Tuesday, August 25, 2009

At Random: Gainesville Circus gave Woods his start....

Published: November 11, 2008 11:17 am
By DELANIA TRIGG, Register Staff Writer
..Gainesville Daily Register..

When Gainesville,Tx. native, Billy Woods, told his parents he planned to join the circus, he wasn’t kidding.

He spent 30 years perfecting his skills on the flying trapeze.

He started learning the art of the trapeze from professional circus performers who wintered in Gainesville’s Fair Park, he said.

“There weren’t a lot of RV parks in the 1950s,” Woods said. “The professionals would park their trailers here. They got free water, free electricity. And they would teach kids their acts,” he said.

He got his start performing with a local circus.

“Back then they had the Gainesville Community Circus. It was an amateur circus and you learned to do all the acts — bareback riding, aerial bars, the trampoline, but at that time, my love was the trapeze,” he said.

Then he got his chance to go pro.

“One of the professionals had to go into the service so they gave me a call. I was 18,” he said.

His new job took him across the United States and into foreign countries.

He worked with various circuses including Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

It was a new world for the young man, but he learned to adapt by living in rural areas, picking up languages wherever he worked.

“It was fun. It’s a different culture. When I’d get into a (new) place, I would go inside the country, places where they don’t speak English, not the large cities,” Woods said.

His travels were not without excitement and danger.

For instance, Woods got a close-up look at revolution while working in Cuba in late 1958.

Fulgencio Batista was the military leader of Cuba but he was about to be overthrown by Communist Fidel Castro.

“I was working for Batista at a circus. After a New Year’s Eve party, we heard a commotion outside. We were staying in the Plaza Hotel and there was a casino below our rooms. People broke into the slots and stole all the money. There was no food, all the restaurants closed down,” he said.

Woods and about 50 other performers who’d been working in Cuba were thrown into a world of chaos.

He said he and a couple of his buddies listened for information about food and other supplies.

When they found it, they crept out onto the streets to buy simple foods such as tortillas from street vendors.

It was a tense time for the American performers — many of whom had their children or grandchildren with them.

“For four days, the strike was on. Castro was still waiting in the woods, When he finally took over, he let us go,” Woods explained.

He said he was scared, but never doubted the group would return home.

“We were afraid because we were working there for Batista but we always knew we would be alright,” he said.

Although the circus was his passion, Woods said he always looked to the future and wanted to prepare for the time when he could no longer perform on the trapeze.

He took college classes, earned a real estate broker license and in 1981 began booking and managing other performers.

“I’ve been a manager for 27 years,” he noted, “Made lots of contacts and learned some things like ‘Don’t ever burn your bridges.’”

He also worked as both a performer and a businessman at Circus, Circus in Las Vegas.

Although he no longer performers his act, Woods said he has not forgotten the highlights of his career.

“I was able to do the triple somersault which was, at that time, the ultimate trick,” he said.

In the end, his performances were routine but he backed them up with years of practice.

Once the act is perfected, it becomes almost automatic.

“You don’t think about it. You concentrate and you focus and you just do what you’re supposed to do,” he said.

Woods said he didn’t have many serious injuries.

A 30-foot fall from the trapeze dislocated his shoulder.

“I took a fall over the net to the ground and hit on my head and shoulder. I couldn’t perform for 18 months,” he said.

But Woods wasn’t bitter about the injury.

“Something good came out of it. It gave me the chance to return to college,” he said.