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home : considered comment : rochester's circus saga May 28, 2016

Rochester's circus saga: Gave us parades and people

5th in a 5-part series

For Rochester people, the existence in their midst of the Cole Bros. Circus was confirmed each May with a gigantic parade and big top performances that opened the touring season.

These parades down Main Street, often a mile long, were magnificent treats for this small town and the thousands who came to see them. The first one in 1935 started from circus grounds at Baker Field, now the Manitou Heights area along East Ninth Street. Thereafter they began from the Goss Lots, a vacant area southeast of 16th Street and Main that's now dominated by Rumors Night Club and True Value Hardware. The parades were held from 1935 through 1940, excepting 1938.

The 1939 version was one of the flashiest and its description will do for the rest. It was led by mounted horsewomen carrying American flags, followed by the gold-trimmed bandwagon and big top band playing stirring music. There were many cages of lions and tigers, squads of mounted horsemen and women, clowns mixing with the crowds, a baby hippopotamus, 25 elephants in a herd, elegant tableau wagons with carved wooden sides depicting exotic scenes, cowboy Art Mix and his group of rough riders and, finally, two steam calliopes pumping out their percussive tunes.

The parades were designed to draw people into the afternoon and evening performances and capacity crowds were normal on those season-opening days.

The 1937 show probably was the best version that Cole Bros. produced during its Rochester days. It featured the fearless Clyde Beatty and his wife Harriet in separate wild animal acts, which alone would be enough to satisfy many circusgoers. But there was much more:

A dazzling themed production involving 500 or so performers opening the show, cowboy movie star Ken Maynard and his Wild West riders, the Great Gretonas in their dazzling high wire act, a half-dozen different aerial gymnasts, finely trained acrobats, horses and many other kinds of trained animals, the preposterous clown stunts, reckless races around the big-top track and a rousing finish in which two people were shot from the mouth of a cannon into a net 50 yards or so away. Each event was accompanied by the bright music of a brass band.

It really was all too thrilling.

So was having the circus in winter quarters here for five months. Townfolk could wander through the buildings pretty much at will to see performers training their acts, but it might be dangerous out there. A wagon driver died in a work accident and one of Beatty's assistants was killed by a lion while cleaning the animal's den.

Rochester businesses benefitted from the many services the circus required during a winter, although not all purchases were as unusual as the million feet of cotton clothesline from a hardware. It was woven into a huge net four feet high that circled the big top tent to protect the audience during the hippodrome horse races. Townfolk turned out in large numbers at the depot on East Eighth Street to welcome the circus train home each November.

Beatty and his attractive blonde wife Harriet lived here much of the off-season for three years, first at 531 Pontiac Street. Neighbor Reba Shore recalled watching him through her window as he trained lion cubs in the kitchen. She also frequently answered Harriet's back door calls seeking cooking advice.

The Beattys often took their evening meals at Hawkins Cafe, owned by my grandparents. I then was an impressionable adolescent and during their nightime visits I watched them intently, marveling at my good fortune to be close to such famous and exciting people. I never missed Beatty's jungle serial movies at the Rex theater in those days. The Beattys were open and friendly people.

The circus spawned a vigorous Rochester nightclub life at the Berghoff Cafe on the corner of Main and Ninth Streets. Its performers gathered regularly there and on occasion sang and danced for customers who included many locals. Cafe owner Louis Ninios induced performers at times to help him stage Christmas parties for children on the Courthouse lawn.

Other circus people, smitten by Rochester's charm, decided to make it their permanent home. A diverse group, their presence enriched the community and continues into a third generation.

There were the Gretonas, famous for their high wire act that was a Cole Bros. feature from 1936-39. It was made up of Otto Gretona and wife Margaret, Willi and Clara Lamberti, Franz Heinzmann and Eugene Lechler. The Gretonas and Lambertis lived here many years; Heinzmann's descendants still do.

There also were the Zoppes, who joined Cole in 1936 and as the Zoppe Zavatta troupe featured unsupported ladders and artistic bareback riding.

They settled into a permanent home here, traveling out for each show season. Davide Zoppe continues the family tradition from here today with his act of unsupported ladders and trained monkeys. The Hall family, unicycle performers, also lived here in the off-season many years.

Jorgen Christiansen, member of the Circus Hall of Fame for his horse and other animal acts, trained at Fulton after leaving Cole and when his career ended he retired at Rochester and died here.

Other circus folks not so well known also were welcomed into Rochester life and society.

Sisters Malee and Darlene Harding of Peru had a trick roping and riding act for several circuses before ending up here with Cole Bros. Malee married Harlan Burkhart, a Cole executive, and after Burkhart's death was married to local businessman A. C. (Chick) Johnson. Sister Darlene married the catcher of a trapeze act, Carl Lassiter, and after her husband's death retired to Rochester. Both remained the rest of their lives.

Albert Bailey and Tony DeMarco came to Rochester as elephant trainers with Cole and stayed. Each was married to a local girl, Tony to Dorothy Perdue, Al to Katherine Cunningham. Both men become popular citizens and Tony's descendants remain.

Jim Wilkes joined the Cole show at Chicago in 1935, came with it to Rochester that spring and worked at different jobs until 1938 when he left to join Ringling Bros. He was not here when the winter quarters burned in the winter of 1940 but returned later that year, married Elverna Lange and settled down. His descendants are here, as well.

So, the Cole Bros. Circus influence has not entirely left us.

These five columns have only pierced the depths of the circus story and its Rochester experience. Anyone wishing to delve deeper need only consult the definitive work on the subject, Francis Sanders's "Cole Bros. Circus from Rochester, Indiana," published in 1986. Another excellent source is Wendell Tombaugh's "Cole Bros." volume of his Fulton County Handbook series, published in 2001. It contains in chronological order the entire, exhaustive news coverage of the circus by The News-Sentinel. Both books can be found at the Fulton County Public Library.

Further, there is a museum display and much archival material on the circus at the Fulton County Historical Society's headquarters north of the city on U.S. 31.

Published May 14, 2002

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