Sunday, April 03, 2016

On the (Provisional) Fall of Cole Bros. Circus: Some Immediate Thoughts About the Man at the Top

UPDATE, 4/3/16, 7:52 am: For Harry and all Cole Fans, the show has put up a very nice website.  It geneally alludes to the show's history.  So, shall we say that tomorrow never dies?

There is an almost abstract sadness about the wordless sudden demise, or so it would appear, of Cole Bros. Circus.  Words point to a season not to be. 

It was there for years, one season after another, the solid stolid show. The one guided by Johnny Pugh, a Class Act all in himself.   Season after season, the show threw up its tents,   gave a good show, sometimes a very good show, and sustained an old tradition that is gradually dying before our disbelieving eyes.

Pugh’s management style extends back to the old Ringling-Barnum A team.   In a manner of perception, the Cole Bros. Clyde Beatty saga completes of an arc of inevitable change and decline traceable  back to Pittsburgh, 1956, when John Ringling North struck the big top for the last time and opted into the arena market.

Only a few months later, Clyde Beatty Circus hit the skids,  faced bankruptcy, and was reorganized under new ownership, key players from the old Ringling tent show regime.  Beatty-Cole kept the big top. Pugh stayed with the show and eventually purchased controlling ownership himself.

North's move indoors proved a smart one.  But today, filling up the seats in an arena has become virtually impossible. Circuses no longer attract the same size crowds.  Under our tents, which have grown smaller, circuses still struggle to fill up fewer seats.  Need I do more to explain it away than drop the word Digital?

In its early years, what I valued most about the Cole show, even though I saw it only maybe once every seven to ten years, was how it sustained, symbolically, a residual Ringling legacy.  The 1961 edition, which I was lucky to catch in Richmond, VA, sparkled in its own more modern manner with top line talent, direction and music.

When Johnny Pugh removed his elephants about 10 years ago, buckling under to the mounting demands of the animals rights movement, he was onto something.  Open to change as is any smart showman.  His patrons were not so open, not then, not yet. And so, a season or two later, he brought back the elephants. 

But You Tube and PETA and court room testimony only intensified.   And then Ringling-Barnum did what Pugh had done. By summer’s end, all of its elephants will be gone from the ring(s).

Ringling gets all the national publicity.  And Ringling will now stand for the Norm.  Look for other shows to gradually follow suit. 

Cole was rumored ready to hit the trail this year without animals.  Basically, the right move. But to go Vargas — no animals at all — is a self defeating measure that makes no sense at all. 

After the last Greatest Show on Earth under canvas sixty years ago, the nation wept.  Nobody talked down performing animals, or scary daredevil flyers, or creepy clowns.  They cried over the death of the tented city, over the grand arrival of the circus train at dawn.

In 1956, nobody went to a circus with “issues.”   Everybody went to a circus for guilt-free fun.

Today is a very different today. Today is no longer innocent or guilt-free. One by one, the circuses most powerful features have been talked out of existence by a public so very very different from America sixty years ago.  You fill in the rest — if you can spare a free moment away from your iPhone or iLife.

You might say that the soul of the old American circus followed a path into the soul of Johnny Pugh. 

One less Johnny is a big loss.

His presence on the lot will surely be missed.



Harry Kingston said...

Great thoughts on Cole Bros Circus.
I got to see the 1956 and 1961 Clyde Beatty Circus and the Beatty Cole Circus.
And later on when Johnny Pugh bought into it and early in the dark when the tent was going up Johnny and Elvin Bale was there on there golf carts making sure the canvas tent was going up for a new day.
I hope this is not the end of Cole Bros Circus.
When you think of a tented circus I always think of D R Miller and now Johnny Pugh and his Cole Bros Circus.
Many of us fans will miss Johnny not being there and his jackpots are priceless.
We still have Carson and Barnes Circus still under a tent with animals and giving a good show.
Harry in Texas

Anonymous said...


I see that the Cole Bros. Circus website is back up. Here is the link: