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

Rochester's circus saga: Clyde Beatty and parades

2nd in a 5-part series

When Jess Adkins and Zack Terrell set to work to build their Cole Bros. Circus in the Rochester autumn of 1934-35 they knew exactly what they wanted it to be and exactly how to go about achieving it.

First and foremost, they wanted it to project quality, so they immediately lured Clyde Beatty away from the Hagenback and Wallace Circus as their headline attraction. The young, dark, handsome Beatty was the world's most glamorous wild animal trainer whose sideline career was even more glamorous: starring in Hollywood jungle adventure movies. His coming to the new circus was a signal that the Adkins-Terrell partnership was a force to be reckoned with.

In fact, Beatty's act was so valuable that for the three seasons in which it appeared in center ring the circus was billed as Cole Bros.-Clyde Beatty.

Next came the announcement that Cole Bros. would restore, in all its glory, the downtown parade prior to the afternoon performance at all its tented appearances. These parades of bands, exotic performers, animals and elaborate painted wagons always ended with steam calliope music. They were a circus tradition but had not been seen for many years. Their restoration was certain to arouse interest in Cole Bros. and help ticket sales.

First announcement that the circus would have its winter quarters here came on October 11, 1934, and soon afterward Adkins and Terrell announced that the show would open indoors on April 20, 1935, at the Chicago Coliseum. That gave them only six months to prepare their quarters, to assemble their performers and menagerie and to train their acts. Circus professionals were astonished at what the two men accomplished in that short time.

Work to adapt the old bridge company buildings began immediately after taking possession on November 10. Should you wish to see where this took place, drive north on Main Street and Old U. S. 31 to Lucas Street, which was built specifically in 1934 to access the circus property from the state highway. Turn right on Lucas and proceed to Wentzel Street and again turn right, or south. All the area now on your left comprised the 12 acres of the circus land and its buildings, bordered by Wentzel as it curves east to join Erie Street. Today the area is occupied by the former McMahan-O'Connor Construction Company office and Rochester Dray Service.

None of the buildings of that day remain. They consisted of a two-story brick administration building at the south end of the property, behind which were three larger brick structures, all facing south. Two of them together made a cavernous structure 140 by 250 feet in size, originally used for steel fabrication. Eastward and behind the administration building was the third, 60 by 180 feet. A spur of the Nickel Plate Railroad entered the property from the east. Three years later a large frame storage building was built northward on the site.

It was near chaos there for awhile with 200 men often working two 12-hour shifts seven days a week to get the facilities in shape for housing of workers and animals, for repairs of equipment and for training of acts. With forceful direction by Fred (Captain) Seymour, an experienced circusman brought in to take charge, the job was completed on schedule.

It had to be done without delay because animals and equipment that Adkins and Terrell were purchasing soon began arriving, such as the entire equipment and rolling stock of the 15-car Robbins Brothers Circus. Animals came from everywhere: the entire zoo of Birmingham, Alabama; sea lions from San Diego; 22 ponies from Illinois. There were lions, tigers, horses, elephants and all kinds of exotic beasts appearing in a constant stream. Some elephants and camels were housed awhile in the former nipple plant building on East Fourth Street, now the site of Rochester Metal Products.

Surprisingly, by mid-November Cole Bros. Circus had acquired an outstanding menagerie: 17 elephants, 40 lions, tigers, leopards, panthers and pumas; plus sea lions, zebras, camels, sacred cows, horses of all kinds, bears, monkeys, chimpanzees, baboons and spotted hyenas. A hippopotamus was coming.

Another major performer brought in was Jorgen Christiansen. A Dane, he had gained world fame with the 16 cream-colored stallions he trained for a Liberty horse act, so called because the animals were not tethered during their performances.

Eddie Allen, nationally known elephant trainer, came to handle the huge bull herd that eventually numbered 30 elephants. Allen directed their training and performances, the latter starring his beautiful wife Jean.

Otto Griebling, one of circusdom's most famous clowns, became producer of the clown acts and would be joined in a later season by an even more-famous mime, Emmett Kelley.

Staff positions were filled rapidly with workers from other circuses who were excited to be able to join this new venture and who offered to work at their same salaries. It was amidst the Depression and new job opportunities were rare.

By mid-January, 1935, visitors at the circus quarters could see many kinds of animals in training. There were Christiansen's palominos; the sleek high school horses learning dances, prances and parades, some with riders; Shetland ponies; Collie dogs and monkeys working together, even the plodding work horses that loaded the train cars and pulled the gilded circus parade wagons.

Elsewhere at winter quarters, Beatty might be seen getting acquainted with his band of 35 lions and tigers. One afternoon a large lion knocked him 40 feet across the training ring, breaking several of his ribs. Beatty fought off the beast with his straight-backed chair, got treatment downtown from Dr. Mark Piper and was back in the cage soon afterward. Such setbacks were nothing new to the intrepid Beatty.

The possibility of exciting occurrences such as that drew spectators to the circus grounds in large numbers. Newspapers and radio stations from many cities sent reporters to describe the excitement surrounding the birth of this huge entertainment sensation that soon would be touring the country.

The 1935 season was approaching and the first tour of Cole Bros. at last was arranged by General Agent Floyd King. A seasoned circusman, King had joined old friends Jess and Zack to map the route and make the bookings. America was waiting.

All the while, Rochester was bursting with the pride of this excitingly unusual newcomer in its midst that was attracting national attention.

Published April 23, 2002

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