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.
April 7, 1974
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.
Richard Barstow, genius behind Barnum & Bailey productions for more than a quarter of a century, said, "All right, everyone in this ring is in the Fairy Book section." He called off many names. Among them was that of Tito Gaona, who was told that this season he will portray the Beast in the Beauty and the Beast portion of the Fairy Book section. Tito hopped lightly over the ring curb. He is a broad-shouldered, bee-waisted fellow, lithe and graceful, built like a welterweight champion, with a long mane of black hair and a strong Latin face. He spoke pleasantly to the Beauty next to him and stayed obediently with the Fairy Book section for two hours while the entire troupe was led through simple marching routines until lunch.
When Tito sauntered out of the Fairy Book section he was asked if he much minded playing make-believe games and being in dress-up parades. He produced a great sunny smile and said, "No, I love it. It is like a birthday party every day. Last year I got to be a handsome prince and ride on a fine white horse with a beautiful princess. What could be better than being in a parade twice a day?"
He laughed. But then he was asked about his own routine on the trapeze and he became more serious. "I never decide exactly what I am going to do when I am on the ground. I do not think about it. I wait till I am up high; I am different then than when I am on the ground. Then I swing out on the trapeze a few times and I decide what to do and I tell my brother Armando and then he tells the catcher on the other bar. We usually warm up with some little tricks, my brother Armando and my sister Chela. We progress from the simple to the difficult and more dramatic."
As he spoke, he looked up at the pipes and swings in the arena ceiling. A mechanic was working on the rigging, but Tito spoke thoughtfully, for he seemed to be seeing something else. "Sometimes I see movies of myself in the air and I say, 'Jesus, how can I do that?' I wonder who do I think I am...but, yes, I do admire myself in films sometimes as if I am watching another person. I have sometimes dreamed my tricks at night, you know, and then tried to master them from the dream. I have mastered the famous triple somersault...it is like hitting a home run. Not many people can do a triple—not constantly. I do the triple blindfolded. No one can do that. But I also do what I call a double-double. I am the only one there, too. It is a double forward somersault with a double full twist at the same time. It has never been done before. No one else does it. It is a trick that I dreamed one night."
It can be argued that aerial acrobats are the finest athletes in the world. For sheer mastery of the human body, for steely strength, precise timing, a cat's reflexes—there can scarcely be anyone better. It is not necessary to pursue the argument here because there is no way to prove it. But the mere suggestion that this year's Beast in the Fairy Book section just might be the planet's best athlete is enough.
The triple somersault has been the most mystical trick of the trapeze, the one that over the decades has separated flying masters from mere mortals cavorting near the roof. No more than a few flyers in this century have "caught" the trick (circus lingo meaning to accomplish it). And here was Tito Gaona doing his triple one afternoon in Venice, Fla. up among the pipes and beams while the rest of the circus was at lunch.
He takes the fly bar of his trapeze, poses for a moment on the pedestal board some 30 feet above the arena floor, then launches himself out into space. He hangs full length from the bar, back arched and toes pointed, then does a flawless full extension of his body that pumps him up to the very peak of the trapeze are as it swoops forward. Now he begins to drop back as the trapeze falls and he is hanging from the fly bar with full weight to bring it back faster, farther, faster, farther, and he flashes up past the pedestal board, mere inches away from his back, and rises, rises, rises—miraculously many feet higher than where he was when he began—until he is standing beautifully upright in the air, stopped perfectly still for a split second at the apex of the trapeze are, 40 feet high. The trapeze lines are for a moment slightly slack, then they pull tight and, powerfully, he is drawn back down through the air, a living pendulum, swinging with rapidly increasing speed until, at the other end of the trapeze curve, Tito pulls his knees up to his chest, tucks his head down and releases his grip on the fly bar. He is airborne, loose and alone up there with nothing at all near him and only the momentum generated by the trapeze are to keep him aloft. He begins to spin immediately, flipping around and around and around—once, twice, thrice—with such dervish speed that he is a surrealistic blur to the eye. Less than one second elapses, then he opens the tuck and his body is like a knife snapping out and he stretches his arms at the precise—1/10th of a second? 1/100th?—infinitesimal nick of time that he knows there will be swooping toward him, dangling head down from his own bar, the catcher, arms extended, arriving at the precise instant, and they touch. The catcher's hands grip Tito's wrists like steel hooks. Tito clamps the catcher's forearms and, fastened together, they sweep back in a long graceful are on the catcher's trapeze, then sweep forward again and up and here at the peak of the upward curve Tito is released into the air again—loose above the crowd, flying—and he turns twice in mid-air, two magnificent pirouettes no less lovely, no less classical than Nureyev or Villella have done on solid ground. For another half-breath Tito seems to float neither rising nor falling, and then his fly bar returns and he reaches out, lazily, casually. He takes it, and it takes him back and he drops lightly on his tiptoes on the pedestal bar. Not more than four, possibly five, seconds have passed since he left to perform the miraculous triple somersault.
It is so effortless, so quick, so perfect that almost no one can quite realize how marvelous it is. Yet, in an average circus season, Tito does the triple somersault to his catcher's hands 600 times—twice weekdays, three times on Saturday. It is not always so perfect. "Last season I missed the triple three times, and went to the net," he said. "But I always climbed back up and did it the next time."
Acrobatics is the soul of the circus. It includes a spectacular assortment of gravity-defying athletic skills, bizarre feats of sheer strength and animal agility. Among the acrobats are leapers, tumblers, balancers, teeterboard jumpers, trampoline jumpers, perch artists, "iron jaw" spinners from swiveled ropes, high-wire walkers, low-wire walkers, clown tumblers and trapeze flyers. In Europe, acrobats are adored; in America, they are all but ignored. Fred Bradna, for 31 years stage manager and master of ceremonies for Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey, wrote of acrobats in his classic book The Big Top*: "Most of them display their skills to a cold house in America...only an occasional unique turn, which captivates the curiosity rather than charms by its artistry, receives a tremendous salvo in this country. The Great Unus, who, in purple dress suit and top hat to match, did a handstand supported only by his index finger, was heartily appreciated in the United States. The fans wondered whether the finger actually supported his weight or whether Unus concealed a steel brace inside his white glove. On an adjacent stage the Yacopi Troupe, unquestionably the finest tumblers of modern times, went virtually unnoticed."
The Yacopis were a teeterboard act, a group that regularly astonished everyone by flinging man after man after man into double upward somersaults, all to land in astonishing precision upon each other's shoulders, building a totem-pole pyramid four men high when they had finished. There have been other unforgettable acrobatic acts. The star-crossed but magnificent Wallendas rode bicycles on the highwire and created their celebrated pyramid of six men and a girl; they worked without a net and some are still at it despite four deaths during the past quarter century. The Wallendas are called by many circus buffs the greatest act in history. The Great Walkmir, a burly genius who may have been the most phenomenal pole-balancer of modern times, was able to put five people aloft on a single pole, each of them performing some incredible feat of balance or acrobatics simultaneously. Con Colleano, the famed tightwire artist, performed a bolero dance far above the crowds and was the first man ever to master a forward somersault on a wire. Colleano's sister Winnie was the greatest of her time at her specialty, which involved swinging on a trapeze 40 feet aloft, then dropping and catching the trapeze bar with her heels.
There was a halcyon time when circus audiences were captivated by "leapers"—a bizarre but brave breed of daredevil who delighted and terrified people by sprinting madly down one inclined ramp and jumping off a "leaping board," or springboard, outward and upward into long and perilous flight, throwing flips, twists and cutaways as they soared over the backs of men or horses or even elephants. One of the greatest latter-day leapers was Billy Pape, who used to bring crowds of the 1930s shrieking to their feet as he threw a somersault over the backs of five elephants and two camels, traveling more than 40 feet in the air as he performed. Earlier, in the 19th century, the celebrated Billy Batchelor used to thrill crowds by throwing a double somersault over the backs of no fewer than 18 horses. But neither of those brave Billys ever mastered the deadliest, most celebrated leaper's trick of them all—the triple somersault.
Unlike the triple on the trapeze, where a man can fail and fall, yet live to try again because of the safety net spread beneath, leapers who missed a good turn often crumpled like broken dolls when they hit the floor. Their point of return to earth was usually cushioned by nothing but a thin mattress and perhaps an assistant or two to help them catch their balance. During private practice sessions, leapers would sometimes rehearse with catch blankets held by brawny assistants, but this was considered too sissified a device to use in front of a live crowd. The triple somersault from a springboard eventually gained a mystique perhaps unmatched in acrobatics. Earl Chapin May wrote in his book The Circus from Rome to Ringling that the question of which leaper would throw the first triple in the presence of an audience "was quite as engrossing from 1840 to 1874 as the 20th century argument over which aviator would first fly across the Atlantic."
Leapers tried, but the triple took its toll. An acrobat named Johnny Aymar, one of the first to turn a double somersault over four horses, tried a triple in 1859, landed on his forehead, broke his neck and died before the crowd. A year or so later George Miller, an acrobat who was described as being "lubberly and loose hung," tried the triple during the circus winter layover, did it twice, then killed himself the third time with a broken neck. In 1846 a leaper named William Hobbes swore he'd do a triple at Astley's Amphitheater in London. The attempt was widely advertised and every seat in Astley's was filled when Hobbes raced down his ramp, sprang high off his board, threw three somersaults, landed on his head, broke his neck and died. Others died or were paralyzed attempting it. Others managed to complete a wildly uncontrolled triple but were so frightened by it that they swore never to do it again. It became known as the Somersault of Death.
Then came John Worland, who had long mastered the double somersault. In 1874 Worland tried the triple in St. Louis, landed twice on his back on the landing tick, but made it the third time, coming down on his feet. Frightened, he did not try it again for two years. Then he threw a triple in Michigan and landed on his rear end. As May wrote: "He had turned, but not completed, a triple." For five years Worland did nothing more toward catching the triple, and wherever he went his claims of having actually done one in St. Louis where met with jeers. Stung, Worland decided in 1881 to attempt one before a paying audience in Eau Claire, Wis. He succeeded, did it again a week later in La Crosse, Wis. and got affidavits from witnesses. For three more years he left the triple alone, but eventually rival acrobats and circus owners began to hint that Worland was a fraud, that his triple somersaults had been happy accidents. Irked once more, Worland announced in New Haven that he would attempt a triple before the city's mayor, any journalists who cared to attend and anyone possessed of a circus ticket. When the time came for Worland to try, the scene was fraught with tension. As May described it: "Runway, springboard and landing tick were carefully placed and meticulously inspected. Gentlemen gymnasts lined up on the runway. One of them ran gracefully down, hit the springboard and turned a single. Another followed and turned a double. There was a brief pause...John Worland flicked imaginary flecks of dust from his spangled trunks and leotard, ran lightly to the waiting springboard, sprang from it with a modest effort and, balling up, actually turned thrice before he straightened out and hit the tick, all standing and in perfect order. The triple somersault...from a circus springboard as per announcement and before a paying audience—had become undeniable circus history!"
Soon after, John Worland retired, took again his real name of John Comosh and prospered as a coal merchant. Like Tito Gaona, he will always be remembered.
But of all the diverse acrobats in the circus panoply, the flyers are the most glamorous. One of the first was an elegant Frenchman named Jules Léotard, who was the hottest attraction of 1859 at Paris' Cirque Napoléon with his "reckless breakneck flights from trapeze to trapeze like some tropical bird swooping from branch to branch." Leotard also gave his name to the body-clinging suit he wore for his exploits. He was paid the insanely extravagant fee of 500 francs (roughly $95) per performance and was widely heralded as the originator of the art. Possibly Leotard was, but some say that a forgotten troupe of Spaniards began the high-flying routine some time earlier as an extension of the complex art of "casting," an act that involved two strong men and a smaller one. The larger two climbed stationary rigging and cast the little acrobat back and forth between them while he flipped and pirouetted en route. Adding swinging bars was a logical thing to do, and eventually the trapeze swings and rigging were spread across the roof of the big top. Acrobats mastered "the flying return" and soon the air was filled with flying acrobats, crisscrossing as they switched from flybar to flybar in full flocks aloft.
Many tricks were performed but one became the most highly prized of all: the triple somersault. Because of nets spread beneath the trapeze performers, the death rate was not so chilling, although several men did die. According to circus lore, the first man to do the triple was Ernie Clarke of the Clarkonians. But Clarke never did make the triple a day-to-day trick, missing it almost as often as he caught it. It was not until the 1920s that a magnificent athlete appeared and began doing the triple regularly. He was the most revered aerialist of them all, the maddeningly handsome but star-crossed flyer, Alfredo Codona.
Codona's skill was so great and his fame so widespread that he became the top circus performer in the world. Sleek, dark, slender and graceful, he was born in 1893 in Mexico to an English mother and a Mexican father who were acrobats with a sleazy little "mud show," a third-rate circus that trundled about Mexico and the southwestern U.S. Codona began working on a trapeze when he was five, and by 1911, when he was 18, he had extricated himself from the mud and joined the Barnum & Bailey Circus. After he mastered the triple and became the toast of the big top, they labeled him "The Aerial Ballet Dancer," and called his pirouettes "glorious as flying poetry."
But Alfredo was a temperamental fellow, given to jealousy, dark tantrums, deep melancholia. In 1927 his first marriage broke up and he came under the spell of Lillian Leitzel, still called by many the circus personality of all time. Her specialty was to climb a velvet rope 65 feet above the ground and there dangle from rings or ropes, twisting and flinging herself about while the crowd gawked at her beauty and grace. Leitzel was a radiant and sophisticated woman. Codona was as famous as she was, but he was a simple fellow with little education, and when Leitzel showed an amorous interest in him he was as smitten as a boy. Fred Bradna wrote, "Her dressing tent, by now an elaborate dwelling spread with Oriental rugs, graced with fresh flowers on elegant tables, dignified by a uniformed maid and a majordomo, was an ideal setting for the afternoon t√™te-√† t√™te between the two most celebrated personalities of the circus. There Codona literally sat at Leitzel's feet...and caressed Lillian's two Boston terriers, Jerry and Boots, as he listened to her witty chatter. He became a virtual mooncalf in his adoration of her."
At times the crowd in her dressing tent was so thick that Codona was shunted off to a corner. Jealous, he resented the coquettish glances she bestowed on casual admirers. She convinced him that she loved him, however, and in 1928 they were married. But Alfredo was still consumed with jealousy and Leitzel could not bear to shoo away all her men friends. Even on their wedding day she disappeared for an hour or two with a Chicago millionaire who insisted on giving a supper for the newlyweds. Codona was so angry and jealous that his timing on the trapeze was affected for days.
It went on like that for three years. Periods of the most passionate affection were followed by days of agitation and outrage. Finally, Codona took up with a bareback rider named Vera Bruce. In the winter of 1930-31 Leitzel went off to Europe on tour and Alfredo appeared elsewhere with Miss Bruce, who was intent on becoming an aerialist, too. He still longed for Leitzel and at times mooned about the big top. Then on Feb. 15, 1931 news came that Lillian Leitzel was dead, killed in a fall during a performance in Denmark. Codona was distraught, and he mourned his wife for months although, ironically, with Leitzel dead he became the unchallenged star of the circus.
Less than two years after Leitzel's death, Codona married Vera Bruce. They worked together in a trapeze act and Codona's triple, followed by those unforgettable pirouettes back to the flybar, became more famous with every show. In Madison Square Garden early in the season of 1933, Codona missed the catcher and fell into the net. He was in great pain, a ligament in his shoulder torn.
It proved to be a devastating injury, one that did not heal properly, and Codona never flew again. He left the circus and took a job as a filling-station attendant in Long Beach, Calif. Vera Bruce could not stand such an earth-bound life and returned to the ring. Still beset by jealousy, Codona left the gas station to follow her. and began tending circus horses. He vanished for a time, only to turn up once more managing a trapeze act that included his brother. Eventually, he revived his spirits—and his fortune—enough to become master of ceremonies for the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus and later the Tom Mix Circus.
But without Leitzel and his trapeze, Codona became more and more a tormented man. In July 1937 Vera Bruce sued for divorce and they met in a lawyer's office in Long Beach to arrange a property settlement. During the discussion, Codona angrily asked the lawyer to leave him alone with his wife. The door had scarcely closed when Codona took out a pistol, murdered his wife with five rapid shots, then killed himself with a single bullet in the head.
The greatest trapeze artist of his time was buried, at his own request, next to the ashes of Lillian Leitzel. A granite monument was put up in Inglewood, Calif. It is a flyers' shrine of sorts. Tito Gaona has been there often.
To compare the two men is probably specious, yet it is impossible to consider one without talking of the other. In personality, there are night-and-day differences. Codona's grim intensity, his melancholy, his tragic bad luck at love, his princely bearing all are in sharpest contrast to Tito Gaona. Tito is more pixie than prince, full of sunshine, with many girl friends, exalted by a sweet love of life and his own good fortune. Whenever he crosses the circus lot he is constantly shouting greetings to people. He speaks in many languages, in Spanish, English, Bulgarian, Russian, Italian, French, Swedish, German, Hungarian and Polish and he can manage "good morning" in everything from Japanese to Hebrew.
For Gaona there is no mooning about, petting the puppies of circus queens. He is a man of action: star, manager, coach, financial backer of the Ringling Bros, soccer team ("We would play in a league and be champion, if only we stayed in the same place for a while"); a rock guitar player and, until recently, leader of a combo called the Mixers (for their mixed nationalities); a classical pianist; a collector of antique cars; an amateur boxer; a boatsman and fisherman in his family's 27-foot Chris-Craft; a superb swimmer; and a high diver who habitually seeks out rock quarries with high cliffs when he is on tour.
There is a swagger to Tito's walk, but it is like that of a lighthearted high school halfback rather than the stylized arrogance of a circus celebrity. Yet he is a young man touched by stardom. He says that he has been offered a movie contract and that the government of Mexico once asked him to join their national gymnastics team so that he could bring an Olympic gold medal to his country. Tito said no to both offers. "Yes, I was much touched by Mexico asking for my services and, of course, it is flattering to think of being a movie star. But I decided that there are many Olympic gold medal winners in the world and there are many movie actors—possibly too many—just as I had earlier decided that there were many soccer stars and many boxers when I considered those sports as a career. But there are very few trapeze acrobats, almost none who are great and none—really none—as great as The Flying Gaonas. I decided I was better off being one trapeze artist of a very few rather than one actor or boxer or Olympic medal winner among many." There is no question about the superiority of The Flying Gaonas: a year ago, after a week of competitive judging by circus experts, they were awarded the Circus Oscar in Madrid as the best flying act in the world.
Being a one-of-a-kind celebrity has added dimensions to Tito's life. He is a friend of the famous: Sammy Davis Jr., Burt Lancaster, Muhammad Ali, Dustin Hoffman. In a day when the special excitement of the circus has been all but switched off by the everyday entertainment of the electronic tube, the perquisites of stardom have diminished, but not for Tito. He still travels in style. He has his own luxurious compartment on the circus train, a four-room miniature palace with air conditioning, bar, kitchen, a parlor with an aquarium of tropical fish and a bedroom with a polar-bear-fur bedspread. "Yes, it is nice," said Tito, toying with a carved Aztec chess piece in the parlor. "I like to come here when we are on the road in cities not too interesting. There are many of them, you know."
He smiled—a broad, radiant smile. The somber wizardry of Alfredo Codona could not have been less in evidence here.
Gaona was born to the circus. His great-grandfather, his grandfather and his father were all circus people. A Gaona Brothers Circus used to crisscross the dusty back provinces of Mexico. Tito's grandfather entertained Pancho Villa. His Uncle Yollito was one of the most famous clowns in Mexico. Tito's father Victor was performing when he was three, wearing a tiny suit and vest, a tiny straw boater, making tiny dogs do tiny tricks for him. "My father really didn't like dogs much," said Tito, "but that was the act he was told to do and, being only three, that is the act he did." Victor Gaona became a jack-of-all-tricks in the circus—a low-wire comedian, a horseman, a pantomimist, a clown with Uncle Yollito, a trampolinist, a trapeze comedian and, for a time, until a bad knee grounded him, the catcher in The Flying Gaonas trapeze act, with Tito and Armando, who is now 30. and their sister Chela, 28. There is also a second-string flying act with Ringling Bros, made up of uncles, nephews, cousins, etc. "We are a big family, we are an institution," said Tito.
In 1959 Tito became a pro. He was then 12, traveling with his father during a school vacation. "My father always urged us to do something besides work in the circus," Tito recalled, "but we would beg him to let us do an act. We had been practicing and practicing on a trampoline in Mexico, Armando and Chela and I. So one day we were visiting my father at the Clyde Beatty Circus and we broke into tears so that father would let us show him our trampoline act. He let us do it and we were very, very good. My father said, 'Well, all right, you stay on and do the act then. You are good enough.' And less than two years later we were on the Ed Sullivan show on our trampoline. We were called The Titos. Yes, we were very good and the Sullivan show was good for our reputation."
But the trampoline was too near the ground. "Oh, my hands would sweat whenever I saw a trapeze act," he said. "The Flying Valentines used to go on before our trampoline act and I'd have wet palms when I watched them. I could not stay on the ground. Of course, I had been on the trapeze from when I was five years old or so. I threw my first somersault from a fly bar to a catcher when I was eight. I'd practice on the trapeze whenever I could. I'd practice in my underpants because I was too small to find any tights my size. I did my first triple somersault when I was 14."
Inevitably, the Gaonas switched from trampoline to trapeze. In 1965 they signed on with a circus in Sweden—Armando, Chela and Tito the flyers, Victor the catcher. Here they perfected their act. Tito learned a sensational array of tricks in Sweden and soon he was so famous that people would recognize him on the streets of Stockholm. The celebrated triple somersault became his crowning trick.
"The triple is very difficult and it is so exact," he says. "It is common for a flyer to catch the trick for a while, maybe for two weeks, and then suddenly lose it and not be able to bring it off. Sometimes he can do it 20 times in a row, then it goes away and he cannot get it back—ever. My cousin has thrown a perfect triple 10 times in a row, then he loses it the next 10 times in a row. It is a mysterious trick, the triple. At first, when I asked my father to put it in the act, he said no. He said, 'No, I want us to do a nice clean act. Do you want to be bouncing in the net all the time? No triple, no." So I used the triple to the net to dismount. Sometimes when there were not many people in the crowd, I would throw it. Finally, in Stockholm I decided to do it every day, no matter what happened. It took two years, but I got it.
"The hardest part is not the three somersaults—anyone can do that. The hard part is being able to stop spinning, to think clearly enough to open up and reach for the catcher's arms at the right split second. This is where acrobats lose the triple so easily, in stopping after the third somersault and opening up to the catcher."
Tito has now caught the triple so well that at times he does it wearing a blindfold, though only, he says, "in special places like Madison Square Garden where the crowd is full of real circus fans who understand the risk and skill involved." A couple of years ago Gaona tried a bizarre triple somersault with a simultaneous 1½ twist. "I did it four or five times, then I said, 'That's enough of that.' I was in my prime, but what I was doing was practically impossible and I had to stop it because I got to thinking about what I was actually doing and I couldn't believe it."
Besides the triple, the amazing double-double (which Tito alone has ever done) is among the tricks he throws consistently. "After I dreamed the double-double," he said, "I still did not know how to do it, so I described it to my father. He listened, thought for a while, then he figured out how to coach me to do it. No one else can do it."
What next? As of this season, Gaona is planning—or at least hoping—to try a quadruple somersault to a catcher. It has never been done and possibly never even tried by any other acrobat. "Alfredo Codona did not ever try a quadruple," said Tito, "because he did not build up enough momentum in his triple. He flew like a bird, but he did not have the skill or athletic ability to try a quadruple."
A quadruple somersault! The mere mention of it fills circus people with awe—and some skepticism. Antoinette Concello is now in her early 60s. The best woman trapeze acrobat in history, she flew for 25 years with her brilliant husband Arthur. They were The Flying Concellos. They each did the triple and were unmatched as an act during most of that time. She is an erect and dignified grande dame of the circus now, director of the Ringling Bros, aerial ballet troupe. She carries herself with the haughty posture of a circus queen of old, but she is pleasant, easy to talk to. She was sitting in the arena watching The Flying Gaonas practice one day. "It is true as of today," she said, "that Tito Gaona is the best aerial acrobat in the world. He is fearless. Unless he goes overboard and hurts himself, he is going to improve and improve. He will be as legendary as Alfredo Codona. I am certain of that. They are different flyers, of course. Tito does beautiful, twisting, hard tricks. He is very athletic, perfectly coordinated, perfectly skilled. Alfredo was like a bird, so graceful, so much a dancer in the air. He could not do some of the tricks Tito does, but Alfredo did not have to do them because he was so beautiful when he flew."
When she was asked about Tito doing a quadruple somersault, Mme. Concello's eyes became hooded and she spoke very quietly. "I don't believe in doing tricks you can't do every day. I don't believe in taking a chance on hurting yourself. We were taught to have more sense than nerve in our tricks. The true idea of flying is to make your tricks look pretty, not dangerous." She took a deep breath. "Perhaps Tito can do a quadruple. Perhaps not. I don't want him hurt...."
Even to do the triple perfectly, a flyer must have an experienced, expert catcher, for the timing of the trick is almost as much his as the flyer's. The catcher must arrange for his trapeze to reach the flyer at the split second he opens out of his third somersault. Ironically, this very season in which Tito Gaona hoped to accomplish his historic quadruple, The Flying Gaonas have fallen into troubles with their catchers. One who had been with the act for three years, a sensational acrobat himself, quit in November. Old Victor, bad knee and all, had to climb again into the rigging to pick his son out of the air. When the circus opened in January before an enchanted crowd in Venice, Tito threw a perfect triple and Victor caught him with ease. Since then a flying cousin, Manuel, has taken over and promises to be ideal.
But the quadruple? "I cannot do it unless I have full confidence in the catcher," Tito said. "My father is the best we have ever had, but he has the bad knee, and his hands, perhaps, are too small to clamp on my arms coming out of a quadruple. The speed is tremendous in a quadruple. I have tried it a few times and flashed past the catcher, just flicking his arms with my hands. It will take great strength. I am certain the quadruple will be possible someday—perhaps with Manuel. But I am also worried that to continue turning after the third somersault will be such a radical change that it will mix up my timing on the triple. I must get that out of my mind, of course, but I cannot help but worry about it."
He paused, then said excitedly, "But I will certainly do a quadruple before I retire. I have years to go. Turning four somersaults to a catcher will be like winning seven gold medals or being the first man on the moon. I feel I have already surpassed Alfredo Codona in the tricks I do. He was the greatest, the very greatest. I want to be remembered like Codona. I want other acrobats to want to be like Tito. So someday I will do a quadruple and I will succeed and I will always be remembered...."
*Copyright ¬© 1952 by Hartzell Spence. Reprinted by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.