James and Cristine Plunkett have left their mark on the circus landscape. Through first class showmanship in the ring and integrity as owners of the James Cristy Cole Circus, they have built a sterling reputation second to none. But to tell their story right, you have to travel back almost five generations to where it all began.
For James, show-business began with his great grandfather Albert Plunkett, who was an actor and accomplished song & dance man. He traveled the rugged and young United States as a member of an acting troupe and eventually gave birth to his son Ed in 1884. Ed’s mother passed when he was just five years old, so Ed set out with his father Albert and learned to play various instruments and sing. After years on the road performing, Albert and Ed found a home in Dickens, Nebraska where Ed met his wife Kate Carlett. They eventually birthed eleven children, all of whom were versed in the arts of music and theater. Ed purchased a film projector in 1913, the only one between Denver and Nebraska, and provided silent movies for residents miles around. His family’s many talents helped improve the shows and made it possible for lively dances. It also gave them a chance to hone their skills in front of a live audience, an opportunity that would pay dividends in the future.
In 1922, the Plunkett’s took the show on the road and began the Plunkett Minstrels. They toured yearly and in 1928, while home in Dickens, Kate gave birth to Marlin “Corky” Plunkett, James’ father. The Plunkett Minstrels were having much success and in 1930 purchased a tent and became a full repertory show, featuring a three act play, vaudeville antics, and circus stunts. The show flourished despite the depression, but was halted in 1942 when Ed and his sons went to join the war effort for the United States. The show was closed, and Corky’s older sister Snooks took him and his sisters to work for the Cole Bros. Circus. This was a turning point for Corky, and he spent the next year learning everything he could about the circus.
After the war, the Plunkett’s re-opened a new and improved show that featured an abundance of circus acts, and by 1950 had completed the transition to a full fledged circus. Around this time Corky married his lifelong wife June Brunk, the only daughter of Glen and Allie Brunk, who were repertory performers as well.
Corky and June gave birth to their eldest son James on October 3, 1955 in Gainesville, Georgia. James was the third of four children, and in 1959, he and his siblings went off with their parents to open the James Cristy Circus.
The show closed the following year so that the Plunkett family could travel and perform their famous comedy trampoline act while Corky managed the movement of various tent shows. It was on one of these shows in 1969, when James was just 15 years old, that his life would change forever.
Hubert Castle was a world renowned wire walker who was the star of Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey and was even featured on the cover of Life Magazine in 1941. He later produced the Castle Show, a large Shrine Circus that traveled the United States. It was here that Hubert met James and found the man he wanted to pass his legacy onto. James became Hubert’s protege and after years of training he mastered the legendary routine on the slack wire. Thus, Christopher James was born and became a household name in circus business.
The years following Castle saw the Plunkett’s traveling around the country, and eventually the world, showcasing the family trampoline act and Christopher James on the Silver Strand. They went to China, Canada, Japan, and in 1979 had the honor of performing at the Prince Reneir Circus Festival in Monte Carlo, France. James received a medal for most original performance while at the event. By 1985 the Plunkett’s opened their circus again for the first time since 1960 in Brewer, Maine under the Big Top. They continued to perform in other circuses during their down time, and in 1990 on the Hanneford Shrine Circus, James met the love of his life Cristine Herriott.
Cristine is the daughter of John and Mary Herriott, but the Herriotts have deep roots in the history of American circuses and are one of the few true American circus dynasties. It began with Osmer Herriott Pike, a descendent of Zebulon Pike, who discovered Pikes Peak in Colorado, and Cristine’s great grandfather. Osmer joined the Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Wild West Show as a cook in the late 1800’s. This circus hosted celebrities such as Buffalo Bill and was among the last American Wild West shows. This was the golden age of American circus, when a town waited all year for the majestic performance to parade down Main Street. Osmer had a son named Milton Herriott who became an animal trainer at an early age. He went on to become the manager of the Cole Bros. Circus. Milton and his wife Viola Engesser had their son John in 1931 in St. Peter, Minnesota.
John Herriott naturally carried on the tradition of circus, spending his summers away from school with his father Milton on the show. At age 12 he presented his first elephant all by himself on the Kelly Miller Circus. When John graduated from high school in 1949, he joined the circus full time touring with the Cole Bros. Circus. The star of the show at the time was actor William Boyd, impersonating beloved character Hopalong Cassidy. In 1952, John enlisted in the Korean war, where he trained K9’s and won the Combat Infantry Badge. He returned in 1953, and entered the Minnesota School of Business, which he droped out of after one year to return to the life he truly loved, the circus.
On Thanksgiving 1954, at the Moslum Shrine Circus in Ft. Worth, Texas, John Herriott married Mary Ruth James in the center ring. John and Mary Ruth traveled and performed all over the United States, including the grand opening of the Mickey Mouse Club Circus at Disneyland, where John was assisted by Walt Disney himself. During their travels, the Herriotts gave birth to five daughters: Laura, Julie, Heidi, Cindy, and the youngest, Cristine, in 1962. Cristine was the only daughter born in John’s home town of St. Peter, Minnesota. A few years later, the family moved to Baraboo, Wisconsin, where John and Mary Ruth worked at the Circus World Museum training animals and managing the circus at the museum. In 1969 the Herriotts were contracted to work on the Ringling Bros. And Barnum & Bailey Circus for two years, and later they returned to Ringling where John became performance director. In 1984, John and Mary Ruth opened up there very own tent circus, depending on their variety of skills and robust knowledge of the business. Cristine retained a vital role in her parents circus, and when she graduated from high school with honors, became a full time circus performer. She displayed many acts, including her pink poodle review, juggling on the rolling globe, roman rings, aerial lyra, equestrian arts, and much more. Her versatility and knack for unique productions helped usher in the modern circus era. It was while performing her many acts on the Royal Hanneford Circus that she met James.
The union of James and Cristine led to the beginning of the James Cristy Cole Circus in 1991, producing the Tangier Shrine Circus in Omaha, Nebraska. This was the first time they had ventured into the world of Shrine circuses, and it would be far from the last. The Plunketts had began performing in Nebraska in 1913, and 78 years later they had come full circle by producing their first Shrine circus.
Cristine had always shown creativity and style while performing in the ring, and when she was given the opportunity to design an entire show, she flourished. Her variety of skills have shined through in her wardrobe, set design, and productions. Not only can she create amazing sets, but her skills in the ring have been a cornerstone of the James Cristy Cole Circus for years. As an aerialist, animal trainer, juggler, and premier ring-mistress, Cristine has led the Plunkett family year after year. In fact, when the show was still young, James had hired a ringmaster to announce the show. But when the ringmaster lost her voice, Cristine stepped up and did such a professional job that to this day she host our shows.
James has been around the world and has seen some of the best shows ever to grace the ring. His experience and open mind has allowed for the show to evolve and maintain a high standard through changing times. He is also a world class performer, giving him an eye for talent that only a man who has done it can see. Not only have James and Cristine produced quality shows, but they have been right in the mix, awing audiences with their unique set of skills.