the excellence of precision and cooperation that America's circus culture had developed in more than a century of existence.

These were the final years of the classic big top American railroad circus. World War II was coming and after it came television's mass entertainment. Circus popularity plummeted.

When Cole Bros. went on the road for the first time, in 1935, it failed to attract large crowds and in mid-season had to reduce its size to keep traveling. In 1936 excessive heat and rains dogged the tour until late in the season when successful Western stops in Denver and in California restored its profitability.

The following season, 1937, was the best of the five that Cole Bros. toured out of Rochester. The show's public appeal was enhanced that year when Ken Maynard, a famous cowboy movie star, became its second glamorous headliner, joining wild animal trainer Clyde Beatty. Maynard and his troupe of hard-riding cowboys and Indians presented a Wild West after-show with Maynard performing roping tricks and acrobatic stunts while riding his beautiful golden palomino, Tarzan.

That 1937 season began auspiciously with four weeks indoors at the famous Hippodrome in New York City. Since no circus but Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey had played Manhattan before, the Cole Bros. appearances there greatly enhanced its prestige. Beatty was just back from a European tour and as he fearlessly stalked his 28 lions and 12 tigers in the center ring, the circus played to capacity crowds.

Before taking to the road, Cole Bros. returned to Chicago where it had opened the two preceding seasons, this time at the Chicago Stadium. The 1937 Chicago stand, also of four weeks, attracted the largest first-night crowd in Stadium history, 12,000, and went on to draw repeated full houses.

The touring season of 1937 saw many other capacity audiences, particularly during a month-long California stay. There were some bad moments, such as the windstorm that in 45 seconds flattened the big top at Sioux City, Iowa, but the show returned to winter quarters buoyed by its triumphant tour and with its owners confident of the future.

Too confident, as it turned out. Adkins and Terrell wrongly guessed that the Depression was ending and they decided to cash in on the coming prosperity by putting a second circus on the road in 1938. They called it Robbins Bros., reviving the circus they had purchased in 1934.

The country's economy was not improving but, indeed, was falling into a recession within the Depression. Audiences failed to appear in any great numbers during the season of 1938. As a result Adkins and Terrell could not make their loan payments and in early August returned the show to winter quarters. The smaller Robbins Bros. unit was allowed to stay out until late October but it came back to Rochester as a failure, never to appear again.

When the 1939 season opened, there had been losses of major performers. Clyde Beatty took his act and his charisma to San Francisco for a 10-month run at the World's Fair there. Ken Maynard went back to Hollywood. and Jorgen Christiansen left to perform his animal act at the New York World's Fair.

Reduced to a 20-car train, Cole Bros. Circus went back on the road but stayed east of the Mississippi. Business slumped badly after World War II broke out in Europe in early September and Adkins and Terrell had to return the show to Rochester late that month.

They settled in at winter quarters, reorganizing and hoping that 1940 would bring better times. It would not.

Published April 30, 2002

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