If you go

WHAT Billy Martin’s Cole Circus

WHEN 1:30 p.m Jan. 22

WHERE Penn Yan   Academy

TICKETS $7/$12 at the door/ Under 12 free

This Sunday, Billy Martin’s Cole All-Star Circus returns to Penn Yan, where it originated nearly 75 years ago under local showman James M. Cole. And while he may not be here in person, the late showmaster is still a big part of the entire production, according to the current owner. Billy Martin says he feels Cole at every performance.

“I present the show with such pride and enthusiasm and personal care, I always feel Mr. Cole is present and that each engagement is Penn Yan. Believe it or not, when every show starts, I always feel like it is opening night, like each show is the first time, like each show we are in the hometown of Penn Yan and James M. Is in the audience,” wrote Martin in an email recently.  

In honor of the circus, at Tuesday's village board meeting, Penn Yan Mayor Robert Church read a proclamation making Jan. 22 Billy Martin's Cole All-Star Circus Day.

Cole’s acts included clowns, acrobats, aerialists, dogs and ponies, traveling from school to school. When the circus came to a school, the students at the school would provide music, promotion and stage hands in return for a portion of the circus revenue to go towards school fundraisers.

The Jan. 22 performance continues this tradition, as a fund-raising event for the Penn Yan Music Boosters.

“Each school — each community has a memory of Mr. Cole,” says Martin, describing the special connection with Penn Yan native Cole.  “I feel his presence each day. I like to think he is along for the ride!” Martin adds.

While Cole would surely feel right at home addressing the gymnasium full of the Penn Yan audience this Sunday and the Dundee audience on Monday night, there are lots of new elements that would likely amaze Cole.

Martin explains, “Mr. Cole used to travel from school to school in September booking the circus, and visiting each venue as he lined up the advance preparations for the January to April tour.  This past September, I booked the entire 10-week run via e-mail in less than four days - unbelieveable! Our music is all digital,  lighting is LED,  microphones are wireless. Technology is grand!”

This year’s circus features 15 cast members with several new acts, notes Martin, who says the premise of the circus is the same as in Cole’s day. “That being providing affordable family entertainment as a fund-raising event for school groups,” says Martin. But some things have changed. “Seventy-five years ago, even 25 years ago, audiences were more innocent. Times were simpler. Crowds were more easily entertained.  Nowadays, folks are very impressionable - very particular and much more sophisticated.” says Martin.

Martin says today’s circus is a fast-moving, exceptional performance with top caliber acts using many special effects to enhance the show with special lighting, scenery, theatrics, music.  “I like to think that the show is ‘tradionally modern,’” Martin adds.

The Cole Circus began with the vision of Penn Yan native James “Jimmie” Cole, who is also known as “Barnum of the sticks” by people in the circus business.

“Something just came into my mind...I’m going to take the circus to the kids,” Cole said in a March 6, 1977, Democrat and Chronicle article.

Cole began work in the circus business as early as age five, when Cole produced his own circuses in his back yard, according to a brochure about Cole’s life. When Cole was 11 years old, he sold programs and was later promoted to treasurer at age 14 at the Sampson Theatre on Elm Street.

Using the experience he gained from working at the Sampson Theatre, Cole went to work as a reserved seat ticket seller with the Walter L. Main Railroad Circus in 1924.

Cole also had five elephants which were used in his act for about 10 years. The elephants stayed on Cole’s farm near Penn Yan during the winter when the circus was not on tour.  A festively-painted barn advertised the off-season home of the circus, which was located near Mays Mills on County Road 1.

Cole traveled with his circus, which changed names several times throughout the years, mostly around Western New York and Northern Pennsylvania, but returning to Penn Yan was always a special event for Cole.

According Martin, Cole only wore his white tuxedo to special events, and coming home to Penn Yan was one of them.

Martin met Cole when he came to Martin’s hometown of Olean in 1972, when he was 12. At age 14, he began working for Cole, booking shows across Western New York.

After graduating from high school in 1977, Martin joined Cole’s circus, performing a juggling and balancing act and serving as ringmaster.
Martin, considered to be Cole’s right hand man, bought the circus from Cole when he retired in 1987. After retiring, Cole moved to Sarasota, Fla., where he died in 1991.

“He was very kind, supportive and very generous. That was just his way — very thoughtful and and caring of people,” says Martin.

Billy Martin’s Cole All Star Circus will be performing in the Penn Yan Academy gymnasium at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 22. Children under 12 are admitted free with a paid adult ($12 at the door/$7 in advance).