THE MOST DARING PERILOUS PERFORMANCE EVER ATTEMPTED
BREATHTAKING GRACEFUL MID-AIR TRIPLE SOMERSAULTS
I will always be remembered," said Tito Gaona, the daring young man from the flying trapeze.
It is true, he will always be remembered. Tito Gaona has lived only 26 years, but he is an immortal, an immortal circus acrobat, and his name will never disappear from troupers' tongues. Whenever circus people gather to speak of the best acrobats of all time he will be mentioned; some will even say that Tito Gaona was the best ever. That is an astonishing accolade. Colossal, stupendous, incredible...for in all the ancient history of spectator entertainment, no performers reach farther back into time.
Men did cartwheels and handsprings, somersaults and backflips to entertain other men in the Chinese dawn of civilization. Acrobatics is the most universal form of show business, applauded by pharaohs and pariahs alike, adored as much on the boards of Shakespeare's Globe as on the bloody sand of Rome's Circus Maximus, admired by Pygmy kings and U.S. Presidents, by Picasso and Michelangelo, Napoleon and King Tut, Charles Dickens and Louis XIV. Has any man ever lived who has not at one time or another been entertained by an acrobat?
Could Tito Gaona of The Flying Gaonas really be the greatest of all acrobats? A moot point, intangible, metaphysical, beyond realistic discussion or decision. But Tito has done tricks no acrobat has ever done before, and he is hoping to master another that no man may ever do again. So if it is philosophically imperfect to call him the best acrobat of all time, it is safe to say he has had few peers in history and that he probably has none today—certainly not, at least, among acrobats of the flying trapeze.
The circus assembled early last December for its new season. This occurred in a great, drab, complicated barn of an arena on the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey winter quarters property, a dusty lot on the outer limits of Venice, a town on the west coast of Florida. The circus grounds were disappointingly mundane. The arena had all the personality of a gargantuan army barracks; there was a clutter of truck trailers, corrugated iron stables, iron-gray cages, house trailers, etc. A junky, pedestrian place, but unmistakably Circus.
A distinct aroma hung about the back sections where elephants and camels and show horses with splendid arched necks were tethered casually beneath the trees along Route 41-A. There was the chilling sound of big cats growling as they prowled menacingly about in small rollable steel cages. Men came with wheelbarrows piled high with slabs of meat—cows' rib cages, bulls' haunches. They joshed with tigers as if they were cozy old human cronies and dumped pounds and pounds of meat in the cages for their cat pals to devour. Here was a fenced-in area containing a yak and two pregnant camels; the camels were being roundly criticized by the circus veterinarian because they were a week or so overdue.
Inside the arena, ringed by hard, gray wooden tiers of seats, beneath a high labyrinth of pipes, beams, cables, ropes, rings, wires, lights and odd bolted connections across the ceiling, the troupe for the 1974 season assembled. A motley lot with no magic about them, dressed in rumpled everyday clothes. But, of course, it was The Circus. They spoke in a full rainbow of foreign languages, and though they seemed at first glance like any street-scene assortment of people, it was clear soon enough they were not. Here one girl suddenly pitched herself into an arpeggio of backsprings. Here, without warning, a man flung a dozen rings into the air and caught them all as they fell. Here strolled a dwarf or two or three, there was a man with the chest of an ox and the neck of a bull. There, seated on the ring curb, looking bored or melancholy, was the world's smallest man who at 34 years of age stands 33 inches tall, seven inches shorter than Tom Thumb.
These early December days were the rehearsal time for the circus production numbers, those dazzling episodes when everyone in the troupe puts on a costume, climbs on an elephant or a horse or dangles from a velvet rope while the band strikes up a heart-stopping march or waltz and any right-thinking audience swoons with the radiance and romance of it all. Everyone was waiting to get his assignment for the production numbers.