Wednesday, August 19, 2009

....Raising The Big Top....

--Photo By Judy Smestad-Nunn (Above) Before it becomes a big top, it's just four really big tarps. (Right) These elephants travel with the circus.

By Judy Smestad-Nunn
..Front Page..Toms River Times....

If you live near the Church Road corridor, you may have been awoken in the early morning hours last Saturday by the sound of 24 tractor-trailer trucks and 20 RVs rumbling down the road, heading for the grounds behind St. Andrews Church.

Cole Brothers Circus, which bills itself as the world's largest circus under the big top, had come to town after a two-day sold-out run in Atlantic City, which ended the night before at around 10 p.m.

By 2:30 a.m., the 92-member circus, which includes 40 performers, had packed up, left Atlantic City and pulled in to the church grounds, which has been their home in Toms River for the past 16 years.

Here, they would perform four shows and hoped to sell 6,000 tickets.

"The economy has affected ticket sales. In this business, you get a real feel for what's going on in the country," said Ron West, who is the senior marketing director for Cole Brothers Circus.

West is the person who makes sure that all permits are in place before the circus arrives, including fire, building, electrical and occupation permits. He is the only employee who travels with the circus but sleeps in hotels since he arrives in town the day before the trucks and RVs.

Elvin Bale, who is a fourth generation circus performer, works for Cole Brothers Circus as the operations vice president and serves as its general manager.

Bale was billed as "The World's Greatest Daredevil" for his aerial feats with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in the 1970s and '80s, and is in the Circus Hall of Fame.

Once called crazy by Evel Knievel, Bale was paralyzed in 1987 when he shattered all the bones in the lower half of his body, including two in his back, during an attempted stunt. He manages the daily operations for the Cole Brothers Circus from a motorized scooter.

"We start in March and finish in December," Bale said. "We cover about 10,000 miles and perform mostly on the East Coast. Every year is different."

"After New Jersey, we go south, through the gulf states, and then down to DeLand, Florida for two months, where we're based," Bale said.

The Mulholland family from Toms River, which includes parents Brendan and Joanna, children Jillian, 7, Megan, 5, and grandmother Pat, were on the church grounds early Saturday morning to watch the circus being assembled.

"I remember when they used to use the elephants to raise the tent," said the grandmother.

"We're coming back later to see the show. We love watching what it takes to raise the tent and set everything up," Brendan said.

The circus employees also travel with their 20 children, who are home-schooled by their parents.

By 6 a.m. on Saturday, after a few hours of sleep, the roustabouts went to work behind St. Andrews, first laying the plates on the field where the six king poles, the tall metal towers, would stand.

The plates anchor the 50-foot tall loadbearing king poles and are secured with stakes, which are driven four feet into the ground.

After the king poles are raised and secured, a football field-sized tarp is laid down to keep the circus tent, or big top, clean.

The big top, which is actually five separate pieces, is laid out and laced together by some of the workers, and built-in flaps are tucked over to make the canvas waterproof.

Meanwhile, other men are hammering in 186 additional stakes around the periphery of the tent, which will hold the walls in place. Each worker has several specific jobs to perform.

Later, sand will be piled around the stakes so the holes will self-fill when the stakes are removed.

Within three to four hours, the big top was raised, and dozens of trucks and fork lifts drove in and out of the structure filling it with bleachers, chairs, lights, wires and various props that were needed for the shows.

"Normally, we move three times a week, and average 15 shows a week," West said while eyeing the big top being raised by motors, located on top of each king pole. "The military used to come and watch to see how the circus can move so quickly," he said. "We're always trying to figure out ways to make it quicker and easier."

Sometime around 9 a.m., most of the performers were awake, had eaten breakfast at one of the trucks, called the cookhouse, and had gone into the big top to set up the equipment needed for their own individual acts.

Cole Brothers travels with elephants, camels, horses, ponies and dogs.

"We used to own the animals. Now, we hire other people, an independent contractor (who own the animals). It's easier and cheaper," West explained.

For more information, visit their Web site at


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