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Flying Melzoras

Melzer Thomas

Melzer Thomas (1884-1951) was the father and founder of the Flying Melzoras. Melzer played baseball for Akron, OH, before he performed an act called the Tumbling Bell Hop on vaudeville, using suitcases, hat boxes, and things people traveled with at train stations. An all around athlete and performer who performed acrobatics, tumbling, flipflops, and hand bell routines, Melzer joined the DaComa troupe, a flying return act, in 1897. The troupe performed opposite the Flying Fishers in the Ringling Brothers Circus. 

By 1904 Melzer married Eliza Jane (1886-1974). He taught Jane all the basic trapeze tricks on a zip bar inside hung in a doorway. They also installed rigging in their yard.  Together, they performed a double trapeze act. All of their sons, Melzer, Junior, called Buster or Bus (1908-1994), Ray (1907-1966), and Bill (1916-), eventually joined the act.

Click to Enlarge...The Thomas family moved to Saginaw where Hulme and Shevette lived. Thomas Melzer formed a flying return act called the Flying Melzoras, and began training his sons and local boys in the flying return act. Ray was in the family act by the age of 7.  The Thomas family built a barn on Webber and Collingwood streets in Saginaw to train flyers.  By 1938 the Thomas family had trained at least 28 men and women for circus careers.
Training was rigorous, 2-11 p.m.  Both Melzer and Jane were demanding.  A mistake could hurt another troupe member so badly they would not be able to perform and endanger the performance, or indeed, the career of the troupe.  Mistakes could lower the overall performance quality, the types and numbers of tricks that could be performed, and audience satisfaction. Therefore both practice and performance was very serious events.
Like other troupes, the Thomas family experimented with various rigging until they found what they needed and then kept it for most of the professional life of the troupe.  Rigging is also adjusted for the height of the performers.  Bill grew to 6’2” and Bus to 6’1” and 230 pounds, the two tallest flyers in the U.S. Most flyers averaged a height of 5’5” inches and 145pounds.  Tricks done by tall trapeze artists look more graceful and difficult than those performed by shorter people. 

Jane and Melzer divorce after 1925. Melzer remarried and started another troupe, the Flying Columbians. He died in 1951 at age 67 and is buried in a Saginaw.

Jane and the boys continued as The Flying Melzoras. They worked at major entertainment sites and major state fairs. Jane became the troupe’s manager and catcher. She was the mom and the enforcer. Jane developed tremendous muscles and used prongs for her feet on the sides of the catchtrap to catch her sons.  The longest performing female catcher in the business, Jane Thomas was inducted into the Saginaw Hall of Fame October 24, 2006.

When Bill was with the act (he left at age 19 in 1935) there was no mandatory schooling or tutors for children in the entertainment business.  Most of his education came from another member of the troupe, Paul Garee.  Paul and his brother, Al, were catchers in the Flying Melzoras, as was their cousin, Roy Deisler.  Buster and Paul Garee worked together for at least 25 years, missing only 3 tricks during performances.

Boys and young men in trapeze troupes sometimes had to dress as girls. It was mandatory for trapeze acts to have two females in order to ensure maximum audience appeal.  Both Bus and Bill felt sorry for the “Jenny” of the day.

The Thomas brothers had no money of their own even though they performed  summers at fairs as a trapeze troupe and winters on vaudeville in a small casting act and a tumbling act.  The Coogan law had not yet gone into effect.  The [Jackie] Coogan Bill of 1939 required “the child’s employer set aside 15% of the child’s earnings in a trust, and codifies such issues as schooling, work hours and time-off.

Bill Thomas:

Bill Thomas (1916-) was considered by his brothers to be “good on the bar. He did a one-arm, double somersault as his specialty.”  At age 19 Bill returned to school, coached football at the UM and Saginaw High School, and became a very successful certified public accountant. He married Beverly B. Seaman in 1940, and has three daughters: Judith, Janet, and Jill. Bill thomas died on July 6, 2010 at age 94.

In 1966 the Flying Melzoras were inducted into the Circus Hall of Fame.

A ring of the Circus Model Builders was named in Jane’s honor.

Bus Thomas:

Bus was always the star flier of the troupe.  His skill was internationally recognized.  By the age of 16 Bus earned the “Flyer’s Crown,” meaning his fellow trapeze artists recognized him as the best of them. In 1934 he perfected the High Drive Backward Somersault Passing Leap. He performed a double somersault to a triple, sometimes up to 75 feet high in the air. Also, Bus performed a two-and-a-half-turn somersault while blindfolded.  Phil Shevette taught Bus the Hawk Double, a move in which the flyer leaps from the trapeze to the catcher’s hands and back doing a backward somersault with split-second timing.  Bus earned a Guinness Book of World Records record for his development and performance of the Majestic Leap, first performed at Latrobe, PA in 1935. The Majestic Leap cemented his place in trapeze history. 

The Majestic Leap was and is still considered a very dangerous, very advanced trick. It has never been performed by another flying trapeze troupe. The leap consisted of three people moving simultaneously, Ann underneath in a birds nest position flying from the catcher to the fly bar and Bus overhead performing a backwards somersault to be caught by the catcher.  The backwards somersault is very dangerous by itself because the performer cannot see exactly where he is going.  The combination of the three elements made the trick extremely difficult.

Bus retired at age 42 in 1950.   In 1962 at age 54 he left retirement with his Ma to help develop a new act and train new fliers. Bus married Carrie Reider in 1960. He died in 1994 and is buried in Saginaw with Jane, Ray, and Ann.


Ray Thomas:

Click to Enlarge...Ray always performed as the clown in the troupe. He and Ann decided to marry in 1932. Ray got a job at the Chevrolet Tool and Die Operation in Saginaw to earn his own money. His foot was injured, developed gangrene, and was amputated from the knee down. Ray had been an outstanding trapeze artist. This was devastating to the family act.  Herbie Bean of Bay City learned some of Ray’s tricks, wore his clown costume, and performed his gags for a year. Then, a prosthetic limb was purchased, and Ray returned to the air as the only one-legged flying clown trapeze artist in the world. Part of his routine was to spin his fake leg backwards to demonstrate that it really was fake.  In order to do this, a gear was developed for Ray’s fake leg.  He was featured in Ripley’s newspaper feature “Believe it or not” in 1937 as “the wooden legged man on the flying trapeze,” with his signature and a drawing of him in clown costume. Some people in the audience hit Ray’s leg with a cane and others kicked his leg, usually the wrong one. Besides performing, Ray demonstrated how he could run and dance with his prosthetic limb to many World War II war veterans who had lost a leg or two. 
Shortly before the tragic July 6, 1944 Hartford, CT, fire occurred, Ray was working as a clown in the ring with the great Emmett Kelly.  Emmett, dressed and made up as Weary Willie, took a nap in the ring. Then, a clown costumed and made up exactly like Emmett (Ray Thomas) snuck in and performed while Emmett was napping.  There was some debate among Ray and his friends about whether the famous image of Emmett in tramp makeup as Weary Willie with a bucket of water in front of the fire was Emmett or Ray.

From 1950 to 1955, Ray performed with Ann (whom he married in 1933), William Lake and Barry Miller of Saginaw. Ann was hurt in a fall in 1955.  After that Ray soloed with Ringling Brothers until he retired. He died in1966 in Saginaw.  Ann survived Ray for nearly 30 years. They are both buried in Saginaw.