History

Alton Barbour, the catcher, flyer, and author who artfully compiled our beloved club’s history below, was a true leader of our tribe. He was known for his exceptional skill in the air and his racy limericks on the ground (and, perhaps, also in the air). Like a flyer lacking chalk on a hot summer’s day, Alton is perpetually missed. Catch ya later, Alton!

IF Tribe

The Imperial Flyers Tribe at Alton Barbour’s Memorial Service, June 2015

HISTORY OF THE DENVER IMPERIAL FLYERS

by Alton Barbour

THE FOUNDERS

Mabel Rilling c. 1920

To put this account in the right time frame, it is interesting to consider that the two founders for what eventually became the Denver Imperial Flyers trapeze club were both born in the 1800s. Mabel Rilling was born in 1883 and lived until 1972. Granville Johnson was born in 1897 and lived until 1956. Both were faculty members at the University of Denver in the Department of Health, Physical Education and Athletics. Mabel Rilling, a dancer, was in charge of health and physical fitness for female students at a time when women wore bloomers, long dresses and black stockings. Very few at that time imagined there would be female athletes or women doing gymnastics or acrobatics, or that they would actually sweat. That was so unfeminine. Mabel Rilling was an advocate for active, physically fit, confident young women. Granville (he was called “Granny” from a very young age) Johnson was in charge of health and fitness for the male students. Mabel Rilling received a faculty appointment from Chancellor Henry Buchtel in 1909; Granny Johnson received a faculty appointment as an instructor in 1915 when he was an undergraduate and only eighteen years of age. Both received both bachelors and masters degrees from the University of Denver. She was his senior by fourteen years. Mabel Rilling had been on the faculty for six years when Granny Johnson was appointed. They worked together in the same building, the alumni gymnasium, and the year following Granny Johnson’s appointment to the faculty the two of them co-produced the first “gym circus” in 1916. So the parent organization of Imperial Flyers can be traced to that date. It was the beginning of the circus club at the University and first of many circus performances which were presented in the March of each year. How long ago was that? It was before the United States entered WWI, before prohibition, and before women got to vote. The flying trapeze came along five years afterwards in1921. Most likely this makes it the oldest continually operating trapeze group in the world. Eventually the Imperial Flyers became the parent group for a number of other trapezes and flyers around the world.

Granville Johnson

There are some “side bars” which might explain the founders’ interest in circus skills and performances. Since Mabel Rilling was a dancer, she wanted her female students to learn to dance in a variety of styles and also to perform. She wanted them to put on shows. Why learn to dance if you can’t show an audience what you have learned to do? Her students had strength, balance, form, and agility, so they put on shows for the University community and the public. They had their own all-female dance recitals and performances. Granny Johnson was a wrestling champion both in college and in amateur competitions after college. Newspapers accounts from those times quote him as saying that in order to condition himself for his sport, he began to do gymnastics to make himself a better wrestler. Ultimately he came to believe that no matter what the sport was, an athlete would be better at that sport if he/she had gymnastic or acrobatic skills. Secondly, during the depression he supplemented his salary during non-teaching periods as a trapeze artist in now defunct circuses. So he had skill and experience as a flying trapeze performer. The Rocky Mountain News in March of 1922 has an article explaining that Granny Johnson, a physical education professor at the University of Denver fell 40 feet to the gymnasium floor when the flying trapeze rigging he was working on collapsed. One reason that story is interesting is that Granville Johnson survived the fall with no ill effects. Another reason is that it documents that there was a flying trapeze in the old alumni gymnasium as part of the circus equipment in 1922.

Granny Johnson served in the military during both world wars. In the First World War he was a first lieutenant and was Athletic Director in 1918 for the U.S. Army in Camp McArthur, Texas. During the Second World War he filled the same role as a Lieutenant Commander for the United States Navy at a reserve training camp from 1942-1945. Typically, on university campuses, people in physical education or athletics do not get much respect from their colleagues in the arts and sciences. University archives newspaper accounts of the lives of both Mabel Rilling and Granny Johnson show, however, that these two were very much respected by their fellow faculty members. There is a men’s residence hall at the University of Denver on the corner of South High St. and East Iliff named for Granny Johnson.

“Damn everything except the circus.” – e.e. cummings

A look at old programs from those early circus performances is instructive. The shows involved boxing and wrestling exhibitions, which are not typical circus fare. But they also involved gymnastics, acrobatics and dance numbers. In 1921, for example, there were “three rings” in the gymnasium. In those three rings were tumbling, flying rings, vaulting on the horse, parallel bars and horizontal bar, the usual gymnastics events. But there were also were pyramids or group balancing, tight wire, revolving ladder, trampoline, and there were clowns. These were not gymnastics events. In fact, at this time the trampoline was considered a vaudeville show gimmick. Also, as a part of the program there were a “balancing trapeze,” single trapeze, double trapeze, and flying trapeze. In 1930 a “casting rig” act was added to the circus. The flying trapeze made the move from the University of Denver alumni gymnasium to the Denver Central YMCA gymnasium on 16th and Lincoln streets. It had a larger space, a much higher ceiling, and iron girders from which to hang the equipment, which was all suspended and then “flown” back into the ceiling of the gymnasium when out of use. When the flying trapeze made the move, the single trapeze, double trapeze and revolving ladder went along with it and were featured in YMCA circuses. Bob Gray and Jimmy Kyle did the revolving ladder act, and Manny Crespin and Cheryl Cohan did the double trapeze act on the original equipment.

D.U. Gymnasts c. 1923. Trapeze net in background.

In 1928, the tightwire walkers were Coralyn Carey, Betty Osgood, and Lucille Fitzsimmons; the flyers were Julius Ginsberg, Allen McMillan, Dick Wilder, Granville Johnson, Willis Collins, Chester Preisser, John Klein, Lindsay Keeler, Henry Ham, and Hugh Gunnison. These are the people who went along with the circus equipment, most likely installed it, and became the first Imperial Flyers at the Denver Central YMCA. Julius Ginsberg, who had a long distinguished legal career in Denver, was the largest of the acrobats and became the catcher for the group. He was a big man with a big frame. A special catcher’s trapeze was built for Julius Ginsberg in order to accommodate his rear end. Long after his retirement, this trapeze continued to be used by generations of catchers, who knew nothing of Julius, until the group left the YMCA sixty plus years later.

Otto Pribyl Flyers c. 1931. Left to right: Julius Ginsberg; [unknown];Otto Pribyl; Dave Werb; John Pribyl; Yo-Yo Moreno

“If running away and joining the circus sounds romantic to you, think about sleeping nights in a parking lot and sharing your water with the elephants.” – Lisa Hofsess

MOVE TO THE DENVER CENTRAL YMCA

Because it was so well established and so popular after fifteen years at the University it seems unlikely that the circus and the equipment could have moved from the campus without the approval of Mabel Rilling and Granny Johnson. It was not a gradual move because of attrition but a proactive decision to go to another space, accomplished in a few months. It is most likely that the date of the move was 1931 because after 1930, there are no brochures in the Penrose Library archives documenting the circus at the University. And this was the time at which the Denver YMCA began to have circuses of its own with many of the same personnel. The background of a photograph on page six shows that the net that was used by the circus group at the University was the same net used by the circus group at the YMCA. At the YMCA it became the two trapeze apron nets. There are a number of explanations for why the circus group might have moved from the University to the Denver Central YMCA that are both practical and aesthetic. Any one or all of them might explain the move. The first is that in 1931 the United States was in the depths of the great depression. This was a time during which one out of every five Americans was unemployed, and also a time when women didn’t work outside the home, which makes the percentage even more significant. These were very hard times. Some might have been able to continue to be college students, but many could not and dropped out. No doubt there were people who wanted to continue circus involvement who were not associated with the University and couldn’t be students. But for a seven-cent token they could take a Denver Tramway Co. electric streetcar to the YMCA. When so many people were without money, there must also have been fewer people buying memberships and showing up at the YMCA as well. The Denver Central YMCA was really two different functions serving two different populations. One was an inexpensive hostel for visitors to the city who were willing to share a sleeping room with others in exchange for a minimum cost. The other function was athletic and provided a gymnasium, handball courts, a swimming pool and the like for both children and adults.

In order to bolster attention, attendance and memberships in his part of the facility, the manager of the YMCA gymnasium, Walter “Hack” Hackenson, made an arrangement with Granville Johnson to install the single trapeze, double trapeze, revolving ladder, and flying trapeze in the Central YMCA gymnasium. This could not have been done at that time without Hackenson’s approval and encouragement. Perhaps they both saw it as a win-win situation. Some of the hardware that the current Denver Imperial Flyers have dates to that installation. Finally, it must have been appealing to the flyers at the University to see that if they moved from one facility to the other they could put a bigger rig in the larger space and fly higher and perform more difficult tricks. Whatever the explanation, it was the beginning of a long and productive relationship between the YMCA and the flyers. “Hack” Hackenson continued to be in charge of the gymnasium including its circus equipment into the 1960s. Those who remember him from that time also remember that he was happy to have the flyers around because it made the Denver Central YMCA the only YMCA in the world with its own trapeze. He was extremely generous in giving memberships to teenagers to keep them off the streets and into a more wholesome environment. He typically gave a “senior flyer” the keys to the gymnasium so that that person could lock up the facility when the flyers were done working out. That person was designated a YMCA “lay leader” and received a free membership. This meant the flyers could stay as late as they wished and it was not unusual for them to stay until midnight. They “suited up” (males in one room and females in another) in a “trophy room” on the north side of the gymnasium balcony. They were trusted to supervise themselves.

1962 circus playbill (click for larger image)

For the YMCA they put on over thirty circus shows, the proceeds of which were donated to support under-funded YMCAs around the world. When the 16th Street Mall was finished and opened, the YMCA was asked by the City of Denver if they could participate in some way in the celebration because their building was at one end of the mall. The YMCA volunteered the Imperial Flyers to put on an all-day-long exhibition on May 7, 1981. The gymnasium door was left open so that visitors to the mall could wander in and watch the flyers. Talk about sore hands.

WHY DO WE TAKE CHANCES?

The Imperial Flyers are without doubt the only flying group that has had a masters’ thesis written about them. It was done by Lisa Hofsess as part of the requirements for her degree in kinesiology at Iowa State University in 1984. It tested Kenyon’s vertigo theory about risk takers. The question the research asked was whether trapeze flyers were seeking to be out of control and were seeking vertigo when they were pursuing the activity. The concept had previously been tested on sky divers. Lisa’s population was the Denver Imperial Flyers. The control group was a YMCA aerobic exercise class. The two groups answered the test questions differently; flyers are different from non-flyers, it seems. She gave each person in both groups a battery of tests and gave the flyers a set of items in an interview protocol. The results demonstrated that being out of control or being dizzy and disoriented were undesirable feelings for flyers. The flyers expressed without exception that they wanted to be in control of their bodies and their perceptions during the activity. Although they wanted to be at the limits of what they were able to do, none of them felt that they were putting themselves in excessive danger. They were in considerable agreement about the most important elements of the activity. Both males and females reported mastery (a sense of accomplishment, achievement or challenge) as the most enjoyable aspect of flying. They reported the thrill or excitement of flying as another enjoyable aspect. They also said that there was something aesthetically beautiful about trapeze that non-flyers were unable either to see or appreciate. One called it the “beauty of the moment.”

In responding to the question of what they would most miss if they could no longer fly, most people said that they would miss the social experience, that is, spending time with the group of flyers, even though these were people they may not have associated with under other circumstances. They said that in the group there was trust, mutual support and affection. They made frequent references to “family” in the interviews. One respondent said that the flyers were like a “tribe,” and suggested that perhaps they should wear feathers.

Alton Barbour, 1961, on Julius Ginsberg’s catch trap.

EVERYONE IS TIED TO EVERYONE

“It is not accidentally that most trapeze artists are extroverts. They are an upward and outward-looking tribe, optimistic by nature, not given to brooding on their failures or worrying unduly about the risks they are taking.” – Sam Keen

There are gaps in the history of the flyers because people who were in the group during the 1930s and 1940s are now deceased, and whatever artifacts they might have had of their participation are now lost. Whereas universities maintain archives to keep track of their histories, YMCAs usually don’t, and so much of what happened during those decades is unknown, but it is known that the group continued.

The history of the flyers begins to pick up again in the 1950s because people do remember those years, and much of that history is of the interconnection of individual stories. It does not take six degrees of separation to link these people. Usually it only takes one. For example: Not only were Julius Ginsberg, Chet Preisser and Hugh Gunnison the original flyers at the YMCA, so was Otto Pribyl. In fact, before they became the Imperial Flyers in the 1930s, they were called the Otto Pribyl Flyers. George (Yo-Yo) Moreno was one of that group. Otto continued to appear in YMCA circuses into the 1950s doing a vaudeville boxing routine and dealing with a car, which appeared to drive itself. Otto taught Davey Owens that vaudeville boxing routine. Otto owned a full sized trapeze in a lot in Lakewood where Ben Coleman, Will Howard, Iris Lucero, Bob Gray and Davey Owens flew. Ben Coleman and Davey Owens did fair dates in the summer with a trampoline act and a casting rig act.

The Tribe in 1984: Front row (left to right): Manny Crespin, Lucy McConnell, Kathy Hamilton, Vince Nicoletti, Bernadette Pace, Melissa Dunning, Helena Soister. Back row (left to right): Elise Vanderbroek, Eric Elling, Donna Lopez, Wendy Robinson, Tom Polich, Alton Barbour, Linda Crespin, Lisa Hofsess, Benny Coleman, Barbara Moss, Bob Christians.

It was Ben and Will who got Bobby Christians into trapeze. Davey Owens also had a clown act in which he ate a fish (a piece of carrot that looked like a goldfish), and juggled both on a rolly-bolly and a unicycle. He also did a back flip out of an oil drum that had a tiny trampoline rigged in the bottom. The casting rig act that Bobby and his wife Karen did was learned from Ben and Davey. Later, Gary and Vickie Baker did the same act using Bobby Christians’ casting rig. Manny Crespin was the apartment mate of Bobby Christians when they were both students at the University of Northern Colorado. They also did fair dates together. Manny Crespin was an associate trapeze instructor for Yo-Yo Moreno at the YMCA and was put in charge after Moreno’s death in 1981. Crespin continued to be in charge of the YMCA trapeze for the next fifteen years.

David Owens as Dado. c. 1955

During Jimmy Kyle’s, Yo-Yo’s and Manny’s tenure there, hundreds of Denver area high school students came through that gym including Wayne Wright, Carol Bosselman, Juan Green, Art Jiron, Don Robinson, Andy Arellano, Donna Lopez, Paul Johnson, Tony Carpenter, Vince Nicoletti, Jim Fulcher, Terry Pershing, Bruce Lonnecker, Bruce Minor, Karen Jeffries, Doug Boger, Albert Heinrick, John Quintana, Georgie DeHererra, Paul Francis, Barbara Moss, Art Guerrero, Jack Van Horn and Richard Greenwood. Jimmy Kyle, the gymnastics and swimming coach at North High School was a YMCA flyer and was coach for Tony Carpenter and Vince Nicoletti. Vince Nicoletti was an all-around gymnast for the University of Denver.

Manny Crespin in a layout. c 1961

Tony Carpenter was a still-ring gymnast for Colorado State University and flew professionally for a year with the Shrine Circus. Gymnast, Lisa Hofsess, learned to fly at the YMCA and flew professionally in an “all-girl act” in Mexico City. Another acrobat, Bob Fenner, maker of Fenner-Hamilton “Gymmaster” trampolines, was the first person known to do a borani-out fliffus. Davey Owens said the trick should be called a “Fenner.” Because he had a trampoline factory, when the YMCA needed a net, Fenner generously sewed one for them that looked like an enormous trampoline (p. 6). Eventually, because he had not been paid for the net, the net was bought and paid for by Wayne and Carol Wright even though they were on the road and no longer flew at the YMCA. It became a gift for the flyers. For Bobby Christians, Bob Fenner has made all of the of safety belts for the Club Med trapezes and also made the twisting harnesses that ice skaters use to learn twisting jumps without injury. Those were demonstrated and installed across the country by Jimmy Kyle. Everyone, it seems, is linked to everyone. Here are just a few of their stories.

“When circus was real, flying was a religion.” Burt Lancaster, in the movie Trapeze, 1956

Tony Carpenter, third from the left, as a Flying Luna

BEN, WILL AND BOBBY

Ben holds Willy in a lever. c. 1955

In the summers of the 1940s and 1950s the Denver Public Schools hired playground supervisors to manage the playgrounds in the public parks and some of the neighborhood schools in Denver. Typically, there were two supervisors per park or school. Mornings usually involved arts and crafts, so children could make something they could take home. In the afternoons, the neighborhood children played ping-pong, tetherball, volleyball, horseshoes or softball. Equipment was checked out and checked in without cost. Parents whose children were home from school during the summer felt safe sending their children to the park because they knew there were a couple of responsible adults in charge. Sometimes, the playground supervisors were college students, but more often they were Denver Public School teachers who were off for the summer and open to the idea of making some summer income. In 1951, two of these supervisors were Ben Coleman and Will Howard in Pferdesteller Park on 33rd and Wolff. Not satisfied to do the minimum and not shy about publicity, Ben and Will, who had both been Skyline Conference wrestling champions for the University of Denver, set up a high single trapeze in the park. Both Ben and Will were members of the Imperial Flyers at the Y. One of the children who lived nearby and came to the park to swing was Bobby Christians.

That was Bobby’s introduction to gymnastics and acrobatics and he found that he had a knack for it, so he was invited by Ben and Will to fly trapeze at the Y at the age of eleven. Bobby ended up becoming the state high school high bar champion. He went on a full gymnastics scholarship to Florida State University. After serving an enlistment in the U.S. Army he finished his degree at the University of Northern Colorado. Although he coached high school gymnastics, most of the rest of his life was spent in show business. He flew for the Flying Lamars in the Ringling Brothers Circus.

He and his wife traveled and did shows with a casting rig act and with a triple high bar act. He was in charge of the cliff diving acts at the Casa Bonita Restaurant in Denver. In 1974 when Club Med approached him and asked him to make a rig for them so that the staff could entertain the guests, he remembered the fun that he had had at the Denver Y and proposed that not the employees but the guests themselves put on the show. Club Med bought the idea and Bobby began to install trapezes at Club Meds around the world from Sandpiper in Florida to the Bahamas to Malaysia to Polynesia to Brazil and to train staff to manage them. Eventually, there were over twenty Club Med trapezes. Louie King, Jerry (the clown) Coughlin, and Nicky Bruckhart of the Imperial Flyers worked on circus teams for Club Med, as did Bruce Lonnecker, Alton Barbour and Ben Coleman as au pairs.

Bobby & Karen as Grin and Barrett, a casting rig act.

Because of the variety of languages spoken at Club Meds, Bobby Christians taught the whole trapeze world a single “go” signal. He taught them all to say “hup.” At the present time, most of the people in the world who have swung off of a trapeze, hundreds of thousands by now, have done it at a Club Med when the instructor said “hup.”

Nicky Bruckhart in a splits, Playa Blanca, 1992

YOU DON’T LOOK ITALIAN

Wayne Wright and Carol Bosselman came to the YMCA in 1950 as part of Ivan Jones’ tumbling troupe in while they were still in high school. At East High School, Wayne was the city champion on the parallel bars. Carol was a skilled hand balancer and tumbler, able to do front aerials. At the YMCA they learned hand-to-hand balancing and balancing formations from Ivan Jones. And they flew on the trapeze. They were in a number of YMCA circuses that usually ended with Wayne and Carol doing the passing leap for a finale. They attended the University of Colorado, married, and left school to put on shows on their own. They started out doing trampoline acts for National School Assemblies but broadened that out with knockabout and adagio dancing numbers. Eventually they joined Edmundo (“Papa”) Zacchini and his “repeating” cannon and were fired out of this cannon in circuses all over the world as Wayne and Carol Zacchini.

Although there were two explosions and two puffs of smoke from the mouth of the cannon, that was all window dressing illusion for the audience because an explosion is what they expect from a cannon. The cannon actually housed two enormous slingshots. Wayne and Carol would wait in the barrel with padded saddles between their legs, and when the explosions were sounded, they were fired, first Carol and then Wayne, by two huge elastic shockcord arrangements through space into a net across the arena. Local newspapers loved it when Wayne explained that you didn’t often run into people of their caliber. One particularly memorable shot was from one Las Vegas casino parking lot to another casino parking lot. Eventually, with their son, Shane, they toured the world with a hand-balancing act titled Marble in Motion. From the Imperial Flyers to a career of being shot out of a cannon.

A MICROBIOOGIST CLONES THE TRAPEZE

Bernadette Pace brought her four-year old daughter, Elizabeth, to the YMCA in 1970 and discovered the trapeze. A Ph.D. microbiologist by training, employed at National Jewish, she had never done anything much more physical than bicycle riding, and nothing acrobatic. But she gave it a try. She swung off and dropped into the net a few times and eventually the fear wore off. She became a regular flyer and a skilled acrobat. She also became everyone’s big sister in the flying group. When her husband took a job at the University of Indiana in Bloomington in 1982, Bernadette picked a house with a huge yard. She studied trapeze rigs, drew up plans, and made a trapeze for herself there. It took a year to build. She founded the High Flyers Family Circus and recruited people to fly with her including male and female gymnasts from the University. Since no one there knew how to catch, she showed them films of people catching in Denver, and even though she weighed just 120 pounds, began to catch lighter flyers so potential catchers would have a model to follow. She put on shows for the people in Bloomington. Eventually she built another aluminum trapeze rig that was easy to transport and assemble and began to do shows throughout the state. Some of her local flyers have gone on to professional careers, and she herself has flown in circuses from Stockholm to Tokyo. The Imperial Flyers have visited Bloomington on a couple of occasions and put on joint shows.

A LIFETIME OF FLYING

The person with the longest tenure in the Imperial Flyers, without doubt, is Ben Coleman. In the 1940s, the YMCA had a weight lifting room, a boxing ring, punching bags, and a filthy black wrestling mat in an old house on Lincoln Street before the second newer gymnasium was built. Ben worked out on that old black mat and became a champion wrestler for East High School. In order to get to the old house he had to go through the old gymnasium and there became aware of the trapeze and gymnastics equipment. He developed an interest and tried out the trapeze. He attended the University of Denver where he met and knew Granny Johnson who was still coaching in the alumni gymnasium in the 1950s. Eventually he received an MA at Columbia University and taught history and social studies at West High School and George Washington High School in Denver, and he coached gymnastics.

Summers he did a trampoline act or casting rig act with his friend Davey Owens, or he would load his wife and three daughters in a mobile home and put on shows doing hand balancing. Right about that time an Ice Capades show came through Denver which included a hand-balancing act on ice put on by a father and son, Bill and Billy. Since Ben was already doing hand balancing, he thought he could do the same act for a different show. He taught his daughters to skate and joined Holiday on Ice in Europe for two and a half years. Back in Denver, he resumed his career with the Denver Public Schools and rejoined the Imperial Flyers. He has been a member ever since and was instrumental in the building of the new rig, including all of the welding. There is a copper plaque on one of the uprights which states that the rig is dedicated to Ben Coleman. As of this writing, Ben still skis and snowboards and he still flies. He still continues to appear in Imperial Flyers trapeze shows. It is the span of one lifetime, Ben Coleman’s, from Granny Johnson to the present day flyers.

Ben and Davey’s trampoline act. c. 1955

LEAVING THE DENVER CENTRAL YMCA

But trouble was around the corner. John Pateros and Donna Hamilton of San Rafael, CA were members of a trapeze group in San Francisco. They were in Denver for a professional meeting at the downtown Hyatt. Through mutual contacts they knew that there was a trapeze in Denver; they asked if they could work out with the group and were admitted without cost as guests, a professional courtesy. They claimed they both had prior experience with the apparatus and were not beginners. This was on September 22nd, 1995. Not while performing a trick on the trapeze, but while letting himself down from the net on a rope, John Pateros fell from the net and broke his hip. The fire department was called. They immobilized him on a rigid back splint and took him to Denver General Hospital where he underwent hip surgery. Back in California, John Pateros received a bill from DGH for $12,000 for the surgery.

Because he had no health insurance he was unable to pay the bill and was concerned about his credit rating. He called the YMCA and made an inquiry about whether the YMCA had any kind of policy for people who were injured there, which might assist them in paying for medical expenses. He believed that he was at fault for his accident. He did not submit a bill. He did not contact a lawyer. No lawyer or representative contacted the YMCA. He did not make a claim or threaten any kind of legal action. He did not believe that the YMCA was negligent. He did not believe the YMCA was liable. He did not intend to cause the YMCA any kind of difficulty. He merely made an inquiry about how the YMCA typically handled injuries in the gymnasium and whether there was any program which might help him with his bill. Whoever took the call referred him to Joan Lyons in Denver who referred him to Crawford and Co., a Midwest law firm that handles claims for YMCAs all over the United States. Since that is what they do, they assumed it was a claim and treated it as such. At this point, YMCA Executive Director, Joe Giacchino, shut down the operation of the trapeze on November 17th, saying that the insurance carrier for the YMCA could not insure the trapeze. When he discovered that the group also had a full sized trapeze rig set up outside at the East Denver YMCA he shut that down too.

Trapeze represents a kind of paradox. Although the activity is visually dramatic and spectacular, when properly supervised it is safe to do in the same sense that confidence-building ropes courses in Outward Bound or Executive Ventures are safe to do. In fact, training in gymnastics or acrobatics is also training in how to fall so one does not get hurt. Learners who get even the basic skills in trapeze will be safe in the activity and will find that the skill transfers into other activities such as falling on a ski slope or slipping on the ice. Falling safely eventually becomes instinctive if one has done it enough times. In the long run, training in gymnastics, acrobatics or trapeze prevents injuries. In all of its sixty plus year existence at the YMCA the group had never had a serious injury. To my knowledge, none of the numerous Club Med trapezes has had a serious injury. One would think that if it were really dangerous, several serious injuries might have occurred during that time, but none has. YMCAs have had drownings in their swimming pools, but they continue to have swimming pools. If one were to compare even the rate of minor injuries (sprains, bumps, bruises, abrasions, etc.) in trapeze to those regularly occurring in basketball, volley ball, weight lifting, racquetball, etc. (YMCAs keep records of injuries) trapeze was convincingly safer. But no YMCA administrators have suggested doing away with basketball, volleyball, weight lifting or racquetball because they were too dangerous for the participants. The participants in those sports know the risks and participate anyway. Calculated risks are what make most sports interesting. It is possible, of course, for people to be injured while participating in nearly any sporting event. With any kind of athletics, there is some inherent risk, just as life itself involves risk. No human activity can be made perfectly safe. Trapeze is not perfectly safe, but properly done it is not dangerous. As Bobby Christians has said, “If trapeze could be made perfectly safe, no one would do it.

Lisa Hogan and Alton Barbour met with Van Nichols (CEO of all ten Denver Metro YMCAs) and Don Gardner on December 5th to appeal the decision. Van Nichols said that trapeze was a “high risk activity” and that he was eliminating potential lawsuits. Lisa Hogan offered to indemnify the YMCA against any claims. Van Nichols said he didn’t believe that could be done. Lisa Hogan showed Van Nichols a waiver form which could include an indemnification clause. Van Nichols said he would show it to the YMCAs lawyers. He never got back to Lisa. According to Robin Chotzinoff (see bibliography) to this date, John Patero has not filed any claim against the YMCA and has sought other “remedies” for paying his bill. In the meantime, the YMCA assured Manny Crespin, the supervisor of the trapeze group, that the equipment could remain in the storage closet until the group could make arrangements to move it on March 7th, 1996. On the date when the move was to be made, Manny Crespin discovered that the YMCA had cut the trapeze rigging from the gymnasium superstructure so the space could be painted. Because there was no supervision of the painters, some of the equipment, including blocks and tackles and various hardware, was stolen. Because the trapeze group and not the YMCA owned the equipment, Manny Crespin submitted a bill of $3,200.00 for the group, which was paid by Executive Director, Joe Giacchino, in exchange for a quitclaim against any further charges. The long Imperial Flyers-Denver Central YMCA story came to an end.

Read the Westword’s February 1996 article about the Imperial Flyers’ expulsion from the YMCA here

BUILDING NEW RIG AND MOVING

Perhaps there is such a thing as karma, because just when the Imperial Flyers needed a new trapeze, they had one. The first Club Med trapeze that Bobby Christians set up was on Eleuthera in the Bahamas. The intense sunlight in tropical areas is damaging to trapeze nets, and Bobby found it necessary to replace the net. He called Ben Coleman and said that he had a net available which he would give to the Imperial Flyers free if someone would only pay to transport it to Denver. Benny paid the shipping fee and stored the net. Now the group had a “big rig” net, but no big rig to use it with. So construction began during weekends during the winter of 1994-1995. The entire group built the rig. Benny got used, rusty iron piping from oil rigs for the uprights and crane bars, which were cut into sections. Several people had copies of the construction design made by Bernadette Pace. She had given them out one year as a Christmas present. It was an unusually warm winter. Some said that we didn’t have winter at all that year. So with no snow on the ground, construction continued on the rig on weekends at Benny Coleman’s until completion. And in the spring there was a rig to put with the free net. Lynn Coleman asked the manager of the East Denver YMCA if the flyers could set up on their space inside the fence, and he agreed. He thought it might be good for the neighborhood children. The neighbors all said that they enjoyed watching it. Nothing like that had ever happened in their neighborhood before. The group set up and flew there all summer, and continued to use the inside rig on Wednesday and Friday nights. When the YMCA administration decided to shut down the operations in the downtown facility and the East Denver YMCA, the rig was there, waiting to move to a new location.

MOVING TO WESTMINSTER

Just as some of the flyers made the transition when the trapeze moved from the University of Denver to the Central YMCA, some of the flyers made the transition when the group moved from both YMCAs to the new location in Westminster. These included Jon Allen, Gary Baker, Alton Barbour, Paula Bridwell, Nicky Bruckhart, Tony Carpenter, Ben Coleman, Eric Elling, Ludwig Goppenhammer, Lisa Hogan, Louie King, Wendy Lesko, Cricket Liu, Bruce Lonnecker, Jackie Moorhead, Vince Nicoletti, Paige Rike and Mark Sexton. The new rig attracted new members such as Lois Donnelly, Cathy Gauch, Susan Hodson, Jim James, Carol Nixon, Jim Rice, Desiree Sanchez, Laurie Stephenson, and Leesi Heasler, who had flown professionally with Ray Valentine.

Leesi Ruskaup and Jon Allen doing a passing leap. Bruce Lonnecker, catching. Imperial Flyers Circus, 2005

It was Paula Bridwell who made the move possible. Paula had been a high school and college gymnast and took her sons on a vacation to a Club Med on St. Lucia where there was a trapeze set up by Bobby Christians. She was good enough to be in the show and loved the activity. One of the trapeze staff, Jerry (the clown) Coughlin who had started out on the trapeze in Denver, explained to Paula that there was a trapeze and a group back in Denver. Here are all of those links again from the group to Bobby to Jerry to Paula back to the group again.She joined the flyers and flew at the Y before the move to the East Denver Y and before the shutdown and exodus. Across and down the street from her house was a huge unused lot at 7635 Stuart St. that looked to her to be just right for a trapeze. Paula asked Gilbert Wiseman if he would be open to his land being leased for a trapeze and he said he would. A lease was agreed to and the trapeze was moved and set up in 1996. If a group has a trapeze and is having fun flying then what is the next thing that they consider doing? Why of course, they decided to put on a circus show in 1998 and have done so ever since. Mabel and Granny would have been proud.

Paula Bridwell over the bar (shoot) to Eric Elling

2014 UPDATE

As of May 2014, Imperial Flyers still remains on Stuart Street. Poor Paula Bridwell got more than she bargained for when she encouraged the club to move down the street from her in 1996, as by default, her home has become host to many circus after-parties and annual club meetings.

RECORDS

Imperial Flyers continues to grow, with more than 30 annual members and 125 visitors each year. The median age of the club’s flyers is around 45. Several flyers who began at the YMCA still spend time at the rig today, including Benny Coleman, Bruce Lonnecker, Eric Elling, Jackie Moorhead, Jon Allen, Leesi Ruskaup, Lisa Hogan, Ludwig Goppenheimer, Lynn Coleman, Mark Sexton, Nicky Bruckhart, Paula Bridwell, Tony Carpenter, and Vince Nicoletti. Alton Barbour, one of the best catchers to have hung at Imperial Flyers and the author of the original club history, no longer flies due to medical complications, but he joins us in spirit each time we go out and play. Many newer flyers have come and gone since the move to Westminster, and some have even continued to hang around, including Carol Duffy, Chrissy Daniels, Dylan Buli, Gillian Wood, Jessie and Patti Miller, Kristin Carlson, Susan Winker, Tim McCloskey, and Violeta Reyes.

If there’s one special thing about Imperial Flyers, it’s longevity. At 85 years old, Benny Coleman is sill flying! He is the oldest member of the club to throw layouts (and the oldest member of the club, period). At 71 years old, the second-oldest member of the club, Carol Duffy, holds the record for starting latest in life and still flying (she began flying at about 65). With a significant portion of the club membership pushing late-50s and beyond, Imperial Flyers is a haven for over-the-hill flying trapeze enthusiasts, whose abundance proves that flying trapeze can be a low-impact activity (though anyone who has been lost on a catch and subsequently taken a ride in the apron might argue that it can also can get a bit wild).

Bruce Lonnecker holds the record for most locks in a day (at least 40–a Herculean number by any standard). Together, Bruce and Susan Winker hold the record for longest trick, a dizzying feat they perform regularly. Normally a flyer does a trick to the catcher and if he or she is lucky, returns back to the board. In the “long trick,” Susan does a plange to Bruce, returns to the bar, takes two swings with salutes to the “audience” (several cars parked in an empty grass field), does a half-turn to Bruce, and returns to the pedestal.

The favorite Imperial Flyers flying trapeze game is called “ball butt.” This game involves two tennis balls located on the pedestal cables above where people hold on for take-off. (The purpose of these tennis balls is to keep the safety lines out of the way for flyers who are not using them.) Mastering the swing to the point that you can reach the balls with your rear end is quite an accomplishment, so flyers regularly set themselves upon the challenge.

Susan Winker gets the balls

Susan Winker beats the balls

CIRCUS ARTS FOR THE MASSES

The New Millennium brought a wave of renewed interest in circus arts after a slow demise beginning at the end of the 19th century.¹ In the wake of this enthusiasm came a proliferation of aerial arts and flying trapeze schools. Whereas for many years Imperial Flyers was one of only three or four places around the country to offer flying trapeze to the public outside of Club Med, by 2010 there were more than 40 flying trapeze clubs and schools in North America alone (not to mention the thousands of schools that teach other aerial skills).¹

Though people continue to discover the possibility of flying trapeze as a hobby at Club Med, much of this explosion of interest in circus arts can be attributed to the proliferation of Cirque Du Soleil shows, which provide a nouveau circus experience by seamlessly incorporating original music and incredible feats of athleticism into spectacles that inspire audience members to relive their childhood dreams. As traditional circuses continued touring America and Cirque grew from seven North American shows in 2000 to more than 20 shows worldwide in 2010,¹ a symbiotic relationship flourished between circus performances and aerial acrobatics schools. Circuses fostered interest in schools and created opportunities for acrobatic work, not only in the shows themselves but also in corporate events, as savvy planners began demanding unique circus-style entertainment. In exchange, as the number of schools around the country multiplied, circuses enjoyed a greater talent pool from which they could draw and experienced a swell of die-hard fans who, through schools, had experienced their high-flying dreams in technicolor and now felt a kind of kinship with the acrobats on stage.

To this day, the cycle continues. Former high-level athletes looking for professional training on new apparatus, exercise enthusiasts bored with run-of-the-mill fitness classes, people with unfulfilled childhood dreams, and thrill-seekers looking to top off their bucket lists no longer just see a show when the watch the circus; they see possibility for their own lives.

EVERYONE IS STILL TIED TO EVERYONE

With the Imperial Flyers’ rig being outdoor, when Colorado settles in for six months of winter’s wrath, what’s a flyer to do? When the weather is just a degree warmer than 50, desperate flyers show up at the rig with shovels, just for the chance to slake off some of the season’s rust with a few swings. Since even these opportunities are few and far between in the dead of winter, some flyers pad their annual budgets with extra cash reserved for a trip or two to rigs in warmer climates. (Traveling to other rigs can be painful for Imperial Flyers, considering that the club’s annual dues are $225 for an all-you-can-fly buffet, and most schools charge between $40 – $75 just for one session!).

One rig frequented by Imperial Flyers members is Trapeze High in sunny Escondido, California, where they understand the Imperial Flyers winter dilemma and do what they can to make the club’s flyers’ visits as affordable as possible. The mythology of this rig has multiple tentacles that stretch to Imperial Flyers. In early 2008, flyers Dylan Buli and Kyla Duffy made a trip to Southern California to enjoy some winter flying. During that trip, they met Harmony French (now Harmony French Chute), a professional flyer who had just returned from Big Apple Circus in New York, where she performed flying trapeze and participated in the filming of the PBS show, Circus. Though for Harmony the meeting was unremarkable, Dylan and Kyla were star struck to meet their first “real,” working professional flyer.

Four years later, Kyla again found herself at Trapeze High. This time she was there training with hopes of getting good enough to spend a year or so in the circus limelight. In a serendipitous turn of events, Harmony was again at the rig getting in some swings between gigs. In a month, she would be heading back to POP Circus in Japan for a second tour. After flying together for a week, Kyla and Harmony developed camaraderie, and when the POP Circus troupe leader, Daniel Simard (who got his start as a catcher at Club Med 25 years prior), told Harmony he would be needing one more female flyer, Harmony threw caution to the wind and recommended Kyla, despite the fact that she had never worked professionally and had the trademark “good enough is just fine” Imperial Flyers form.

Kyla immediately accepted the job and got to work bringing her form and style up to professional standards (which, in her own words, continues to be a work in progress). In mid-2012, Kyla joined the troupe and, as of mid-2014, continues to perform a flying trapeze act with an additional top catcher.

Kyla Duffy climbing from bottom catcher, Daniel Simard, to top catcher, Jeremy Chute

Kyla Duffy climbing from bottom catcher, Daniel Simard, to top catcher, Jeremy Chute

But the story doesn’t end there. For one week in October 2013, while visiting Kyla at POP Circus, Imperial Flyers President Dylan Buli (2012-) filled in on the board with the troupe while a vacationing flyer was detained in his home country due to illness.

Jeremy Chute and Dylan Buli

Brothers from other mothers, Jeremy Chute and Dylan Buli

Early in 2014, the troupe again needed a new female flyer. This time, it was Kyla’s turn to make a recommendation. Kyla had met Cindy Sweeney, a Colorado native who had relocated to New York, while training at Krizia Carr’s rig in Florida in 2011. (Krizia, daughter of flying trapeze legend Miguel Caceres, was considering putting together an all-girl troupe and had invited the ladies down to give her hybrid catcher/bar-to-bar rig a try.) In 2012, Cindy came to Imperial Flyers to train for a short stint before touring with The Flying Pages at American fair dates and working with The Flying Codonas at an amusement park in Dubai.

In February of 2014, Cindy became the newest member of ProStar Flyers.

Troupe Runaway 2014

ProStar Flyers 2014 (L-R): Kostantin Iafarov, Harmony French Chute, Jeremy Chute, Kyla Duffy, Cindy Sweeney, Daniel Simard

But the Trapeze High story still doesn’t end there. Dylan and Kyla were not the only Imperial Flyers to visit Trapeze High. In 2008, Tony Carpenter visited Trapeze High and became instantly famous for his Italian charm as well as his palpable loathing of their light, paper-towel-roll-shaped bar, which the school feels is easier on the hands of beginners. For some advanced flyers, the bar can be a nuisance. Though many visiting Imperial Flyers have since adjusted to the feel of the lighter bar, the school does keep a heavier one close at hand in case of obstinate Italians.

Bruce Lonnecker, Susan Watson, and Carol Duffy have also become regular visitors of Trapeze High. Earlier in life, Carol was a professional ice skater with Holiday on Ice, and at a 2009 Holiday on Ice reunion in Las Vegas, she got to talking trapeze with Betty Goedhart, a La Jolla resident who, with her husband, had owned seven touring Holiday on Ice shows. The pair discovered that they had much in common, not the least of which was the fact that they had both developed a passion for flying trapeze at an advanced age (Carol at 65 and Betty at 75). Betty took regular classes at Trapeze High, and she invited Carol, along with Susan, Dylan, and Kyla, out to her house for a weekend flying trapeze trip. The group had so much fun that the trip became an annual (and sometimes bi-annual) pilgrimage, and the group grew to include Bruce Lonnecker, too. In 2010, the flyers reciprocated by inviting Betty to Imperial Flyers to watch the annual circus and take a few swings. Although she has not been back since, Colorado flyers continue to show up on her doorstep regularly!

CIRQUE DREAMS REALIZED

In addition to Kyla Duffy running away with the circus in Japan, several club flyers have gone on to pursue circus- and acrobatics-related professions.

In 2009, longtime Imperial Flyers member Ludwig Goppenheimer designed and began marketing free-standing, portable rigs for aerial acts. These rigs are now being used by aerialists all over the country.

In 2010, former club member Chelsey Rea Johannsen moved to Seattle to manage the flying trapeze program at SANCA (School of Acrobatics and New Circus Arts).

Also in 2010, Jessie and Patty Miller founded Aerial Animals. This began as a performance company, but with the help of Jessie’s dad, Rick, and Ludwig Goppenheimer, it has evolved into an equipment manufacturing outfit.

In 2011, Lynn Coleman founded the Aerial Acrobatic Arts Festival, which she hosts annually in Denver, Colorado. The festival strives to foster community among aerialists, drawing artists from all over the world to participate in workshops and competition.

Since 2012, Leesi Ruskaup has won many pole dancing competitions and has gained notoriety for her innovative “fab-pole” performances, which incorporate aerial tissue with pole dancing.

Leesi performing Fab Pole

Leesi Ruskaup performing Fab Pole

Jessie Miller graduated from NECCA (New England Center for Circus Arts), a school run by former Cirque Du Soleil acrobats, in 2014, with concentrations in aerial rope and stilt acrobatics. She then moved to England to attend circus school.

Jessie Miller, photo: Elsie Smith

Odds and Ends

Attracting New Flyer Like Flies

The somewhat eccentric nature of flying trapeze attracts a unique crowd. A joke among the flyers is that the club’s motto should be, “Imperial Flyers: we’re not for everyone; sometimes we’re not even for ourselves!” Joking aside, the club is made up of a diverse group of dedicated enthusiasts who care as deeply for each other as they do for the activity of flying trapeze itself. While flying is, of course, the group’s primary activity, the post-flying “happy hour” that goes on at the rig until after sunset on hot summer nights is equally appreciated, as are the regular, if spontaneous, get-togethers at nearby restaurants Los Arcos and Thai House. (Denver-based members also continue to congregate at Charlie Brown’s, a favorite haunt from back when Imperial Flyers was located inside the YMCA.)

In 2009, the club changed its drop-in policy to ease the burden of accommodating new flyers during club flying times. Now the club hosts monthly Open House events during the summer to bring in new flyers by the batch. The events allow beginners to meet the members and give flying a try without interrupting normal flying sessions, and they tend to yield five or six new club members each season. Open Houses have turned out to be hard work for the member-volunteers but also a lot of fun for everyone, as there’s nothing like peer pressure to make an unlikely “victim” jump off a pedestal 35′ in the air squealing.

A Related Rig in Wyoming

In 2011, Patty Tobi drove all the way down to Westminster, Colorado, from Sheridan, Wyoming, seven hours away, to attend an Open House. She enjoyed her time at the club so much that she became a member and regularly made the long commute. In 2014, that all changed when she realized her dream of owning her own rig, which was built and installed by retired professional catcher Peter Gold, who now sells flying trapeze equipment and runs a trapeze school that roams the land almost as frequently as a circus. Several Imperial Flyers took the long drive to Sheridan to help Patty raise her rig, and she’ll surely have more Coloradoans visiting in the future.

We’re Famous on Youtube

Though nobody remembers it as such, April 8th, 2011, was a big day for Imperial Flyers. It was the day that the club produced its first flying trapeze video for Youtube. The video turned out to be such a fun, helpful training tool that Kyla and Susan started videotaping every flying session and posting the edited short film to Youtube. When Susan posted the club’s first “fail” video, we realized that many people all over the world were following the Imperial Flyers feed, as the video received commentary from as far away as England. All of the videos are accessible on this website via the Videos link.

Several years ago, the club installed a TIVO video replay machine, which has also served as a useful training tool. Now flyers can hop off the net and watch their previous trick before climbing back up the ladder to try again. Not only has this helped flyers to learn more quickly but it has settled many disputes about who is to “blame” when tricks are missed (don’t fool yourself–it’s always the catcher!).

The Club in Cartoons

In the spring of 2014, a former gymnast named Maya Dite-Shepard got bit by the trapeze mosquito while attending an open house event. She became a regular club member and quickly excelled at flying. During the first annual maintenance day she attended, Maya showed the club that flying wasn’t her only skill. She volunteered to paint the shed, a task that was usually carried out by simply slapping a bit of yellow paint around. Maya approached this menial task with love and unparalleled skill, resulting in a beautiful trapeze mural decorating the shed. She even included an inside joke by painting a flying, farting meatball around the backside of the shed as a tribute and a bit of a roast to Tony Carpenter, who is an easy target due to his Italian heritage (and perhaps just a little for his stature and sound effects).

In May of 2016, Maya again surprised the club with her artistic talents by creating a weekly series of cartoons chronicling Imperial Flyers’ activities.

public beer bearer

In a kind, lighthearted way, Maya’s cartoons highlight the ridiculousness, the camaraderie, and the unique nature of flying trapeze and, more specifically, Imperial Flyers. Members eagerly await the next installation every Friday.

The Show Must Go On

The club continues to hold an annual free circus in August for an audience of friends, family, and freeloaders, which usually tops 200. In the show, club members perform multiple flying trapeze acts punctuated by other aerial and ground acts. The month leading up to the show is always stressful, as members struggle to catch their new tricks, and whoever gets roped into the ringmaster position scrambles to organize members’ performances into some sort of reasonable time frame. The pressure of it all has, at times, made flying at the rig in late-July/early-August so unenjoyable that the idea to cancel the show has been kicked around, but you know what they say: “The show must go on!”

If history is any sort of indicator, come rain or shine or Wizard-of-Oz gusts of wind, the Imperial Flyers show most certainly will.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:

The 2014 update was written by Kyla Duffy. Everything before the 2014 update was written during the winter of 2006 by Alton Barbour. Much of the narrative about the early years of the group would not have been possible without the assistance and support of Steve Fisher, Claire Williamson, and Kenna Gair of the University of Denver Penrose Library archives. The enhanced picture of the Otto Pribyl Flyers is courtesy of Molly Ginsberg and University of Denver Photographer Michael Richmond. Other photographs were processed by Christopher Moorhead. My understanding of Mabel Rilling comes in part from an interview with my 95-year-old neighbor, Clara Armstrong who was one of her students in the late 1920s and early 1930s. As the group continues, it is anticipated that additional stories and photographs will be added.

SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Baker, Vickie. Surprised by Hope, Camp Hill, Pennsylvania: Horizon Books, 2000.
  • Booth, Michael. “Time Flies When They’re Having Fun,” The Denver Post, Dec. 1, 1998 pps. 1A, 2B.
  • Burkhart, Nancy. “High Flyers at the Y.” The Sunday Denver Post, October 21, 1979.
  • Chmel, Jannalee Chard. “The Flying Pioneers,” (Behind the Scenes Column) University of Denver Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 3. Spring, 2003.
  • Chmel, Jannalee Chard. “Swinging From the Rafters,” 5280 Denver’s Mile High Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 4., November, 2003, p. 26.
  • Chotzinoff, Robin. “Soar Losers,” Westword, Feb. 27-28, 1996.
  • Ensslin, John. “A High-flying Performance,” Rocky Mountain News, April 15, 2002.
  • Gavin, Jennifer. “Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease,” (Lifestyles Section) Rocky Mountain News, May 29, 1984.
  • Hofsess, Lisa. “Sensation Seeking in a Recreational Activity: Pursuit of Vertigo among Nonprofessional Trapeze Artists,” Unpublished Master of Science Thesis, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, 1984.
  • Hofsess, Lisa. “A Somatic View of Flying,” Somatics, Vol. 6, No. 3, Autumn/Winter,1987-1988.
  • Keen, Sam. Learning to Fly, New York: Broadway Books, 1999.
  • Kreck, Carol. “Frequent Flyers Have a Firm Grip,” Living and the Arts Section C., The Denver Post, June 9, 1987.
  • Lubinski, Barbara. “The Flying Professor,” University of Denver Today, Vol. 8, No. 43, 1987.
  • Seldner, Joseph. “Trapeze Class Nurtures Future Walendas,” Rocky Mountain News, March 1, 1981.
  • Sweets, Ellen. “Frequent Flyers,” (The Scene Section F) The Denver Post, Sept. 17, 2003, pps.
    1-4.
  • Thorne, Patti. “Courting the Heights,” Lifestyles Section, Rocky Mountain News, June 9, 1987.
  • Tucker, Ernest. “For Daredevils, the Thrill is Never Gone,” Rocky Mountain News Sunday Magazine, Feb. 19, 1984.

 

BEN, WILL AND BOBBY

Ben holds Willy in a lever. c. 1955

In the summers of the 1940s and 1950s the Denver Public Schools hired playground supervisors to manage the playgrounds in the public parks and some of the neighborhood schools in Denver. Typically, there were two supervisors per park or school. Mornings usually involved arts and crafts, so children could make something they could take home. In the afternoons, the neighborhood children played ping-pong, tetherball, volleyball, horseshoes or softball. Equipment was checked out and checked in without cost. Parents whose children were home from school during the summer felt safe sending their children to the park because they knew there were a couple of responsible adults in charge. Sometimes, the playground supervisors were college students, but more often they were Denver Public School teachers who were off for the summer and open to the idea of making some summer income. In 1951, two of these supervisors were Ben Coleman and Will Howard in Pferdesteller Park on 33rd and Wolff. Not satisfied to do the minimum and not shy about publicity, Ben and Will, who had both been Skyline Conference wrestling champions for the University of Denver, set up a high single trapeze in the park. Both Ben and Will were members of the Imperial Flyers at the Y. One of the children who lived nearby and came to the park to swing was Bobby Christians.

That was Bobby’s introduction to gymnastics and acrobatics and he found that he had a knack for it, so he was invited by Ben and Will to fly trapeze at the Y at the age of eleven. Bobby ended up becoming the state high school high bar champion. He went on a full gymnastics scholarship to Florida State University. After serving an enlistment in the U.S. Army he finished his degree at the University of Northern Colorado. Although he coached high school gymnastics, most of the rest of his life was spent in show business. He flew for the Flying Lamars in the Ringling Brothers Circus.

He and his wife traveled and did shows with a casting rig act and with a triple high bar act. He was in charge of the cliff diving acts at the Casa Bonita Restaurant in Denver. In 1974 when Club Med approached him and asked him to make a rig for them so that the staff could entertain the guests, he remembered the fun that he had had at the Denver Y and proposed that not the employees but the guests themselves put on the show. Club Med bought the idea and Bobby began to install trapezes at Club Meds around the world from Sandpiper in Florida to the Bahamas to Malaysia to Polynesia to Brazil and to train staff to manage them. Eventually, there were over twenty Club Med trapezes. Louie King, Jerry (the clown) Coughlin, and Nicky Bruckhart of the Imperial Flyers worked on circus teams for Club Med, as did Bruce Lonnecker, Alton Barbour and Ben Coleman as au pairs.

Bobby & Karen as Grin and Barrett, a casting rig act.

Because of the variety of languages spoken at Club Meds, Bobby Christians taught the whole trapeze world a single “go” signal. He taught them all to say “hup.” At the present time, most of the people in the world who have swung off of a trapeze, hundreds of thousands by now, have done it at a Club Med when the instructor said “hup.”

Nicky Bruckhart in a splits, Playa Blanca, 1992

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