Imagine a circus — big top tent, clowns, contortionists, elephants and tigers, seemingly impossible and dangerous tightrope stunts. This classic image of the circus, often seen as death-defying, spectacular and even magical, has captivated crowds for hundreds of years.
But now, replace that image of a tent with a small high school gymnasium. Swap out those elephants and tigers with a group of very cute, coordinated dogs. Then, remove the clowns, contortionists and tightropes entirely — would this new circus still have the same impact?
This past Sunday, Feb 23 from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., Billy Martin’s Cole All-Star Circus proved that it absolutely can.
Advertised by eventbrite.com as a show for those “who remember when the circus came to town,” owners Billy and Angela Martin, along with a small group of dedicated performers, transformed the New Paltz High School gymnasium into a fully-fledged circus extravaganza.
The gymnasium was complete with popcorn and cotton candy, balloons, and face-painting. The Cole All-Star crew even brought a transportable circus set-up with a circular, red, blue and yellow floor and a backdrop designed with red and yellow stripes to imitate a real big top setting. The only thing distinguishing this set-up from your average circus was the bleachers, linoleum gym floor and New Paltz Huguenots banners along the wall.
Oh, and that no trace of it remained the next day.
The program is a one-day-only performance at each school (unless it’s booked annually). Once the show is finished in one town, everything is packed up and brought to another school the very next day. No harm is done to the gym floors since the set rests on top of protective floor mats made of heavy vinyl and all equipment is rubber-tipped. The performers and crew work seven days a week touring 100 schools per year across Pennslyvania and New York.
But how did this impressive program come to be?
This year marks the circus’ 80th anniversary of continuous operation, though originally founded 82 years ago in 1938 by James M. Cole as a “school workshop project.”
Described on the company’s official website as a “legendary showman,” Cole joined the circus business right out of high school in 1924. Moving up the ranks from a water boy for the Walter L. Main Railroad Circus, according to a 1947 New York Times article, to the leading man of his own circus is quite an impressive feat.
The circus began touring in 1940, starting in Cole’s hometown of Penn Yan, NY. Back then, acts included a wirewalker, jungle cats, a knife thrower, a camel, a group of trained elephants, which the circus was most known for, and more.
Now, the performance is thankfully safer and more ethical, featuring a trapeze artist, juggler, unicyclist and the 2012 America’s Got Talent winning Olate dogs (who are the coolest and most famous dogs I’ve ever had the pleasure of being in the presence of).
Additionally, the show is no longer run by Cole but by Martin, his mentee. From a young age, the both have shared a love for the circus. Martin was just 12 years old when he became awe-inspired by the Cole All-Star Circus. The program visited his hometown school in Orlean, NY in 1972, and from then on a friendship was formed between the two men. Like Cole, Martin officially joined the circus immediately following high school graduation. Starting off as a juggler, then the ringmaster and eventually Cole’s “right-hand man,” Martin completely took over the program along with his wife following Cole’s retirement.
Although this circus has gone through many adaptations over its eight-decade run, they remain faithful to their mission of entertaining.
This is the circus’ first visit to New Paltz. The New Paltz 2nd Wave Creation, a volunteer group dedicated to supporting the costs needed for the general upkeep of the brand new Hasbrouck Park, arranged the booking. All of the proceeds went towards maintaining the park. The circus’ large turnout this past weekend is just another example of the New Paltz community coming together to give back to their town.
The Cole All-Star Circus is overall, a phenomenal example of how to host a show in a dying, outdated industry. Proving that a circus does not need to be exploitative to be enchanting and that audiences will suspend belief for a good show.