Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Flying Trapeze 1964

Throughout history is the record of kings; how they've come and gone, some soon forgotten; others long remembered. In circus history, the reign of King Alfredo Codona will long be remembered! But even while he reigned and after he had relinquished the throne to Concello, there were other leapers who aspired to the royal crown.

One legend has it that between 1933 and 1940 at least two scores of leapers executed the triple; and another legend covering the same period relates that only two flyers could accomplish the feat. But again both are more fiction than fact. To be sure, there were a number of leapers who turned the triple during that period, but not two scores of them - though more than just a couple. Among those aspirants can be listed: Buster Melzoras and Rod Cushman, both of The Flying Melzoras; Harry Lamar, of The Flying Lamars; Harold Voise of The Flying Harolds; also Bert Doss, Harold "Thoughy" Genders, and Billy Ward.

There is no question that, at one time or other, either in practice or during a public performance, those fine performers caught the triple - but not with any sufficient degree of frequency, accuracy or regularity to be considered in a class with Ernie Clarke, Alfredo Codona, or Art Concello.

Rod Cushman was the first to be given the opportunity to take Alfredo's place with the Codonas. Under Alfredo's coaching he did turn some triples to Lalo's hands. But his average of catches was so low that Alfredo decided to replace him with Clayton Behee.

Between 1933 and 1936 Harry Lamar, with Benny Gibson on the catch-trap, also caught triples - but never with the assurance of a Concello or the grace of a Codona. The same would apply to Buster Melzoras and the others previously mentioned.

However, by the middle 1930's, two serious contenders for the crown were looming brightly over the circus horizon. In Europe was Genesio Amadori, and in the States, Wayne Larey.

Genesio Amadori was the featured leaper with the Amadori Troupe, then consisting of his father, Goffredo, the catcher, and his two sisters, Gilda and Ginevra. There is ample documentation to substantiate the fact that Genesio was catching the triple regularly between 1935 and 1938. It may also be mentioned that he was the first performer to duplicate Jules Alex's spectacular pass of a "lay-out back" and catch with Only One Hand! Better yet, Amadori even turned a double to a one hand catch!

It can also be related that Alfredo Codona personally held the young Italian leaper in such high esteem that Alfredo, a year before his death, had written him a letter in which he expressed the opinion that Genesio was the only contemporary flyer with the potentials of becoming the next King of the Flying Trapeze!

But Codona's appraisal and prediction never came to pass, for Genesio Amadori's claim was short-lived. On November 21, 1938, while performing in Liege, Belgium, Genesio missed a catch of a double twister and plunged to the net, breaking his spinal column as he landed on his neck.

Only 25 years of age, he died the following day at the hospital, his mental faculties unimpaired - expressing his regret that fate had prevented him from fulfilling Codona's prediction. Thus, like Ernie Lane, another brilliant artist was listed in the Circus Martyrelogy!

Simultaneously in the States, Wayne Larey, a colleague of Art Concello (who, upon the death of Ed Ward, Sr. in 1929, had acquired the latter's "Flying School" in Bloomington) was the featured leaper of "The Flying Comets." By 1936 Wayne Larey, with Bob Porter on the catch-trap, was also turning triples with regularity - and catching them with a remarkable average of 85% or better. Larey's accomplishment was all the more remarkable when one considers that he stood 5 foot 7 inches tall and weighed around 160 pounds - a rather large size and weight as compared to the average leaper, who rarely exceeds 5 foot 4 inches and seldom scales more than 140 pounds.

Without any doubt here was another great artist who, too, had the potentials to become a king! Among professionals, there are some who contend that when it came to "pirouettes," Larey executed these with such mastery and grace that he even excelled the great Alfredo! Concurrently with Genesio Amadori, Wayne Larey continued to gain the plaudits of circus audiences with his triples during 1937 and 1938. But then another brilliant career was brought to an abrupt halt when Larey first pulled a shoulder while executing the triple, then dislocated it while doing a double cut-away with a half-twist.

What a pity! Like Codona, another set of shoulders that didn't hold out - and it spelled "finis" for another illustrious leaper. By a strange coincidence, the careers of two of the most promising artists on the fly-bar, Amadori and Larey, were brought to an end on the same year!

Somehow or other, for more than a decade, no flying star appeared over the circus horizon to lay claim to the crown - until 1952 when, by another strange coincidence, in that same year two more leapers started turning triples; again, one in Europe; the other, in the States.

In February of 1952, the Italian leaper, Cesare Togni, descendant of an old circus dynasty, presented the triple publicly when the parental Circo Togni appeared in Milano, Cesare was already 28 years of age at the time. Considering that his father, Ugo, had made him climb the rigging when only 16, it had taken Cesare 12 years of assiduous practice on the fly-bar before realizing his ambition!

At the time there were professionals who thought that Cesare Togni might become another Genesio Amadori. For a couple of years Cesare, with his cousin, Ligo Milette, as catcher and his brother, Oscar, as the second leaper, did continue to turn triples on spasmodic occasions. True his average of catches was rising - but rather slowly. Then in the spring of 1955, when the Circus Ugo Togni was in Bari, Italy, both Oscar and Cesare's careers as leapers were brought to an abrupt end through a serious accident which was almost fatal to the latter.

Oscar and Cesare were executing a double pass, with the latter leaping over Oscar returning from the catcher to the fly-bar when there was a brush of the two bodies in mid-air. Oscar lunged to the net - followed an instant later by Cesare. As Oscar landed, a guy-wire on the net snapped under the impact; when an instant later Cesare landed, the collapsed net was already a limp stretch of cordage.

As a result of this accident, Cesare was so severely injured that his career as a fly-trap artist could never be resumed. Within a 3 year span, the Italian "shooting star" had risen and fallen out of orbit!

....The Flying Alexanders..Bob and Dorothy Yerkes and Fay and Rose Alexander....

In the meanwhile in the States, a young leaper in one of Concello's flying acts was also rising in the circus firmament - to remain in orbit. His name? Fay Alexander. Compared to Cesare Togni's 12 years on the fly-bar before catching a triple, Fay Alexander caught his first one after only two days' practice! To those who'd watched this accomplishment it was incredible!

But then, to Fay's surprise and consternation, instead of Concello expressing his congratulations, came a blunt order from the latter to Fay, to discontinue any further attempt at the triple - either in practice or in public. The Concello order was puzzling. Among the professionals who were aware of Alexander's potentials, there were some who questioned Concello's ulterior motives. Could it be that the latter resented this young upstart being able to execute the triple with such ease and with so little effort?

Such a wild conjecture should never have been made by anyone in the first place. Had it had any basis, then Concello would also have ordered Wayne Larey to cease and desist more than a decade before. Common sense should have dictated that Concello, by then fully aware of the dangers of a torn shoulder, which can happen on each and every occasion that a triple is caught, was more concerned in saving a promising artist from ruining his career prematurely by trying too hard to reach the height too soon.

Perhaps Concello vividly remembered how Codona's and Larey's careers had been brought to a sudden ending as the results of torn shoulders. Perhaps he also was endowed with a foreboding sixth sense. The fact remains that, order or no order from Concello, Alexander would have had to give up turning the triple anyhow - at least for quite a spell. For during 1952 in which he caught his first triple, Fay dislocated his left shoulder when he missed a catch and went to the net.

Obviously Concello was deeply concerned over the future of his ward, for in the winter of that year he insisted in sending Fay to the Mayo Clinic. There, the medics gave Alexander a choice of two alternatives: 1, surgery without any assurance of a cure; 2, a two-year lay-off from the fly-bar, also without any assurance of a cure.

It was a difficult decision to make. Two years is a long time. But Alexander chose that. It proved to be a wise decision, for by 1955 he was able to resume practice on the fly-bar and eventually, even resume catching a number of triples to Ed Ward, Jr. - when both of them were engaged to "double" respectively for Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster in the famous film "Trapeze."

Once confident that his shoulder had completely healed and would "hold out," Fay subsequently formed his own act in 1957, "The Flying Alexanders," with Bob Yerkes catching. Once more he caught triples with regularity, assurance and ease. Both Alexander and Yerkes looked forward to the debut of the new act with the Ringling Show at Madison Garden with a great deal of anticipation - for they had a surprise �cooked-up" for both the spectators and the professionals! During the winter, they had practiced a forward triple cut-away to the "stick" - and catching it with an average of 5 out of 6! A stupendous feat, which should have been sensational!

But when the act reported for the opening at the Garden, once more Concello commanded Alexander to cease and desist. "No triples, Fay," the executive flatly ordered - "either backward or forward."

It was a stunning blow for Alexander who had anticipated astonishing one and all with the almost insuperable feat! On the surface the Concello order could be construed as a dictatorial suppression of an artist's perogative. But again common sense dictates that Concello's order was based solely on his concern for the physical welfare of one more flyer who was willing to risk his professional career on the execution of a difficult feat - which is rarely appreciated by the unintiated audience.

Thus during the 1957 and 1958 Ringling seasons, Alexander had to reluctantly give up presenting the triple - by executive order only. But when the act went to the Polack Bros. Circus in 1959, Alexander and Yerkes wasted no time in resuming presentation of the triple! As a matter of record, once they even caught a triple with One Hand! To be sure it was strictly an accident, nevertheless, and also by accident, the feat is recorded on film!

Today, and even though he's plagued with arthritis in the left shoulder, Alexander still turns the triple - except during cold weather spells, which causes aggravation of the arthritic condition. Starting in May of 1964, The Flying Alexanders, now with Paul McCausland at the catch-trap, will display their artistry for the next 26 weeks at the N.Y. Fair Circus. Whether or not Fay Alexander thrills the daily audiences with triples will depend on the condition of the weather and his shoulder. But for those who may attend the show and fail to see Alexander turning a triple, you can be sure that the choice to do or not to do will not be his - for with such a dedicated artist, giving his best has always been his credo.

But whether Fay Alexander ever catches another triple or not, his revival of the feat in the early 1950's certainly inspired a number of other performers to duplicate it. Again legend has it that it triggered an avalanche of leapers who executed the triple during the 1950-60 decade. But again that is more fiction than fact. To be sure there have been a few - but not so many that they can't be counted on the fingers of both hands. In sifting the facts from the fiction, the list dwindles considerably.

In the same year of 1952, when Alexander caught his first triple, various reports from the British Isles announced that another troupe named Los 3 Condoras was also executing the triple while performing at the Mills Circus, then appearing in Glasgow that June. It is true that the Condoras, after practicing for three years, were turning "some" triples - now and then. But their average of catches had not reached the point where they dared to present it publicly at every performance.

Obviously it never did improve sufficiently - for the triple never was integrated into the act as part of their regular routine. As late as 1958 and 1959 when the Condoras appeared in various circuses on the European continent, their very best routine consisted of only the double-and-a-half to the catcher and a double-and-a-half pirouette return to the fly-bar.

....The Flying Steels..Rosa and Billy Woods and Tony and Lily Steel....

In the wake of Alexander and in chronological order can be listed Tony Steele, of "The Flying Steeles," who caught his first triple in 1955, with Mike Malko on the catch-bar - and the following year started presenting it in public with Bob Yerkes catching, with a 70% average of catches. Today, with Billy Woods as his catcher, Tony Steele averages 9 out of 10 catches - and holds the distinction of being the only leaper who can execute the triple-and-a-half!

This feat, which was first accomplished in September of 1962 in Durango, Mexico, with Lee Stath as catcher, has become a rather controversial "conversational piece." Among professionals there are some who contend that the triple-and-a-half is no more difficult to catch than the triple - especially a triple caught wrist-to-wrist, as compared to the arm-to-arm catch followed by a quick slide to a wrist grasp.

Actually this is true, for in the wrist-to-wrist catch the leaper is turning away from his catcher, while in the leg-to-arm catch of a triple-and-a-half the legs of the leaper are turning into the catcher's arms. Obviously, in the first instance, the leaper's timing has to be more exact during his "break-away" of his last revolution. On the other hand, that extra half-revolution needed for the triple-and-a-half isn't quite as simple as it seems - for it often entails a "misorientation" of the flyer who, revolving with tremendous momentum, can at times experience a complete loss of feeling regarding the position of his body - making it difficult to sense whether he's up or down.

Coupled with the above is also the additional danger that can ensue from a failure to catch - which places the leaper in a critical position from which to hit the net safely. As a matter of fact, Tony experienced such a landing once - which left him completely paralyzed from the waist down for two weeks, and a mighty painful back for a whole year.

Because of the danger involved and the difficulty of execution, Tony Steele and Billy Woods have deemed it prudent to refrain from presenting the triple-and-a-half to the public, though they continue to practice it daily, whenever they both feel fit and only for the gratification of self-accomplishment. Perhaps they are wiser than their years. After all, if there are occasions when an uninitiated audience is not capable of distinguishing between a double-and-a-half and a triple, what chance is there that it could tell the difference between a triple-and-a-half and a triple? Thus Tony Steele is perfectly content to limit his public performance to the triple, which he catches daily with a remarkable average of 90%. Indeed a spectacular average!

Now there are also some few experts who are inclined to be critical of Tony's triple, on the grounds that his is an "arm-to-arm" catch rather than the true "wrist-to-wrist." But then again Tony may be wiser than his years. Perhaps he, too, like Concello, has come to the conclusion that no plaudits from any audience is worth a torn shoulder and an abrupt end to his career. And who could criticize him for that! Actually, how many people are there in any one audience who can detect the difference between a true "wrist-to-wrist" catch and the "arm-to-arm" catch which an instant later ends up in a wrist-to-wrist lock?

There is no question that such a superb artist as Tony Steele and such a reliable catcher as Billy Woods can make the "wrist-to-wrist" catch at every turn. Considering the lack of knowledge of the average spectator, if Tony wisely chooses to spare his valuable shoulders in order to minimize the ever present danger of a crippling mishap, who can criticize such good common sense?

Contemporary chroniclers have extolled the artistry of The Flying Steeles - and rightfully so. They have also made much-to-do over Tony's accomplishment of turning the triple-and-a-half, declaring him to be the one and only performer to execute this feat. That, too, is more fiction than fact. It may come as a surprise to some of those chroniclers - and even to Tony - but the fact is that Ernie Lang and Art Concello (when the latter was in his prime) also turned the triple-and-a-half on quite a number of occasions, during practice, of course. Moreover, right now there are also Los Ibarras Hermanos (which will be commented upon later) who do the triple-and-a-half.

Also for the record, it should be mentioned that Ernie Clarke even turned and Caught the Quadruple! Back in 1915, when the Clarkonians were performing with the Orrin Bros. Circus in Mexico City, Ernie and Charlie Clarke executed the quadruple numerous times. But that, too, was only in practice and never integrated into the act, for they never gained sufficient mastery to present it in public.

And if one doesn't mind starting an international controversy on the subject, it can also be mentioned that, during the early 1910's, Edmund Rainat and Raoul Monbar on many occasions executed the triple, Not to a Catcher, but "Bar-To-Bar!" - which is a feat considered impossible by many present day professionals.

For the circophile who may be unintiated in the intricacies of the art, it should be mentioned that there is quite a difference between turning a triple from the fly-bar to a catcher, as compared to one being caught to another trapeze. Obviously, with a catcher, the latter can adjust to a certain degree whenever the leaper may be a fraction off his timing - and still manage to make the catch. Bar-to-bar, the leaper is strictly on his own. There is no leeway. Either his timing and execution are perfect - or he misses the catch of the coming trapeze.

Almost as important is the jar of the catch. With a catcher, there is the elasticity of two sets of muscles to absorb the shock. Bar-to-bar, the flyer is again strictly on his own to absorb the shock. And a mighty grip it requires to hang onto that bar! Either a faulty timing or faulty execution will result in (a) at best, a trip to the net, (b) a set of wrenched shoulder and/or arm muscles, (c) a mouthful of broken teeth - for when one is struck in the face by a swinging trapeze bar of 10 to 12 pounds, it goes without saying that he'll be lucky to escape with only a few loose teeth!

Considering the extreme difficulties involved, Rainat's and Monbar's achievements are indeed incredible! However, and though those are documented facts, inasmuch as neither of those two fabulous performers ever integrated that bar-to-bar triple into his act and/or ever performed it in public, this stupendous deed has to remain out of the record-book. And a pity that is!

Be that as it may, and coming back to chronological order, next should be listed Roger Rodriguez, of the Flying Marilees, who during 1959 and 1960 and with Lee Stath as catcher, turned the triple regularly while touring Europe - and with a better than 70% average of catches. Then, once again, a promising career was brought to a halt when Rodriguez had to leave the act in order to serve a three-year hitch in the Armed Services - during which there was little or no time to practice a demanding art.

Almost simultaneously was Georges Lalo Palacio - also called "Frenchy" by those who knew him well - and who with his brother, Raoul, and his other brother, Jose, and sister, Irma, formed "The Flying Palacios." Lalo's first triple in practice came in 1958, when the Mexican leaper was already 27 years old. With Raoul on the catch-bar, the brothers started presenting the triple publicly in 1960 - but only spasmodically and with a rather low average of catches.

But with or without the triple in their repertoire, the Palacios presented a splendid act, for the length of Lalo's trajectories and the grace and elegance with which he executed his various passes were reminiscent of Alfredo Condona's. Standing 5 foot 7 1/2 inches and weighing 140 pounds, Lalo "Frenchy" Palacio was taught the "finesses" of fly-trap artistry by none other than the same Georges Clair, who once had been an associate of "King Alfredo."

In 1963, with George Golding catching, Lalo's average of catches of the triple increased considerably, though it never went much higher than a modest 40%. However, whenever he caught one, it was always beautifully executed and never failed to thrill the audience.

During that year, by a strange twist of fate, the professional lives of Lalo Palacio and Roger Rodriguez became intertwined - for when the latter came out of the Armed Services to resume his career, simultaneously Lalo's was brought to an abrupt end when he commited suicide on the 18th of September of that year, on the eve of the Ringling Show's opening in Lille, France.

Thus Roger Rodriguez's career was resumed when he took Lalo Palacio's place in the Palacios' act. Obviously, after a three year lay-off without practice, Rodriguez's timing and conditioning precluded any attempt at the triple. Thus far there hasn't been any reports that Rodriguez has returned to his former "form." But it is hoped that this splendid performer will again execute the triple with the same degree of proficiency as when he was the featured leaper with The Flying Marilees.

....The Flying Artons..Dorothy and Bob Yerkes and Reggie and Bonnie Armor....

This brings us down to the present crop of contemporary leapers executing the triple with such acts as the Flying Artons, Goanas, Ibarras, Luna Brothers, and Seminoles.

Of those just named, Reggie Armor of "The Flying Artons" deserves special mention, if only because of the ease, grace and elegance with which he executes the triple. Also remarkable is the fact that Armor became a fly-bar performer at a much later age than usual - and without the advantage of having learned acrobatics during his early youth.

Now 34 years of age, Reggie Armor, 5 foot 7 and 148 pounds, didn't start swinging from a fly-bar until 1959 - and didn't make his first catch of a triple until 1962. Considering that he didn't become a professional performer until he was 25 years old, and also considering his height and weight, it is amazing that he was able to master the execution of the triple on such short order. At first his average of catches was no better than 20%. But in the short space of a couple of years, and with such a reliable catcher as Bob Yerkes, now his consistent average has reached a high of 90%. A most remarkable achievement!

Among professionals there are some who, like Fay Alexander, are of the opinion that Reggie Armor bids fair of becoming another Alfredo Codona, for he possesses all the potentials! There is an interesting sidelight regarding Codona-Alexander-Armor. Before Alfredo became "The King," his inspiration had been Ernie Clarke. In turn, Alfredo became Fay Alexander's inspiration. Today, Reggie Armor will candidly admit that Alexander was his inspiration.


Anonymous said...

Margaraet: I was looking up info on the Palacios and came across this your most instructive account. I had thought that Lalo did the triple, but I guess not. A You Tube of the later Palacios reveals such magnificent form that I vaguely recall when I saw them with Ringling and then Polack.
And that the quad was done in the early century, I had not known that!
Showbiz David

Craig said...

thanks for including my uncle Harold Voise. I recall my childhood filled with fond memories of watching the Voise's swing in Lansing. C. Voise

Lee Stath said...

As a catcher, I owe a lot to Tony Steele as he was responsible for getting us in the Guiness Book Of Records as the first to catch a 3 1/2 salto. Back in 1962, I was in Vegas, watching Circus Circus, when Fay asked if I'd catch his act that night. I was more then eager as Fay had always been a friend and favorite. I was struck, when I climbed up into the catch bar to see a strange, white mask tied to the cable. The act went well and Fay signaled if I'd hang for the 3 1/2. I'd caught them before so I nodded, "O K" Don Martinez did a nice, high trick, a little far but I got him around the buttocks and we slid down to the legs for a catch and a return. When I hit the net, after the act, I noticed Al Dobritch, the director of the show, standing in the upper level. He gave me a "Thumbs up" and after I'd showered he sent word for me to come to his office. He congratulated me and handed me $1,000."Thanks, but why?" Seems he'd made a bet with some of his high rollers that I'd catch the 3 1/2 and he pocketed $10,000. Before I left I asked him what the funny, white mask was all about. "Didn't Fay tell you? It's a hockey mask and the catcher used to wear it for Don's 3 1/2. Don had a habit of putting his shins in the catchers face. That's why he couldn't work today" I've lost a few teeth with the broken nose but to be fair, Don never marked me. Lee Stath (Marilees)

Roberto Palacios said...

As a member of the Flying Palacios, I just wanted to comment and correct a couple of comments about The Flying Palacios. Roger actually did not take Lalo's place, Roberto Palacios took his place in 1963. Also, my brother Lalo, was never referred to as "Frenchy", either by his family or friends. I was happy to see a blog about the history of the trapeze and circus artistry but also wanted to make this correction as my family's name was mentioned. Thank you and I hope the blogging continues.... Roberto Palacios.

Roberto Palacios said...

As a member of The Flying Palacios, I just wanted to make a comment and add a correction. Roger never took Lalo's place, Roberto Palacios took his place in 1963. Also, my brother Lalo was never referred to as "Frenchy" either by family or friends. I am happy to see a blog about the history of the trapeze and circus artistry but wanted to make the correction since my family's name is mentioned. Thank you and I hope the blogging continues... Roberto Palacios

Mike Jackson said...

My name is Mike Jackson and I live in Sweden. My mother is the daughter from Genesio Amadori. He died when my mother was two years old. Genesio had a relationship for several years with Mary Jackson, who is my grandmother. I do not know anything about the Amadori family and would appreciate if somebody knows anyone from the Amadori family. We also worked in the circus but I have finished several years ago ( I am 45). My brother still travels with his swedish circus. Please if somebody knows anything about the Amadori family do not hesitate to take contact with me. My mail is:

Lee-Pierre Shirey said...

Tony and Lilly Steele were personal friends of my mother, Janine Chatel Shirey. Janine and Lilly were childhood friends in Paris, France. I have just found a bunch of old photographs of the Flying Steeles as well as many personal pictures. If anyone is interested, please email me at

Thank you,
Lee-Pierre Shirey