An interview with the legendary trapeze artist Tony Steele / August 2001
How did you get started?
I ran away and joined the circus. The Ringling Brothers came to Boston Garden every year. I was fifteen when I saw my first circus and was especially impressed by a charming young lady that worked under the name of "La Norma"; her real name is Norma Fox and I, at fifteen years old, was just old enough to fall in love with her, with her and the whole atmosphere and ambience of the circus, even the smell of the sawdust. They used to use sawdust in the circus. But it had a special smell -- the popcorn, the peanuts, the elephants. I decided right then and there that I wanted to be with the circus. Most kids say I want to be a fireman or a policeman when I grow up, but then they get deviated in different directions and also maybe parental influence. That was my first childhood dream and fantasy.
To be a flier or just part of the circus?
Just to be part of the circus. I was seeing it through the eyes of a child you might say at the age of 15 but it was a fairy book fantasy-land and that's what I wanted to do.
So you just took off?
Well the first thing I did was get a trapeze bar and hang it up in the local park and start practicing. A low bar. With no supervision or anything like that, which is a definite disadvantage. But I tried to emulate what I had seen in the circus. At the age of fifteen I did pack up and left home, with my mother's blessing. She knew what I wanted to do and she was behind it 100%. You can't do that type of thing I guess now. She knew I would be just fine and I ran away and joined the circus.
How did you get the job?
I had read that they had in Gainesville, Texas a little league circus, so instead of having a ball team they had a circus. They were at the fairgrounds. A professional circus called the Gil Gray Circus would winter there. So I went there at first only having the knowledge of the amateur circus and then the Gil Gray Circus came in. I said, "Sir, my name is Tony Steele and I have a trapeze act that I developed on a swing set at the YMCA and I want to be in your circus." He said "Fine, take this paintbrush and start painting those wheels over there on that semi and when you get done doing that you can haul some horse manure." So I did, I did everything. Then I went out with the circus, it was the same thing, I was just a roustabout and I wasn't taken seriously at all. All of a sudden there was some type of opening -- one of the performers was injured -- and the boss sent me to wardrobe. They made me a silk suit, sort of like the jockeys wear, and they said, "You're peforming, today." I said I must be dreaming. Once I did perform, they knew that they had a winner on their hands. I was fifteen years old, a child performer and of course the girls were screaming. So without tooting my own horn, I was an attraction they didn't have the foresight to see, that yes, a young fifteen-year-old kid on the trapeze would be an attraction.
Had they seen you perform before?
Not really. I always set up the trapeze away from everyone, so nobody saw me practicing. I did have some photographs taken. All of a sudden after that first performance, he realized a young kid performing, and who goes to the circus? Young kids. If they want to have some sort of idol, what better than to have a young kid their own age.
You were the original boy band.
Something like that, yes. They didn't see it, in the beginning.
What was rehearsal like?
I'd do it more or less secretively. I can't think of what the reason for that was (because I'm an extrovert); probably because I wanted to fine-tune it. Like a pianist. I do remember that I kept to myself, sort of occult, and hidden from the rest of the circus about this.
But it wasn't flying at that point, it was just static?
No, it was what they call single trapeze. There were many people to emulate. For example, I always did have the picture of that girl La Norma in my mind, but there have been male and female performers. Of course the females are more entertaining and more desirable to look at. There were many acts of that type to emulate. That may have been a reason that I stayed hidden, because I wanted to be up to par with everybody else even though I could have used the cop-out of being only fifteen and not expected to be good.
So you didn't have anyone teaching you?
It was all self-taught and they didn't have videotapes then. They did have 8-millimeter movies and you'd take the film, send it out and you'd get it back a month later and then you'd put it on the projector. By then you could correct a mistake you'd had and by now you might have some new ones. It's quite different with videotape. I want to use a quote from Marek Kaszuba, by the way, as long as we're talking about that. He said, "The only thing that's wrong about videotape is that it completely destroys any illusion that you might have had about yourself." Isn't that a classic?
Who were your idols?
There were several. I can't think of the names ... Frankie Doyle was one and he'd do one trick where he'd sit on the bar, but the bar was halfway between his knees and his butt and then he'd put his hands in front of the hang wires of the trapeze, and at the very apex of the swing dive forward and catch by his heels. He'd dive forward and he'd catch his heels on the bar, and that's one that really scared me, but I did work on it. He also did a trick ... sort of like a layout with a half-twist to a heels catch.
I can't imagine. That would require astonishing strength.
There were male and female performers, and I'm not saying anything about who was better, but for some reason if you were going to do single trapeze you were expected to do more if you were a male. In other words, the total of a woman's performance could be posing tricks, displaying her beauty. The thing I remember about La Norma the most is that in those days you didn't see women on the beach in the attire that they wear now, which is almost nothing. But you'd see this in the circus, plus the circus women were very well built and were erotic and sexual. It's very true.
What was that first performance like?
I don't remember being nervous about it. But what really got me and almost scared me to death is that I was like a little teenage idol. The first thing I remember is "oh, ahhhh, eeeee!" and I thought, "Oh, my God, was that for me????" It was thrilling and it was flattering. I can remember like it was yesterday. I was extremely pleased with myself and when it was over I was sort of angry with the owner of the circus for not being able to see the possibility. My ego kicked in and I said "See, you stupid bastard, I told you you should have listened to me when I first came." Making me paint all those trucks and hauling all that horse manure! It was just euphoria.
You did a bunch of positions?
It was mostly a lot of swinging, very high, sitting on the bar and dropping back to an ankle drop and from that position you could hang there if you wanted to but if you came up at the other end and went ...threw kisses to the audience. I sort of already knew about that by watching other performers, that it's not what you do it's what you make them think that you did or how you sell it. In other words, if you see a person doing something and you see them put their head down and shake it, you know that guy isn't pleased with himself. But you can actually fool the audience and do a terrible performance and go "Yes!" Ta-da ... They go, gee, he's happy, it must have been good. I remember a word that stuck in my mind was "extension." In other words, when you put your arms out, put them out and extend, extend the fingers and elongate the body and when you put your head up put it up high like you're a prince or a king. Being brought up in Boston my parents were always taking me to the ballet and the opera. So I got a lot of that and tried to incorporate that.
How did you make the transition from single to flying?
That was the first year I was with the Gil Gray circus that my debut happened. Then the following year I was still with the circus and a flying trapeze act was going to be with the show. It was already established; three people -- a catcher, the catcher's wife (who was a flyer), and the principal flyer. They were The Flying Malkos. It was a combination of his name, Michael Kusic from Canada; her name was June Malcolm -- so then you get the Flying Malkos. So anyway the boss of the circus told them Tony is going to be in your act, and they said, "Over our dead body he is."
I'd hate to have a catcher with that attitude!
The boss told them, "What your act needs is some clowning, and he's going to be the clown." So they told me: we don't like you and we don't want you in our act, but the boss says you are and that's the way it is. I said yes, sir. So my job was to come out of the audience and play the buffoon.
The first thing I did was swing out, do my clownery and then I lost the bar, the bar started swinging crooked. I actually went away and hid. I was scared they were going to kill me. It's an unforgivable sin to lose the bar.
After that there were other would-be trapeze people that tagged along with the show. Groupies. They wanted to be flyers and catchers. We'd practice without permission and we got away with it until one day. The thing is, the stagehands were on our side, and they would set up the net at night; we'd have people watching. We'd actually practice in secret because I was still in the act as a clown but Mike, the owner and catcher in the act, did not want to step on the toes of the principal flyer because he was very proud, as you can imagine ... he didn't like anybody challenging him. So we didn't; we practiced in private, and we practiced and we practiced and we got better and better. Sometimes we'd play at the fairgrounds, sometimes in ballparks, sometimes in buildings. We were having a long run in a large city in a building and all the trailers were set up on the other side of the lot and everybody knew we were practicing except the boss. We had a system. It's hard to believe but true; our friends the stagehands were all for us. They'd set the net up and the person who was watching out would whistle if he saw the boss coming. The stagehands would drop the net, roll it up and we'd be sitting there, playing cards. The thing is, it got to be a game. How fast can we do this and, ha ha, we're fooling somebody. They got so fast! They said, "Hey, you know those guys are practicing at night?" and the boss says "Nah." So he'd come and try to catch us in the act and every time he came we were sitting there, playing cards on the rolled up net. Those poles would come down; they'd roll the net up. It was getting to be a real game, aren't we sneaky? And we'd get away with it. He came many, many times; we were still being tattled on but he could not catch us in the act. We were in a clique with the stagehands. However, one day he was really quick getting to the building but not fast enough to catch us. We had that net down and rolled up and when he walked in the door, just by a whisker, we were sitting there, playing cards. He turned around to walk out, did a double take, and saw the trapeze bar swinging! Trapeze bars do not swing by themselves unless someone was in it -- so we were caught in the act. So leading up to the story, now the principal decided he was going to leave, which he did. As soon as he left now we were looked at in a different frame of mind. All of a sudden you can do anything you want -- You want to practice? Practice. There was about four of us, and all of a sudden we were up on the rig, all day, every day. Before that, so as not to stand on the principal flyer's toes, we weren't allowed to do anything and now that he was out of the picture, we were in. Then I was allowed to start practicing serious and with a great new feeling of freedom because I wasn't having to sneak around. I was sixteen then. These folks traveled with the show.
Who were the folks in that first act? Was it a flying act?
Oh, no it wasn't a flying trapeze act. I was working as a clown in the flying Malkos and then when the principal left I went from clown to principal in the Malko's act. Then the following year they decided to make a double wide troupe, two flying acts right alongside each other, with a big net and they called it the Flying Malconians and this was an opportunity for those hangers-on that were always practicing. So we became one big happy family, the Flying Malconians, and I think we had about a total of ten people. It was unique in the fact that it was one act flying over the net. The bars would be twice as wide, the net would be twice as wide and it could move along quickly, as one person was returning another would be leaving. I remember there was a lot of originals that Mike Malko came up with, sort of trademarks, and one of them was when they went to the double wide, the tempo of the act changed. The music for example used to be a traditional Waltz, but now that it was moving quickly and it was more razzle-dazzle, the music changed also. It would be the equivalent to 'Let the Sunshine In', something jivey. The other thing is he was the only act that had a red net. He knew a place where he could take the net and get it dyed, and that was a big secret. He used to have a trim around the board with a big "M" on it ... Red tights, red wrist bands, the catcher's bar was red, there were flags on the rigging that were red - everything was red, red, red. That was one of the things I remember and everyone would say, "Where can I get my net dyed red?" "I'm not telling you." It was like his trademark. Anytime you'd see a movie and the flyers were in red and the net was red.
What was your progression of tricks?
I wanted to learn as much as I could, as fast as I could. There's a lot of things you can learn on the trampoline. I was not a great gymnast so I didn't have that background. You could train a gymnast in a very short time because they already have the twisting and the body control, etc. But the main thing is that we didn't have a tutor. In spite of Michael being the owner of the act he was not a trainer of any kind. So it was all trial and error and the best we could do was look into the folklore of what had been done and how they did it. There were some rare movies that we were able to get ahold of. My progression of tricks was pretty simple: it was a knee hang, then the bird's nest, then the plange, but nobody was satisfied with that. My first trick that I had any respect for myself was the layout. And then I said what comes next? You'd think after one comes two, so it should be layout double, but no, you can't jump from the layout to the double, you have to do a layout with a full twist. Then how about a one and a half with a full twist? We're getting to the double but let's do it intelligently - and that was the right way to do it because that way you could learn how to twist, how to summersault. I was learning a lot about torque and vectors without even knowing what that meant. Then of course the natural progression was: Are we at the double yet? No, we haven't done anything over the bar, so how about a shoot-over, how about a forward-over? So we still haven't got the number two yet. So the shoot-over, the forward-over, and then the double. The double to me was a big word because although the triple had been done before, in the 30s, and quite consistently by Alfredo Codona, one of the legends of trapeze, there was nobody doing anything. There was absolutely positively no competition. It may have had something to do with the war. When the war broke out everything stops and all the trapeze acts had gone to war, come back from the war and went in other directions and got disconnected with the flying trapeze. Actually when I was 15, 16, 17 there was nobody doing anything, and there weren't a lot of flying trapeze acts. In the 30s there were lots of them and they were all based in Bloomington, Illinois. Art Consello was the one who supplied all of the flying trapeze acts for the Ringling Bros. Circus; that was the mecca of flying trapeze, Bloomington, Illinois, and at one time there may have been 50 or 60 flyers and catchers between the YMCA, Bloomington, and a barn on the outskirts of town called the Ward Barn. All the flyers were there, but again this is before the war. Then they dwindled down, drifted apart and now in latter 50s there was nobody, just us.
It had to be reestablished from scratch?
I think that's the reason, when the war comes, everything stops and you have to go back to square one. Going back to the progression of tricks, how do you do a double somersault with a full twist?
I don't know if I've seen one.
That's exactly the way I felt, and nowadays, you don't do a double with a full twist; you do it laid out, which makes sense, because when you're laid out you can twist easier and you get an arch. A double layout isn't an arch, it means straight like a board and you hollow your chest. A double layout had never been done, so how could we do it?
There was only one person that I'd ever seen do a double with a full twist; his name was Eddie Cole and he did it in a tucked position. You're in a tucked position when you're doing the first summersault with a half-twist, and then you're doing the second summersault with another half-twist, so in the final analysis you have a double summersault with a full twist. There are many ways you can do it. If you're talking about a double summersault with any kind of twist in it, so that you can explain it easier, you call the first summersault the in summersault and the second summersault the out summersault.
Depending on where you end up facing when you're finished with it?
No. For example let's take the double full, the "double salto with a full twist" ["salto" being short for "summersault"]. The first method has a half-twist in the first salto, and a half-twist in the second salto: you'd say it's a "half in, half out". Because it's understood we're talking about a double summersault. So the "in" summersault is the first summersault and the second is the "out" summersault. So half in, half out - that means there was a half twist in the first summersault and a half twist out of the second summersault.
If you were to do the full twist in the first summersault you'd say "full in, back out": a double summersault with a full twist in the first summersault, and then a back summersault out of the second. Then you get to a triple, and that has any types of twist in it, then you come to another language; the "in" becomes the first summersault, the "out" becomes the third, and the middle summersault, the second summersault, becomes the "within". It's kind of complicated. But anyway, there was no one to copy on how to do a double with a full twist, so I said, "Well I'll copy this guy"; I copied a double tuck summersault with a half in the first and a half twist in the second summersault. Even today it looks more spectacular than a clean double lay out summersault with a full twist, which of course is a lot harder to get a double laid out summersault than a tucked. But this looks like you're doing 10 times more. Then came the two and a half summersault which presents a new problem because you're no longer going wrist to wrist, you're going to be caught by the legs.
Is that easier?
You don't have the control of the catch. You have to have a lot of trust and faith in the ability of your catcher. They catch you by the legs, which is also a difficult thing for the catcher. Even if he's used to catching by the wrists, this is a different thing. Generally speaking you can't catch with your toenails, so you're totally dependent on the catcher.
Then after that is the triple. Oh my God, the triple summersault! How many people have been killed mostly because the nets were not forgiving like they are now? This net here [at Sam Keen's ranch], you could probably land on the back of your neck and survive because it has the shock cord. But in the old days the nets were not that forgiving. As a matter of fact the first time a net was used was in Bloomington, Illinois. The name of the troupe was the Nobel Troupe and they went down to the Illinois fisherman and asked them to build them a net, with the knots, because they thought more elaborate tricks could be done if you had a net under you. Because there really isn't any such thing as a flying trapeze act without a net, there was what they called "casting acts", something along that line; they were not high in the air. But if you're going to go up in the air and do tricks you have to have something safe. So they set up a net but nobody had ever set up one before. So how tight should it be? They decided it should be tight as a drum! So if you were to land awkwardly in the net in those days you'd most likely get killed or at least break an arm or leg.
When you mention the triple summersault, you're talking about risking your life, because if you look at the history several people have been killed trying it. There are other things involved, such as smashing into the catcher. But mostly you're talking about the danger of the flyer falling into the net and breaking his neck. A fellow named Ernie Lane was killed in the net by landing badly. It's just the fact that nowadays the nets are more forgiving and you can land not so perfectly and still survive.
So we developed the triple summersault. I was talking about the double full in the tucked position: I decided to do that and give it more oomph and give my feet to the catcher; that turned out to be a two and a half with a full twist. Talk about scary. Gee. You have to get squared off to the catcher and then give him my feet, and I can't curl my toes to help him! Later, they were saying hey, Tony, you did three, bravo, wonderful - how about four! I said these people are completely stupid; who's going to do a quadruple summersault?! That's unheard of! Then one time when I'm meditating, sitting in a tree, like Isaac Newton or something I said now four of course can't be done, but how about three and a half? By the time it takes you to open up to present yourself for a triple you could keep going and roll it into the catcher and give him your feet. So we decided to do a three and a half and we were successful. I did that with a fellow named Lee Stath. Nowadays I find out that those people were right. You could do a quadruple, because it's been done now by Miguel Vasquez and several others.
I thought Vasquez was the only one.
They were the only ones to do it consistently. They did it for 10 years on the Ringling Bros., but there had been other people. Arturo Padilla and the Flying Cranes have done a quadruple, for example.
As part of their act?
The Cranes have dispersed. Jill Page did a quadruple. The Flying Poemas have done a quad and of course the Flying Caballeros. At one time they were on the same bill, the Caballeros and Miguel Vasquez. They didn't use the right music -- they should have used dueling banjos ... they were dueling and flying, and I saw them perform in Reno when Ringley Bros. Came to Reno for the first and only time I know of because the city doesn't support it. They had the Flying Caballeros and Vasquez on the same bill, both attempting the quad. The time I saw it the Caballeros failed and Vasquez succeeded. Vasquez did it with a lot of consistency, over a 10-year period of time, which I think is pretty important. I've seen him on video tape and I cannot believe it -- he seems to hover in the air like a helicopter. It seems like he goes up and he stays there and turns. I don't understand it; it's incredible. But anyway I was wrong; I stand corrected. Those who said to do a quad .... Now I'm a little bit angry that I didn't listen to them. But you see how the mind works? You form a mental block and I took them to be crazy and stupid, you know? People put a limit on their goals, and who knows how high you can fly if you really go after it.
So you weren't the first to throw a triple?
Was there any trick where you were the only guy doing it or the first person doing it?
I'm very interested in circus history, but I find there's a lot of contradiction that goes on with who was the first, etc. To my knowledge the first person to throw the triple summersault was Ernest Clark, followed shortly thereafter by Alfredo Codona to his brother Lalo, the catcher. Again, comparing them to the Clarks, they did it consistently and they get the credit for being the first to do a triple. But later in life he confessed to someone (a reporter) that no, he wasn't the first to do the triple, it was done by Ernest Clark to his brother. Then later I was reading and it said no, the first person to do the triple was not Ernest Clark or Alfredo Codona but it was a woman named Lena Jordan! It may be true but I had never heard it before. I'm suspicious of it because of the fact that it popped up out of nowhere. There are people who say that they have write-ups in journals to prove that Lena Jordan was the first person to perform the triple summersault and they can document it; so that's where it's left at the moment as to who was first in the triple. My firsts, which I'm very proud of and not ashamed at all and I won't hesitate to talk about them ....
The naked triple?
No, I do that out here every day! No ... there was a flyer, Raymond Valentine, doing a double lay out to the net and I said, "You can catch that," but he had that mental block. His double layout was much prettier, much higher and could have been caught but he somehow had it in his head that he couldn't do it. So I was the first one to do the double layout to a catch.
I bet he was pissed.And then he did it immediately after that. So my first is also the fold over with a full twist.
That's a beautiful trick. That's one that's something that I haven't seen anyone else do till now. The other one is a two and a half with a full twist and the three and a half -- those are my firsts. Another one is a trick that you do to the stick called the double cut-away, you have your back to the catcher, come off the bar backwards and you catch the bar. That's been done, but the return is a double back to the bar, which you don't have the softness of the catcher, you have a trapeze bar swinging up at you so you'd better get it right. So those are my firsts. Some of them have been duplicated and some have been left alone, like the double cut-away, with a double return -- no one has bothered with that. They have more sense! The forward-over with a full twist, I don't see any reason why somebody doesn't do it because it can't be that difficult but for some reason ... and the flyers nowadays are better than they've ever been. But they still stick to certain basic tricks. Even though they're wonderful or great tricks, it's the double layout with a full twist, the triple, and on rare occasions the double forward, but a lot of the tricks have been done away with, like the double forward. Because it's the catcher's nightmare. If you can imagine hanging upside down and somebody doing a forward to you, that's O.K., but a double forward, you see all these feet and arms coming at you. If you say to the catcher "Would you hang for my double forward" he'll go, gulp, "O.K.", but they don't like that one. Because if the flyer comes out of that trick early, they come out and the heels of the flyer go right into the catcher's rib cage and he's out wind.
Did you do any training, like a weight regimen?
Never touched the weights at all. It's not a strength thing; it's timing. I did do some training on the high bar, different types of chin-ups. Because you're better off to have a little more strength than you need, but mostly it's technique and timing and, very important, going without food. It's like being a jockey; you have an advantage if you keep yourself light and strong.
Have you been injured much?
I've only been injured [knocks on wood] one time; I've been very lucky. I think the biggest fear of flyers is getting a shoulder pulled, and it happens to a lot of flyers early in their career, and they have trouble with their shoulders the rest of the time. I've never had any shoulder trouble. I've only had one accident and that was on the three and a half, and I realized when I was doing the three and a half it was a risk. If you do a two and a half you give your legs to the catcher, and if you miss it, you twist out; you miss three and a half the same way, except you don't have the same amount of time to do it. You're already that much lower and zooming towards the net. In this particular case I wasn't able to twist out of it and I tried to arch out backwards and landed right on my face, with my legs bent over my back. I was severely injured, but I recovered 100%. But I still feel it was well worth it, it was worth the risk and there was a thing there about the belt.
The thing about the belt is that when you have it on, it can be annoying and cause drag; it's like having too much clothes on. You want to be free. I decided to do the three and a half without the belt so I'd be more comfortable and free, but of course a lot of risk. But the risk was worth it; even though I got hurt it was worth it. Because if somebody does something after you, records are meant to be broken but one thing they can never take away from you is that "I was the first". But I'm not advising anybody to do anything without the belt, that's stupid and foolish.
Being first seemed important at the time but now it doesn't. What seems important to me now is to inspire people. I'm tingling with excitement because I'm 64, I like to get up there and do something really stupid and maybe even risky just so I'll say I inspired a little bit here or there. Without getting too religious, I think that's part of my responsibility of still being here and being in such wonderful health, thank you Jesus. It's like, "If that old fart can do that, I can too."
Did you have any close calls, almost injuries?
No, I've been very lucky. Outside the one accident with the three and a half ... I'm extremely prudent as far as being cautious. It doesn't cost anything to put your safety belt on and nobody is going to call you a sissy. The idea is that I try to keep it safe and I've not had any accidents, except with the three and a half. I knew there was a danger there. The value of doing the three and a half was worth the risk to me at the time.
Did you have any connection to the movie Trapeze?
Nope. The flyer that did the movie was Fay Alexander, who was doing the triple at that time. He had done a lot of movies. He did Jumbo. He was the West Coast/Hollywood boy and he was a flyer's flyer, he was the granddaddy of them all. But no, I had nothing to do with the movie. We love the film, it's like going to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show ... We get a group of people, we go to the film, we know every line in the film, we rent the first two rows of seats. When Burt Lancaster asks Gina Lolabrigida "Are you afraid of heights?" and she says "Zee higher, zee better." "What about your legs?" "I was always strong in zee legs." Anyway we'd sit in the first two rows of the theater and recite the lines as they came up. The rest of the people in the theater told us to hush up, which we wouldn't. The story is good, too. A lot of people have associated me with the movie because I worked in that building, the Cirque D'Hiver in Paris. I was in that building quite often. So whenever they say "You were very good in Trapeze", I say thank you very much. But Alexander did the doubling for Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Gina Lolabrigida ...
I heard it was just Alexander in a wig.
That's right. That was Fay Alexander and everyone calls him the master. He was the master; his technique was flawless and a gentleman to boot. Burt Lancaster used to do a bar act with his partner, Nick Cravat. Lancaster was approached to be in a movie called The Killer. After that, they made pictures of an acrobatic nature where nick Cravat and Lancaster worked together. Because they were partners in the circus doing a high bar act and a perch-pole pull-out. The two movies they made, one is called The Crimson Pirate and the other is called The Flame and the Arrow and they do all kinds of acrobatics and they do bar work. They carry this perch-pole around with them, and they're in a castle, and in order to get from one parapet to another they drop the pole down and walk across. Really entertaining. And of course Nick Cravat got into trouble by being on the set with Victor Mature on another movie. He punched Victor Mature in the mouth and that was the end of his career. Burt Lancaster couldn't save him after that. Then Burt Lancaster went on to become a big, big star. But his roots were in the circus.
What was the series of different jobs you had? How did you end up in Paris?
Too many to count. I stuck with the same person, the catcher, Mike Malko, until I was drafted in the Army. He died while I was in the Army. I don't know if he died of a heart attack or was electrocuted. He was under his trailer fixing something ... all I know it was Clifton, New Jersey ... in '61. No, I wasn't in Korea, I spent all of my time in Germany. After basic training.
There was a draft in '59?
Oh yes, I was drafted. I would never have joined, unless we were at war. That was the two most horrible years of my life. I was not cut out to be a soldier, and besides that, I was quite rich at that time, and I was quite pampered and spoiled, and all of a sudden some drill sergeant is telling me to go mop the floor. "Do you know to whom you're talking?????" As a matter of fact, I have nightmares of being back in the army! I was quite rich, quite famous, doing quite well off and then all of a sudden I was drafted. So yes, there was a draft -- and there was no war! When you were eighteen, you had to register for the draft and then you'd get a letter in the mail that said, "Greetings. You have been inducted into ..." Then you'd go for the physical exam and they'd never see you again. I happened to be in New Jersey when it happened, and I only had to go to Boston; I didn't have to travel across the country, and I was in, that was it. I never saw him again.
When I came out of the army I started forming my own act. I've had several catchers ....
I think you'd be unwilling to give up a catcher.
Yes, it's like a person who has his own tools doesn't want to use somebody else's.
What's it like on the road?
I want to tell it the way it is. I don't care what you've read in books or seen in movies. On the Ringling show for example, this is the way it is: they're going to have two flying acts, one at each end, and they absolutely positively despise each other and hate each other and are extremely jealous. I'm not going to go into detail but they have done terrible things to each other! Really. It's a rivalry. There's a book called The Biggest Trick; I don't think you can get it anymore, but it was about the Vasquez and the Caballeros working together on the Ringling Show, and the things that went on were absolutely scandalous! But that's the nature of flying trapeze people, which is quite different than the people who do it for a sport as opposed to as an occupation. It always seems real chummy out here, having fun, they cheer for each other, they're behind each other, but in the professional world it's very competitive. "I'll show you and I'll be better than you." And they'd do silly things, almost like children. At the end, the last flyer coming down, they're supposed to go ... and on cue they'd do it together. But they'd do silly things ... they've put cowbells on the net and jumped in the net when they were announcing a triple summersault at the other end. I'm not going to mention any names! There was an act we worked with, again not mentioning any names, and they'd do all kinds of silly things to outshine us. In another act, there was a beautiful beautiful woman working. Normally the flyers are backstage warming up. She had this robe on ... she took her robe off ... and she just had on three postage stamps, so we couldn't concentrate that day! Just crazy silly things like that. That sums it up. They're very very competitive, very jealous and that's the truth, that's just the way it is. They have this nature of being combative and competitive. People may be shocked because they think we're all one big happy family. Horse crap!
What was it like in Europe?
Performing in Europe is quite different than performing in America. It's a one-ring thing. We'd have presentations, wear brief attire, have three girls come in and take our Velcro costumes off and then we'd have brief attire on. That was part of performing; you felt good performing. The part about performing, if a person is sensual for example, what could you ask for more than to be able to exhibit yourself in brief attire in front of a vast audience with all kinds of make-up and rhinestones, glorifying the body. For certain gala performances, girls would wear only a G-string and pasties! Yes, it's quite a thrilling thing, you know. Although like I say, I think as nice and wonderful as that is, our bodies are the temple of the holy ghost, without getting religious, but the main thing is that we're all going to wither away anyway but it's the spirit that's so important. What I mean by spirit is what you do in this life and how you act and how you treat one another.
How hard was it to balance your career and your personal life?
I was married to same woman for 37 years and she was God-sent. I'm not even going to get started ... [pauses]. My wife passed away four years ago, and I spent one year of grief in a dark room with the shades pulled down and drinking enormous quantities of alcohol. But, enough said about that. What happened is that I found out ... after my wife's death I felt like what's the use of living, what's the use ... I decided to come back to my passion, which was the flying trapeze and so it served me in a time of need. I've gone at it with a more fervent pace than I did before and with a whole different outlook because, like I say, I can do it when I want and I don't have to do it when my hands hurt. So it's a wonderful passion.
Did your wife work in the circus?
Oh, yes. Oh, that's important. If you're in a circus you cannot marry a woman that's not in the business, it doesn't work. I know a lot of people who fell in love with what we would call "town girls" which meant they weren't in the circus. It never worked, absolutely positively. The circus is so different than the rural or any life that's outside the circus that you cannot make it last. So the first thing you do is you have to marry in the business, just plain common sense. Children are a big important part of the circus .... i.e. acrobatics passed on from father to son, you have to generate children to pass them on to. There have always been a lot of children in the circus .... My wife decided on a different plan. We met, fell in love, love at first sight, the first question I asked was "Would you like to have children?" "Oh, no, sorry, no I don't," she said. I said, "Good, because I don't want any, either." That's what worked for us. She never had the maternal instinct, I never had the paternal instinct and we only had enough love for each other. I loved my wife so much that I could never have any left over for any children, or dogs or pets or whatnot; that's the way we decided to do it. It must have been a good formula because we were married for 37 years and we still would be except that she passed on. But we're not your typical couple...
What's the professional trapeze community like?
They pal around, they're very clique-ish. Very clan-ish. The circus people in general, you can learn so much from them. For example you'll see all these kids running around and you say isn't there any supervision here? They let the kids run around but it's like every adult is a parent ... the kids are all being watched with a very careful eye. But it appears that nobody is watching these kids. It's a tribal type of situation. But yes, flyers are clan-ish and they think talking about anything that isn't flying trapeze is totally boring!
What do you think of the Club Med trapeze program?
I think it's wonderful, I really do. In the professional world it's always been closed, usually family-only, and people nowadays are going to do more to get away from their boring job and they need something.
It's been the gateway for many many people ....
This is complicated to explain but if Club Med would have happened when I was a pro, I wouldn't have felt threatened. But that's a time gone by. Also, if you'll notice nowadays a lot of circuses don't even have a flying trapeze act. A lot of circuses have wonderful creative acts and they pick from talent all over the world. They used to say you can't have a circus without clowns and elephants, but I could have a circus without elephant for sure! But how can you have a circus without a flying trapeze act? That's unheard of.
I don't feel threatened by Club Med, and I don't think the professionals feel threatened either, because most people have no intention of getting into the circus in the first place. It doesn't even enter their mind. The circus can be very rewarding and it can be very punishing at the same time, but you never get bored. But most people think, "I'd never go into it because of the hardships and inconveniences," of which there are many. You don't have hot and cold running water just by turning the tap on; you have to carry your own water sometimes and have to live in a trailer.
The flying trapeze at Club Med was created by Bob Christian. He was with the Florida State University Circus for a while; he's a very resourceful person, and he came up with the idea that having flying trapeze would be a great thing for Club Med and he was right. I think they have 23 Club Meds with flying trapeze acts. One would think everybody is going to do it, they're cutting into the professional market, but it hasn't happened and I don't believe it will. But I think Club Med is good. It brings out your realization that we're not limited, we can do anything we want. One thing relates to the other; if you can do something on a trapeze you can say well, I can probably tell my boss off, too! You can take the same energy and turn it around. I find it hypnotizing ... even if it's a knee hang ....every time they succeed, the joy it brings them, it's a wonderful thing to see people enjoying themselves. Club Med has my benediction, and besides what a place to meet chicks! I think people nowadays have become very health conscious and I think it's very important to work on your body and to feel good in your body. Again I tend not to get too religious, but the body will decay and wither away but it's nice to have a nice body until we do become spirit.
Any advice for would-be flyers?
I think of all the things that I know, first of all it's the greatest passion you can have. Some people will come out here (to Sam's ranch) and never come back again, or go to Club Med and never pick it up. But would-be flyers, as a sport, I think one thing about the flying trapeze is that my advice don't go too fast, take it one step at a time, because part of the process is going from one stage to another; it builds up your self-esteem and it makes you feel good as you progress. If you get up there and want to do it all at once today, right now, that's foolish. It's the working towards it and whatnot that brings the joy and you want to take it in a little bit at a time. Like drinking good wine ... you savor it. I think the trapeze is just a wonderful thing and especially as a profession; the difference is that you have to do it, you're being paid to perform. If your hands hurt, we don't give a darn, you're being paid so you have to do it. But if you do it as a sport or a past time or a hobby, you can take it at your own pace. And if your hands hurt you don't go up that day. Anything you pursue, as long as it's progress; it doesn't have to be speedy progress. As long as you're advancing and getting better, what better thing can a person do than that? I don't mean to get philosophical but if it never rained, you wouldn't enjoy the sunshine; it's that simple. If you don't have pain how can you have joy? Same type of thing.
You asked about advice: I'd say first of all a gymnast is a big advantage over someone who isn't so therefore I'd say to them they should learn movements on the trampoline. Like for example when the Cranes would practice six days a week for a two-hour period and at least a half hour of that was training just to do one thing, to drop, a face off I believe. A face off and a twist, that's what they would practice. I realized the best place to practice that would be on the trampoline where the bungee is, with a twisting belt. You can practice it on a big rig too, but you can practice it easier on the trampoline. The best thing you can do is to try to learn more acrobatics. In other words they call it mechanics. Mechanics means controlling your body. Twisting, turning. For example if you're going to do a full twist in a flying trapeze act how in the heck are you going to learn it up on the trapeze, why not learn it on the trampoline. I'd say to the beginner they should educate themselves more and put more time in learning mechanics.
What would you tell someone who wants to break into the biz?
Again the truth: it's not what it used to be. There's a lot of reasons for that, one is television of course; one is movies, surround sound. In other words there's a lot of people who don't realize that a live performance is still better than anything projected on the screen, at least I believe it is. Some people will say the circus is dying which is absolutely 100% false. It's just evolving, for example from the Ringling Bros. to the new Cirque de Soleil style. Instead of glorifying animals why not take again, coming back to the body and why not glamorize human beings in what they do. Beautiful people performing. It's also another perspective. When you see people performing in the air you're seeing it at a different angle.
I didn't know you could take lessons ... now I'm totally hooked.
I'm happy to hear you say that. Why not run away and join the circus? I'll tell you one thing: it's a great life. It's not all glamorous. I've performed before royalty and heads of state all over the world but I've also been out in the mud and the slough and rained upon, cold and miserable, etc. But one thing about the circus that's for sure, the life in a circus, you'll be happy, you'll be sad, you'll be elated or miserable but one thing you will never be is you will never ever be bored! There is always something going on!
Transcribed by Karen Ruggles (415) 460-5063