James M. Cole started his show business career at age 11 as a “program boy” passing out playbills at the Smith Opera House in Geneva. According to the circus’ website, Cole’s circus career began in 1924 with the Walter L. Main Railroad Circus and went on to span several decades. The Cole All-Star Circus, founded in 1938, was established with a unique mission as a school workshop project.
Initially, Cole provided the acts and the schools did the rest. Art classes made posters, school bands provided music, and students served as stage hands. After the event, the circus shared the wealth with the school. The details have changed somewhat, but the concept remains the same. Now the circus provides a turnkey event, complete with music, lighting, promotional materials and stagehands, but the school still shares in the proceeds.
“We pride ourselves in offering an affordable family event and virtually risk-free fundraiser,” Martin explained.
Students ages 12 and younger are admitted free with a paying adult; tickets will be $15 at the door, or $10 in advance from the school office.
Martin met Cole in 1972 in his hometown school in Olean and was fascinated by the circus. Two year later, Martin was helping Cole book the circus at schools throughout western New York, and by the time Martin graduated high school in 1977, it seemed only natural that he would join the show.
Martin performed a juggling/balancing act, served as ringmaster, and basically became Cole’s right hand man. In 1987, when 80-year-old Cole retired, Billy took over the show and remains at its helm today. Constantly on the road throughout New York state and Pennsylvania, the persevering troupe performs seven days a week.
“Every year is a new challenge,” Martin said. “Every night is like opening night with this format. It’s always a different school, a different town, a different audience. It keeps us on our toes,” he explains.”
For more information, go to www.billymartincircus.com.