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Friday, March 25, 2011

COLE BROS CIRCUS OPENS TODAY IN DELAND

DeLand-based circus hits home

By KELLY CUCULIANSKY, Staff writer
March 25, 2011
DELAND -- Surrounded by a flurry of fur, Laura Harriott uses the loud snaps of equestrian whips like a conductor in a chorus to direct a draft horse, camel, llama, and a 30-inch miniature horse named Tornado making rounds in the Cole Bros. Circus ring.
Soon clowns roll by under the big top in a tiny car, followed by female pirate acrobats and a group of yapping pink poodles in a matching buggy. Motorcycles spin in the ThunderDrome before a man shoots out of a cannon.
On Thursday morning -- two days before the Cole Bros. Circus opens for a weekend of shows -- it's still a little early for the glitz and glam of costumed animals and performers at rehearsal. Nearly 150 performers and crew came out of winter hibernation from all over the country to start the circus' 127th edition at the tent on U.S. 17-92 near the DeLand Municipal Airport.


The DeLand-based circus will tour about 100 cities mostly east of the Mississippi, stopping for a couple of days and, in some cases, a week in big cities.
On tour this time will be a new big top with a higher ceiling to replace the circus' 10-year-old tent, said Renee Storey, vice president of administration.
"It's really as international as our cast," Storey said. "The engineering was done by an Italian firm and reviewed by an American engineer. The fabric for the tent was made in France; the concept for the design came from an Englishman, (circus owner) John Pugh, and the tent itself was manufactured in Mexico."
During rehearsal, fast-paced Arab music fills the new big top for Harriott's "Living Carousel of Wonderment."
Harriott, 55, who was born in Ohio and then promptly taken on the road, grew up in the circus and loves to travel, she said. She has all the comforts of home in an RV, set up next to a corral for her animals.

And just outside the circus tent plenty more trailers and RV generators hum loudly. Performers who can't afford RVs live in small rooms built into a semi trailer, equipped with showers.
"I look at it as being an American gypsy," said Harriott, who loves to cook and visit new grocery stores. "I'm excited to look forward to eating different ethnic things in different parts of the country."
With motors and wheels being a circus performer's "life's blood," getting stuck on the road with animals in tow can be a nightmare, she said. Already delayed by a couple of days by transmission issues, they were briefly stopped on the road for about an hour Wednesday before making it to the circus grounds.

Staff and performers take a break during rehearsals Thursday for the Cole Bros. Circus at the DeLand airport showgrounds. (N-J Peter Bauer)
In the background, "Phantom of the Opera" played in the tent as a woman from Kazakhstan did a split -- upside down and balancing on her head -- while Harriott, a fourth-generation performer, told her story.
"I'm presenting an act right now that is handed down," said Harriott, whose home base is Texas. "I learned all my skills from my grandfather and my father that handed down to generations."
Harriott's three children carry the fifth generation. This season, her 35-year-old son John Walker III will perform with three Asian elephants. It will be his girlfriend's first time performing and she will ride atop one of the pachyderms.
"It's a dream world. You don't have to clock in and clock out. You're at your job; you're where you want to be. You don't have to drive through traffic," said Walker, a Sarasota exotic animal trainer who grew up training in jazz and tap.
The tough part of the job is having no vacation for most of the year, working seven days a week.
"Now the elephants, they only work six minutes a day, twice a day, so they're living an easy life," he said.
Not everyone agrees.
This weekend as hundreds of people file in to watch the extravaganza, activists from Animal Rights Foundation of Florida will ask customers not to enter the circus and protest the use of elephants and other animals.
"All animals in circuses are abused simply by the fact that they're made to live in cages," said Don Anthony, spokesman for the animal rights group. "Their natural needs are hindered and their training is always brutal."
Last month, Cole Bros. Circus pleaded guilty to unlawfully selling a pair of endangered elephants across state lines.
Nearly 6,000 people attended the circus last year, said Storey, compared to about five protesters last year.
"People have an opportunity to see the animals and judge for themselves," Storey said. "We are very open people and offer the opportunity to walk the circus backyard to watch the trainers and interact with the circus animals."


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