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Now browsing: Hometown News > News > Volusia County

Cole Bros. Circus has called DeLand home for more than 55 years
Rating: 0.73 / 5 (94 votes)  
Posted: 2014 Mar 07 - 06:18

By Erika Webb

DeLand is unique in many ways, but one standout fact is residents don't say the circus is coming to town. It lives there.

Busy hands were all about Cole Bros.' winter quarters Feb. 27. No longer do elephants trumpet and tigers roar on the 17 acres, once the Volusia County Fairgrounds, abutting the railroad tracks. Simple economics and prudence determined the massive animals should be leased.

Year-round feeding and tending is expensive. Insurance premiums are exorbitant.

The world's largest circus under the big top has outlasted hundreds of circuses since its origin in the mid-1800s.

It came to DeLand in 1956 because of the railroad, said Senior Marketing Director Chuck Werner.

"That was the same year Ringling Brothers said the American circus is done," Mr. Werner said.

That season -- 1956-57 -- Cole Bros. converted its show from railroad to truck and each year, from March through November, around 150 complementary personnel travel to more than 100 cities and towns with performers, animals and concessionaires to entertain the masses who still feel the magic under the tent.

Technology can't trump certain feats.

"Kids are starting to realize, at the circus, the guy really does get shot out of a cannon and it's not special effects," Mr. Werner said.

Some DeLand residents remember when, during setup each year near the airport, elephants could be seen pulling the poles for the main tent.

"The government stopped that," said Cole Bros. President and CEO John Pugh -- a story unto himself.

Early on Mr. Pugh performed in variety shows around London. He entertained Queen Elizabeth four times, was a good friend and understudy to famed British comedian Benny Hill, and handled elephants for the movie Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Mr. Burton also became Mr. Pugh's good friend.

"Miss Taylor was to handle and to walk a leopard," Mr. Pugh recalled.

He helped the legend with that task.

"She was the cutest thing in those days you ever saw," he said.

The circus owner also drove a white tiger cub from Italy to Monte Carlo as a gift to Prince Ranier and Princess Stephanie of Monaco for their private zoo.

The female Bengal was born in a very successful breeding program started in 1986 by Mr. Pugh's circus.

"Most white tigers in this country were bred on this property," he said.

The program was overseen by wild animal trainer and veterinarian, Josip Marcan who, Mr. Pugh said, kept pure lines of white tigers with "beautiful blue eyes".

At one time the property on Old New York Avenue was home to eight Arabian horses.

It cost more to keep those horses than it did to feed and maintain 12 elephants, Mr. Werner said.

Many of the structures on the property also were utilized for operations central to World War II. Gliders used in the invasion of Normandy were built in the old fairgrounds building, which now serves as the circus' equipment painting facility. The welding shop contained military offices during the war.

Mr. Pugh came to DeLand in 1961.

"You can almost say I'm a DeLandite," he said laughing. "I've been here ever since. I couldn't find my way home."

His first trip was made in a tractor trailer that didn't want to restart once it was turned off. He drove through the night from New Orleans and was looking for a place to sleep before heading over to the winter quarters.

Locals told Mr. Pugh about the Putnam Hotel. He drove the truck there and parked it on a rise out front "so it would run down the hill and start itself."

When he got some flack for arriving after the caravan of others, he retaliated by turning the truck off.

"We had to get an elephant to pull it out of the way," he said laughing heartily.

For several years he managed the circus then called Clyde Beatty Cole Bros.

Showman Frank McClosky and entrepreneur-politician Jerry Collins owned the Beatty-Cole show, which flourished during the 1960s and 70s, Mr. Pugh said.

In 1981, after several years of operating the show himself following the death of his partner, Mr. Collins donated the circus to Florida State University, home of the FSU Flying High Circus, according to the Cole Bros. website.

FSU sold its $2.5 million gift to Mr. Pugh in 1982, the website states.

"This show used to own DeLeon Springs around the late 1950s," Mr. Pugh said. "Somewhere exists a picture of a waterskiing elephant in DeLeon Springs."

It was a fairly small elephant, he added.

Originally, the winter quarters operation, animals and all, was going to be set up at DeLeon Springs.

Mr. Pugh said the idea was to open it to the public as a theme park.

Unfortunately, those plans unraveled.

Throughout his first several years of ownership Mr. Pugh leased the Clyde Beatty portion of the name from the "King of the Lion Tamers'" son.

"He got very expensive," Mr. Pugh said, explaining why the name reverted to Cole Bros. in the late 1980s.

Vehicle and equipment maintenance is never ending -- some years more so than others.

One year the winter (non-performing season) preparations, for the next year of touring, cost $325,000. Another year preparation costs were $1.5 million.

Other planning goes on in the non-performing months as well.

"We bring in new animals and performers every year," Mr. Pugh said. "That keeps it fresh for the audience, having a different show every year."

Time has changed the business and the stops along the way.

"One thing hasn't changed," Mr. Pugh said. "We always give them a good show and the lowest prices of any show of any size on the road in the nation. We know the economy's tough and we'd sooner have a lot of people come to the show than only a few who can really afford it."

These days Mr. Pugh is passionate about restoring the past, painting and refurbishing old trucks like the one equipped to roll up the old tents. Today, it's a shiny relic of the past, no longer needed for duty but a good conversation piece.

In the off months he builds necessities like generator trucks and water wagons. This year Mr. Pugh bought the temporary cook kitchen used at the Lake Beresford Yacht Club during the interim between the fire and completion of the new clubhouse. Another truck had to be built to haul it.

Mr. Pugh's father booked Joie Chitwood's Thrill Shows throughout Europe. Through that endeavor, Mr. Chitwood ended up buying the concession rights to the floundering Clyde Beatty Circus.

In 1942 and 1948, Mr. Pugh and his sister performed in the Cole Bros. Circus. He worked with Master Clown Otto Griebling, who thrilled audiences in both the Cole Bros. and Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circuses, as well as other circus alumni, including the Wallendas, the Cristianis and Burt Lancaster.

"The circuses in the U.S. are all kind of intertwined," Mr. Pugh explained.

When he came to DeLand more than 50 years ago Mr. Pugh met his wife Brigitte who worked for the circus along with her father, a magician.

Though he's been all over the country and all over the world, the circus owner, who lives on Lake Beresford, is still enthralled by the St. Johns River. He delights taking in its beauty, the alligators, the scenery and the people canoeing.

Could be he relates to its need to flow north, just as Cole Bros. Circus flows north in mid-March to entertain thousands of children of all ages.

Many years on the road have not diminished Mr. Pugh's enthusiasm.

"I enjoy going out with the circus. I look forward to it," he said. "My saddest day is the last day on the road at the season's end. I can't wait to go again."

You can experience DeLand's Hometown Circus -- the Cole Bros. Circus at the DeLand Airport on Saturday and Sunday, March 15-16 as America's oldest tented travelling Circus begins its 130th season.

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