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Volume 15, Issue 12 ~ March 22 - March 28, 2007

A Circus Without a Home

After more than 20 years at the Naval Academy stadium, Cole Bros. Circus relocates its big top

by Carrie Madren

When the some 22-semi trucks and 20 RVs of the Cole Bros. Circus roll into town on the eve of May 2, they won’t be setting up shop behind the Navy Stadium.

After the Naval Academy Athletic Association decided not to let the circus return, the Optimist Club of Annapolis — which has sponsored the circus at the stadium for 20-plus years — had to scout a new location.

This year, the troupe of clowns, acrobats, performers and a menagerie of animals will spend their two-day stint at the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds, in Crownsville. Finding a new home for the circus wasn’t easy — but the show must go on.

No Place Like a Home

It’s not easy to find room for a circus these days. Besides space for the trucks and RVs, there must be room for animals, the big top tent and more. In all, reports Bill Tebbetts, the Cole Bros. Circus director of marketing, they need some 500 feet by 300 feet for the circus, plus room for parking the several hundred cars of circus-goers.

The big top holds some 2,000 seats for circus-goers. Annapolis usually draws in 1,500 or 1,000 people per show, with two shows per day.

“We want to find a home and be there for several years,” says Optimist president Diann Turner. “When you start hopping around, people don’t know where you are.”

The Optimists considered Sandy Point State Park, the Annapolis Mall and other venues farther away, but didn’t want to stray too far from Annapolis, since the sponsors are the Annapolis Optimist Club.

The Optimist Club is only partially optimistic about the change in venue.

“I think it will affect attendance,” Turner says. “People are used to it being at the stadium grounds. Generations are accustomed to seeing the tent going up,” she says, and seeing reminds them to get circus tickets.

It won’t be the circus’s first move in Annapolis. Cole Brothers first brought its show to Annapolis in the mid-1970s, says Tory Salvia, who was the Optimist Club’s circus chair for 25 years before stepping down this year. Rumor has it the big top started off on the land where the Safeway is now on Forest Drive before relocating to the stadium, where it ran for some 20 years.

At the Fairgrounds, the club will pay some $1,500 less in rent than at the stadium.

“But the flip side is, permits from the county are more expensive,” says Turner, whose club must secure, among others, a permit for the circus to set up the tent.

Room for a Circus

Cole Bros. Circus stops in Annapolis on its nine-month tour of cities and small towns along the East Coast, with one show, sometimes two shows, every day of the week, rain or shine. With the small village of animals, performers and often their families, this traveling show rarely rests for more than half a day.

“We come in at night, start at dawn, and it takes about three to four hours to get everything up,” Tebbetts says. “Then the next day we take everything down again at 10 or 11 at night.” Elephants used to raise the tent poles, but it took so long that only trucks leverage heavy poles now.

It’s getting harder these days for a circus to come to town, says Tebbetts. The Cole Bros. Circus costs nearly $30,000 each day to operate.

“We need a pretty big area, and those just don’t exist anymore except fairgrounds and places out of town,” he continues. “We play a lot of school football fields and malls.”

The new trend for malls, however, is to build restaurants and other stores on the outskirts of their parking lots, to make use of space otherwise only used by the circus two days a year and Christmas shoppers.

Sports fields can only be used when athletic programs haven’t scheduled games and practices.

“There’s not many things that a normal family can enjoy for three generations,” says Tebbetts. “So we try to keep it affordable and family-oriented.” New this year, you’ll find the Thunderdome — a big metal ball filled with zooming motorcycles — in addition to horseback jugglers, elephants, clowns, the human cannonball and more.

Step Right Up

In each town the circus usually finds a sponsor to pay for permitting costs, to help with ticket sales and to augment advertising. The sponsor — often a Lions Club or civic organization — in return shares the profit.

In Annapolis, it’s the 50-member Optimists’ biggest fundraiser of the year, drawing in more funds than their annual Las Vegas night and concession trailers at the duo of autumn boat shows.

They get a percentage of the revenue from online ticket sales, then a smaller percentage of money from tickets sold at the gate.

The club used to pull in some $12,000 or more each circus run, Turner says, but in recent years the percentage has been almost cut in half.

“We want to do it [the circus] because it’s been a family tradition in Annapolis for generations,” she says, as well as to raise money for community needs. Each month, the Optimist Club makes small grants to specific youth needs that range from refurbishing the baseball dugouts at Annapolis High School to a fishing camp to helping fund the Memorial Day parade. They also donate to the Childhood Cancer Campaign, which takes care of non-medical needs of sick children and their families. The Shop with Cop Day program in December pairs at-risk youth with a cop to go shopping at Wal-Mart — with a gift card to buy gifts — then to dinner, so children can see police in a positive light.

This past month’s donations neared $3,500. The amount the club grants to community needs depends on what they earn from circus ticket sales.

Get your tickets early, advises Turner.

“You save $5 off adult price when you buy tickets in advance,” she says. Plus, the Optimist Club gets a larger cut from those ticket sales, and that’s money funneled back into the community.

The Cole Bros. Circus comes to town May 2 & 3 at the Anne Arundel County Fairgrounds in Crownsville. Watch 8 Days a Week for details.

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