“You only get to fly if you’re a trapeze artist.” Bill Thomas
A flying return act has at least 2 flyers and a catcher. One flyer is usually with the trapeze to make sure the timing of it moving is correct so the other flyer can properly perform the return.
A flying trapeze act has a at least 3 performers. The flyers perform by standing on a narrow board, usually reached by climbing a tall ladder, or pulling themselves up a long rope. Each takeoff and trick must be correctly timed and synchronized with the catcher, or someone will get hurt. The catcher signals verbally to the flyer when s/he must leave the platform on a fly bar. After performing a trick, the catcher, on the catch bar, catches the flyer, swinging back to the fly bar, during which another trick may be performed by the flyer. As each flyer safely returns to the board, another takes his or her place to perform. The catch bar is padded and may have prongs or tape on it for the catcher to brace his or her feet. An artist balances on a trapeze that may or may not move in a solo trapeze act.
In a casting act the flyer is thrown by another member of the troupe, on or off a still or moving trapeze. Casting acts often use a double barred trapeze so the caster can hook his/her feet under the bar in back and his/her knees over the bar in the front. The casting catchers stand face to face with the flier in space between them. At least 3 performers are required for this act.
Bars are a series of three horizontal bars, or Les Barres Fixes, of about the same height mounted on the ground. Bar work is, in some ways, more difficult than trapeze work because a trapeze artist uses the swing of the swinging trapeze to gain momentum which helps in the performance of certain tricks. A barrist “generate[s] his own momentum out of his own muscular strength.” A barrist’s speed must be faster than a trapeze artist to perform certain positions or moves. A barrist constantly hits, curls around, or beats (bounces off) of the bar, like today’s women’s gymnastics parallel bar routines.
MI trapeze artists and aerialists:
William “Sport Zeno” Hulme:
The first major MI-native flying trapeze artist was William “Sport Zeno” Hulme (b. Saginaw 1858-Chicago 1933). At age 15 he ran away and joined Wickson’s wagon show (a circus). He soon joined the “casting” act because he was light in weight, agile, and daring. Hulme, then known professionally as Zeno, formed his own troupe, which practiced in Saginaw. They successfully toured the U.S. and Europe. Zeno then partnered with Dennis Turk, a famous acrobat, and developed an innovative act in which they leaped from one trapeze to the other and turned somersaults in the air. Hulme completed a full return, the first time performed to the catcher and then back to the trapeze. Zeno and Turk starred in the Barnum Circus for 13 years, and then the Phillis Circus. Their act was known as Sport Zeno’s “Flying through Space,” a horizontal bar and trapeze act. Turk is credited with executing the first triple somersault in 1905. The first triple is considered a major accomplishment in aerial history. Turk was an outstanding barrist. After a number of giant swings, Turk performed a triple somersault towards and was caught by Sport Zeno. Turk and Zeno starred in the Phillis Circus which toured Europe and South Africa. Zeno’s troupe was then called Zeno, Carl & Zeno. Zeno returned to the U.S. and performed as the troupe’s catcher until at least 1920. About 1920 Zeno borrowed Ray and Buster Thomas to help complete his engagement. Zeno died in Chicago in 1933 and was buried in Saginaw.
Flying Picards or the Picard Brothers-Saginaw
The misnamed Flying Picards, really bar performers, included brothers Philip, Alex, and Joe Picard and their half-brother, Fred LaChapelle, of Saginaw. They performed at the end of the 19th century. In 1899, the Picard Brothers were featured in the Forepaugh & Sells Brothers Circus with 3 famous Saginaw clowns, Fred Jenks, George Bickel, and Harry Watson. Another brother, Frank Picard (1889-1963), trained and performed for awhile as an aerialist, but later became a lawyer and judge. He served as a U.S. District Judge in Bay City and Detroit and presided over the Federal Court at Bay City. Alex’s son, Vince Picard, later continued the barrist tradition.
One troupe that the Flying Melzoras trained was the Flying Harolds, composed of Harold Voise, the leader of the troupe, and his brothers, Jack and George, Jr. Voise. The Harolds were the Thomas’ next door neighbors in Saginaw. In 1934 Jack Voise joined the Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Circus as a clown while the Flying Harolds performed in the circus. In 1937 George debuted with the troupe on the Cole Bros. Circus in Saginaw. The next year, the troupe performed with the Cole Bros.-Clyde Beatty Circus. They trained in the Thomas’ barn during the 1920s and 1930s, before they moved to Illinois.
The Flying Wards were also trained by the Flying Melzoras. In 1929 the Flying Wards, including Frank Shepard, Wayne Larey and Harold “Toughy” Genders, performed on the Sells-Floto Show. In the mid-1930s, Larey and Genders regularly performed triple somersaults. Larey was the first the star of “the Flying Comets,” and by 1936 with Bob Porter as his catcher, regularly performed triple somersaults. Larey’s career ended when he dislocated a shoulder in 1939.
The Gesmundos were headed by Serafino “Gus” Gesmundo (1917-1999) who met his love, “Midge” Marian Erway (1919/1920-) of Kalamazoo at Playland Amusement Park in NY. He was part of a trapeze act from Los Angeles and she was part of Los Aeros, a novelty aerial act based in Allegan. Midge’s boss hired Gus. Midge and Gus married in late 1940 but they performed apart in separate troupes in different circuses to fulfill their contractual obligations with their troupes. During World War II Gus joined the army and served in the Philippines and with the Japanese occupation forces. 10 of their 13 children grew to adulthood and 9 live today near Kalamazoo: Joe, Jack, Gail, Gary, Judah, Maria, John Paul, James, Jay, Vicki, and Marymarie. By 1973 Gus and Midge retired to North Fort Myers, FL. Gus died in 1999.
Phil Shevette or Chauvette (b. Quebec 1870-Saginaw 1952) A famous barrist who also performed on the flying trapeze, Shevette was “ famous for…dazzling, whirlwind combinations of passes and spectacular break-aways (fly-aways) with never anything less than doubles.” He holds two records in the Guinness Book of World Records, one for a triple backwards somersault off a seven foot bar and one for a double somersault from the first to the third bar, performed between 1892 and 1896. The first to third bar pass was considered an “almost insuperable feat.” In the late 1890s Shevette performed with Claude Newell, and Phil’s brother, Zenoble Shevette, as the “Orloff Brothers” in Europe and the U.S. in a combination aerial bar, casting act, and a flying return trapeze act. Newell, the catcher, was also a Saginawian. Between 1892 and 1896 Shevette performed the difficult triple and the double-back passes from the 1st to the 3rd bar. Newell & Shevette performed the 1st to 3rd bar routine in 1896 at the famous Paris Folies Berger and at Woods’ Gymnasium, NY City, during an 1892 barrist competition. Shevette performed the triple “fly-away” from the end bar, which was a foot higher than convention standards, which increased his speed. With Alfred Court, Shevette also performed amazing “combinations of passes and spectacular break-aways (fly-aways) with never anything less than doubles.” Shevette’s was a star performer, 1900-1920.
Shevette worked as a flier for the Flying Melzoras in 1916 on the Melzer-DeMott Circus. Melzer Thomas, Sr. was a partner in the circus. His son, Melzer “Buster” Thomas, Jr. remembered Shevette as being “graceful”… “like a ballet dancer” during performances, a man with European manners, who loved to play chess, and who befriended Russian nobility during his three years stay in their country. In retirement, Shevette coached trapeze and bar artists in Saginaw. Buster Thomas was strongly influenced by Shevette. Phil Shevette died in 1952 in Saginaw and was buried there.