Cole Bros. Circus brings elephants, clowns, acrobats to Hampton

By Daniel Silliman


The three circus elephants shift their weight from left to right, and then right to left.

They swing their trunks back and forth, and look like they're dancing a shuffle. They look like old men about to start crooning barbershop harmony.

Viola, Nena and Libby -- these massive Asian elephants -- are tethered together by tiny, little leashes. They're standing by the side of the highway, in Hampton, with the sun coming up and the big-top tent about to be raised.

"They always get the loudest cheer of any act. It's the loudest cheer from any crowd, even when they just walk in. They don't even have to do anything," says Dan Baltulonis, advance man for the Cole Bros. Circus.

Dan's standing in a field outside Atlanta Motor Speedway, looking at the elephants on the morning of the big Atlanta-area show. Cole Bros. -- "the longest running circus with a tent" -- is setting up for nine shows. There were two shows on Thursday; there will be two on Friday, three on Saturday, and two on Sunday.

But on Thursday morning, the circus is just waking up. There's a cannon parked by the highway, with a sign boasting that it's the world's largest cannon. A couple of one-hump camels look bug-eyed, and suspiciously at passing traffic. In the rolling kitchen, breakfast is being cleaned away. A giant tent is spread out on the ground, a great big splash of red and yellow across the field, catching the sun as it comes out like a trumpet announcement. There are three teams of men working on the tent, working to raise the big top.

It'll be 55 feet tall, when they raise it. It'll seat about 2,000 people, and all of them will cheer for the elephants, laugh at the clowns, say "oooohh" for the springboard acrobats and "aahhhhhh" for the women on the flying trapeze.

One man is pounding in tent stakes. Another's moving poles.

A little man in blue, Perlito, a clown from Colombia, is passing pulley blocks, placing one by each guide-wire. He has an armload of blocks and he puts them out, walking around the tent. But then, Perlito suddenly switches back into a clown, swiftly sneaking across the tent in an exaggerated tip-toe, sneaking up behind someone and shouting, "Boo!" The surprised man, a big man with a sledge hammer, chases the costume-less clown, who runs and giggles.

There are about 85 people who travel with the circus, Dan says. Maybe 100. There are about 45 or 50 performers, and then the rest are workers, and everybody does at least two different jobs, like Perlito the clown and tent-raiser. The whole thing, the traveling circus, is as self-sustaining society on wheels.

"All we need," Dan says, "anywhere we go, is water, a place to stay, and people to come watch us."

The Cole Bros. Circus came in from Athens Wednesday night, finding spots in the Hampton field in the dark. They travel for nine months of the year, up north from Florida all the way up the coast, to perform in New Jersey and New York. Then, back down again to Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. They perform in 20 or 25 states, every year, and do something like 250 shows.

In New Jersey, they put up their tent in the parking lot of a baseball stadium. In Alabama, they put it up in a cow field. "Literally," says Dan. "It was a cow field. They had to move the cows."

The Hampton spot is a good spot. There's none of the unevenness of a pasture and it's not as hard on the animals as asphalt. The toy-sized ponies push up against the fence, chewing on grass. The elephants rip it up in big chunks and taste it, deliberately.

Louie Delmoral is talking to the elephants, Viola and Nena and Libby. They're leaning down to listen to him. They're in a huddle. Louie's wearing "South Park" pajama pants and talking to the elephants, just the way he has for the last 30 years. He untethers them and they follow him across the field to a pen, where two strings suggest they stay in a designated square.

Louie's been an animal trainer for most of his life and he's been in the circus since he was born. He's worked with tigers a bit, but mostly he trains elephants.

"I'm third generation circus," Louie says. "But my whole family was acrobats. All the them are acrobats. I wanted to do animals. I've been -- how do you call it, infatuated. Ever since I was a little kid. Now, I play with animals all over the place."

He agrees with Dan that the elephants are always the most popular, and sometimes it seems like they know it.

One elephant, not one of these but one of the one's that's in California now, she used to hate peanuts, Dan says. She didn't like them and wouldn't eat them -- unless there were TV cameras. If a TV reporter had a camera and wanted to feed her peanuts, because that's what Dumbo liked, then this elephant would nibble at peanuts all day.

Dan laughs -- but it's show business, it's performance, and Louie's elephants perform at a word. He says "salute" and the three drop to their back knees and raise their front feet, curling up their trunks and waiting for someone to shout "ta-DA!" Even if there's only Dan and Louie and a reporter, they're ready to perform.

It's the circus. The traveling, big-top circus. The Cole Bros. Circus have been traveling with a tent since 1884, and for 124 years, Cole Bros. has been where every 10-year-old boy would go, if he were going to run away, someday.

It's the greatest show on earth, and these elephants -- Viola, Nena and Libby -- act like they know they're the true stars of the whole thing.

Nena opens her mouth in a hammy smile, ready for the next show to start.

Tickets are $17 for adults, and $12 for kids, ages 2 to 12. Each show is traditional, and lasts 100 minutes.