THE GIRL ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE
Stepping from the quiet of a convent to the blare of the big top Antoinette Concello learned how to fly without wings and became the greatest of them all
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
ANTOINETTE CONCELLO, the greatest woman flying-trapeze performer of all time, is a Canadian-born girl who stepped from the quiet routine of a convent into a tough gaudy world of dust, noise, brassy music, popcorn, roughnecks, squealing elephants, tents, trains and big-time competition, to climb to that bright spot of fame high up under the peak of the big top. Since an injury grounded her two years ago, she has been aerial director for Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, where she trains other flyers and the girls of the Ringling Aerial Ballet. She also trained movie star Betty Hutton for her part in The Greatest Show on Earth, teaching her, in six weeks, three aerial tricks technically known as the “feet across,” the “Angel,” and the “bird’s nest.”
Antoinette Concello’s famous triple somersault, the most dangerous of all flying tricks, has never been done by another woman. Only a handful of men have brought it out of the realm of a slightly suicidal fluke and under professional control. One was Antoinette’s husband, Arthur Concello, another,
the great Alfredo Codona, who put himself out of business with a torn shoulder doing a triple in 1933 and, heartbroken at being grounded, killed himself four years afterward. The first time Antoinette did a triple in public was in 1937, at the Shriners’ Circus in Detroit.
That night, as she had on hundreds of other performances in the United States, Canada and Europe, she mounted to the pedestal, the flyer’s precarious perch in the trapeze rigging, an attractive dark-eyed young woman with a dramatic easy grace even in the way she climbed the wispy wooden-runged rope ladder. Arthur Concello, who followed her up, stood on the pedestal beside her. Twenty-five feet away, Eddie Ward Jr., the catcher, was swinging head down from his trapeze.
Antoinette and her husband went through their usual number of tricks, drawing waves of applause from a packed house. Then Antoinette looked down at the audience toward a man named Eddie Stinson, who was Potentate of the Shrine. Stinson looked up at her, held up three fingers and grinned. The signal meant “Do a triple” and was a mild joke that passed between Antoinette and her friend Stinson every time they met. For Stinson, it was purely a bit of kidding. This time Antoinette smiled down at him and held up three fingers herself.
Stinson stopped the band. He knew his flying and he knew the great danger of the triple that it has to be done with such force, and uses up so much time, that, if the trick misses, the flyer rockets into the high end of the safety net with hardly any time to get set for the crash.
Stinson announced to the audience that Antoinette Concello was going to attempt a trick that had never been done successfully before by a woman. Antoinette dusted her hands on a resin bag, caught the trapeze, a three-quarter-inch steel bar wound with white muslin over electric tape that hangs from a steel frame by thin cables, and swung off the pedestal. She whipped up a tremendous swing that took her up over the steel frame and tightened earth-bound stomachs in the hushed audience. She gave a powerful drive, called a “beat,” with extended close-pressed legs. At a “Go!” from her husband she took off, clasped her knees in a “tuck,”
spun over three times with the speed of a bright flipped dime, and came out of it with beautiful precision into the hand-t.o-wrist grasp of the waiting catcher.
When, a few minutes later, Antoinette walked nimbly to centre ring to take her bows to an overwhelming ovation, she stepped to new heights of an already soaring career. She’d not only perfected a difficult and dangerous manoeuvre, but had performed it with the intangible quality of joyful effortless grace that dist inguishes a great performer. In fact, it looked easy. It hadn’t come easy.
Antoinette got her first good look at a trapeze while on a school-holiday visit with an older sister, Mickey. Antoinette was the youngest girl in a family of three boys and three girls. Her mot her was of English descent, her father a Canadien railroadman named Comeau, who had moved his family from Sutton, Que., where Antoinette was born, to Vermont. Mickey, in an adventuresome moment, had joined the Sells-Floto Circus, where she did simple aerial tricks. She had married an animal trainer named Allen King. Antoinette had been sent to St. Mary’s Convent, in Burlington, Vt. That summer she had won a scholarship to the College of New Rochelle, and, not having to try examinations, had left school early to catch the circus at Detroit, a fifteen-year-old girl on her first trip alone, feeling very scared.
In a glittering new world a long way from New Rochelle, Antoinette borrowed a pair of Mickey’s red practice rompers and, between afternoon and evening shows, in the dim enchanted emptiness of the big top, began diligent ly practicing back-bends and handstands. The air vents far above made lonely flapping sounds. Music and the hoarse cries of front men came to her faintly from the midway as she performed before her first audience—the men cleaning up the peanut shells and popcorn boxes. Without knowing it, she had tidied up her school desk for the last time.
The next day her sister’s boss, Eddie Ward Sr., who trained aerial acts and contracted them to the circus, asked her if she wanted to take the place of one of his girls, who had left to marry a band man. Thoughts of New Rochelle had already just about vanished as the sights and sounds of the circus reached through to something deep in Antoinette’s make-up. She got permission from her sister to stay. That night she slept in her first circus train, in a berth above Mayme Ward and Mayme’s husband Eddie.
Flyers go aloft gradually, over a period of months or years, while they take simple parts in the aerial acts. Antoinette began to earn her salary of thirty dollars a week, meals and board thrown in, by hanging picturesquely by arms, knees and teeth from swinging ladders and posing on webs, thick cotton ropes pulled through a tubular cloth casing.
She developed an indifference to height that to this day leaves her a bit puzzled when she finds someone who freezes at anything over veranda level. Three years ago on New Year’s Eve, when the Eveready Flashlight Company brought her by plane from Sarasota, Fla., to open their display in Times Square, she sat prettily on a trapeze bar the thickness of a thin broom handle, seven stories above the concrete, waiting to push an electric button on the dot of twelve. The only tough part of the job, from Antoinette’s point of view, was sitting patiently in a flimsy costume during a snowstorm.
She got her first crack at a trapeze at winter headquarters in Bloomington, 111. Eddie Ward had not iced t hat she not only had an unswerving desire to fly, but, more important, had the build and knack for it. Some of the most enthusiastic girls never make the grade because of some trick of nature that makes them, when descending through space, look as if, instead of flying, they are falling out of bed. Heavy people appear clumsy. The human body when separated from the earth, appears larger than it is. Hippy girls look like balloons when turning somersaults, although big-bosomed girls are under no particular handicap.
The Nel Is Nt» Feather Bed
Antoinette’s initial elation was dampened when she was told that first there was a little matter of learning to catch other flyers. She found herself rigged up in a device called a cradle, which prevents a novice getting yanked from the trapeze like a green apple, t iming her swing to an empty trapeze bar. In the meantime she had met another Ward pupil, a broad-shouldered young man named Arthur Concello, who, along with a genius for flying that many experts rated above that of Codona, had a flair for business that eventually made him general manager of Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey, the position he holds today. Between afternoon and evening shows he and a calliope-voiced catcher named Toughie Genders began to teach her flying in earnest.
Antoinette learned to fall into the net. Most spectators think of the net as a cushion that would be very easy to fall into, and a lot of fun. Falling into a net the wrong way is about as funny as a Sunday-afternoon traffic accident. A fall on the forehead usually results in a broken neck. Even dropping to the net carelessly from a motionless trapeze can be dangerous. Once, after Antoinette had been a trapeze performer for many years, she waited until three in the morning to get a chance to rehearse her act for the opening show at Madison Square Garden, went through a whole repertoire of the most difficult tricks in the books, then dropped to the net, a route the flyer always takes as the quickest way down. She sprained her ankle so badly she was unable to complete her performance the next day.
Antoinette learned to bundle for the fall with catlike control, pulling her chin down to her chest, holding her arms close and landing on her shoulders or the back of her head. She developed, from long practice, a special sense of knowing where she was, and where the net was, no matter how or where she was spinning in space. But once, although she knew the net was there, she couldn’t see it.
She was playing at the Scala Theatre in Berlin. The performance came during the popularity of a motion picture, Variety, starring Emil Jannings. Alfredo Codona had doubled for Jannings in the trapeze sequences of the film and, supposedly, had worked without a net. The management of the Scala, wanting for their audience nothing less suicidal than what was suggested in the picture, concealed the net over the orchestra pit and dimmed the lights so that it couldn’t be seen. The trouble was that Antoinette couldn’t see it either. She caught a two-and-a-half a little short, and fell. She lit on her head, injuring herself so badly that she was numb and couldn’t talk. She was taken to hospital, but, as it was Sunday, they wouldn’t open the X-ray room until Arthur Concello got their attention with broken German, English and profanity. Antoinette had her neck in a harness for a week.
Antoinette and Arthur were married in 1929. She had by now become a seasoned trouper. When she woke up in the circus train she asked the performer’s first question of the day: “How far is it to the lot?” and “Is it raining?” She had learned to set up her trunk in the heat, confusion and chatter of the dressing tent, unwrap her mirror, which the night before she had
carefully packed inside her folding canvas chair where it wouldn’t be broken, perch it on her trunk and perform all her beauty treatments with two pails of cold water, brought to each performer by the water boy. By the time Ringling took over Sells-Floto, she was doing a one-and-a-half somersault and a double, and she and Arthur had been given a spot in the end ring as The Flying Concellos. Eddie Ward Sr. died and Arthur Concello bought what remained of the Ward Flying School, in Bloomington. Arthur and Antoinette were making about three hundred dollars a week between them.
The circus was now Antoinette’s home town. It moved all over the country but kept its own street names and took with it her neighbors, co-workers and friendships, which included such unique ones as that of a giant who used to put her in his boot and hold her in one hand to have her picture taken. She did her best in a one-sided friendship with a French-speaking Ubangi who, hearing that Antoinette had a French background, used to come over on rainy afternoons, take her discs out, leaving her lips hanging down like empty sausages, and settle down for a nice chat, while Antoinette groped for highschool French verbs and backed out the other side of the tent. She got used to, but never familiar with, animals. Once she posed for a publicity picture with an elephant. As the photographer pressed the bulb, the elephant squealed. When the picture was developed all that could be seen of the future Quean of the Flying Trapeze was part of her disappearing off the print.
In 1930, a flyer named Charlie Seigrist, while doing a trick at Madison Square Garden, fell to the edge of the safety net and broke his neck. Antoinette and her husband moved up to take his place in the end ring of the Ringling Show, with Codona performing in the centre. It was the beginning of big time.
Antoinette was not only doing difficult tricks now, but often doing them under difficult conditions. Then and in the following years as her fame mounted, she performed when the temperature at the top of the tent, usually thirty degrees higher than at ground level, was so hot that anything | not wrapped with rope burnt her hands. Once in Johnson City, Tenn., she performed in the tent during a hard freeze, her hands so numb she couldn’t be sure she had hold of the bar. Once in Texas, twenty-eight days of solid rain had the lot so soggy that forty-eight horses and two elephants tried to pull a wagon out of the mud and instead pulled it in half. She performed during a cloudburst with water pouring through a rip in the big top, soaking her and almost hiding the catcher. They finished their act, applauded by the people in the audience who had stayed till the end, watching from under umbrellas. She performed for responsive audiences and coldblooded ones and got used to saying,
‘ We’ll try one more trick, and if they don’t applaud, to hell with them.”
During a winter show in Madison Square Garden she looked down from her pedestal just in time to see a performer named Mitzi Sleeter carried off with a dislocated shoulder. In Detroit she saw a flyer carried off with a bone sticking from his arm. In Baltimore she SÍW the Geraldsons fall to the ground while doing a double trapeze act.
“It gives you a queer feeling,” she siys, “but it’s the same as if you’re a nurse. If you’re going to fall over every time you see a drop of blood the doctor is going to say, 'Look, you’re a nice kid, hut you’ll never make it..’ ”
A Chauffeur for Breakfast
Once in Boston Garden a prop man untied a rope that held a big iron coil, used as a weight to pull up guy lines. Arthur, on the board with her, shouldered her out of the way just as the weight scorched earthward, coming so close to Antoinette that the trailing rope sliced her costume. Once she bounced right out of the net and was caught in mid-air by a rigging boy.
But her worst accident was one in which she wasn’t even injured. It was in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The lot was hilly and the net on a slant. She fell, hit the net and bounced out and through the spreader ropes. She felt no worse for the fall, but the management insisted that she be checked and she * was taken to a hospital. That night, lying in the hospital bed unable to sleep, she heard the circus train whistle and knew that for the first time in many years it was pulling out without her, carrying with it her town, her friends, her home. It was the loneliest moment of her life.
When Codona, trying for a triple, tore a ligament in his shoulder and quit the circus, it left a vacancy in the centre ring. Antoinette and Arthur moved into his place and made their debut in the top spot of the profession at a fulldress rehearsal at Madison Square Garden before a full representation of management, reporters and photographers. Antoinette went through her whole bag of tricks. In the confusion of congratulations afterward, somebody said, “Judas, Antoinette, I didn’t know you could do a two-and-a-half!” The Flying Concellos were in.
From then on, Antoinette changed in a private dressing tent close to the performers’ entrance, in accordance with a circus protocol more rigid than the seating arrangement at a governorgeneral’s tea. She and Arthur traveled in a half-car stateroom with a living room, dressing room, shower, kitchen and two bedrooms. They had their own car and a chauffeur to drive them from the train to the lot, and, if they felt like it, uptown for breakfast. It was a point where most people would have stopped. Antoinette, however, began practicing a triple.
She missed hundreds of them. She would find the catcher’s arms, but she hadn’t timed herself so that she would he set for the grip. Usually she got “whip offs,” scorching into the net at an angle. She felt continuously as if she had been lying on her stomach in a blistering sun with her pants cff. Sometimes the catcher, Eddie Ward Jr., a veteran scarred by being cracked on the head by enthusiastic but ill-timed flyers, had to haul on one of his legs, changing the direction of his swing and letting her go, with a warning word as she went by. An expression that will forever live in Antoinette Concello’s memory as a combined college yell, piece of advice and a prayer, is the sound of her name, necessarily shortened as she whipped by for points unknown: “Watch it, Auntie!”
Then one day she “found” the right spot to harden up. This time when she hit Ward’s wrists she hung on. Ward pulled her up, kissed her tenderly and dropped her into the net, where she bounced once and sat down smiling happily. It was the incident that was used for Betty Hutton in The Greatest Show on Earth.
After her first public performance of the triple in Detroit, Antoinette and her husband both did a triple on the same act, hoisting them incontestably to the position of the world’s all-time peak flying act. Antoinette kept her two-and-a-half in the act.
Randy Was Neat Trick
Her right shoulder began to yield to a lifetime’s wear and tear in 1943 and started giving her trouble. Arthur had quit flying for the executive end of circus life. Antoinette began preparing for a new kind of trick, having a baby. When her son Randy was seven months old she tried flying again, but her shoulder gave her such trouble that she had an operation on it that involved pulling a tendon through a hole bored in a bone. She laid off flying for four years, then started to fly again, this time taking her son along with her under the care of a nurse. She knitted sweaters for him, one of her favorite hobbies; when he wasn’t around she tried them on a midget named Harry Doll.
She worked two more years, during which she performed before Canadian audiences in Sherbrooke, Montreal, Belleville, Toronto and London. Then in the spring of 1951, while performing in Washington, she felt her shoulder give as if a suction cup had been pulled off a wall. Her catcher, Jimmy Crocker, who thought one of her arms had suddenly got eight inches longer, waited till the end of his swing then dropped her into the net. It was her last performance.
The first time I talked to Antoinette Concello was at the rehearsal of the grand spectacle for the 1953 season of the Ringling Bros, and Barnum & Bailey Circus, at their winter headquarters, a combination of workshop, zoo and x'ailway siding in a green field j’ust outside Sarasota, Fla. She cleared a space for me on a bench amid a mad scene of cigar-smoking midgets, whinnying horses, elephants, leggy
Florida-tanned show girls, the music of “Bet My Money on a Bobtail Nag,” and the frantic instructions of the man supervising the spectacle over a speaker system. She wore a white terrycloth beach outfit and was holding a paper bag containing a thermos in which she carries a supply of coffee pi'actically everywhere she goes on the lot.
She lives in a big ranch-type home in Sarasota, besides which she and her husband have a private railway car on
the lot all the time with a living room, three bedrooms, bathi'oom, dressing room, kitchen, and servant’s quarters. She comes to the lot every day, di'iving briskly through Sai'asota traffic in a pea-green hax'd-top Cadillac convertible. Her husband drives another Cadillac. Her son, now eight, has been placed in private school to prevent his academic life being disrupted by too much circus razzle-dazzle. When he’s home he occasionally mounts the icebox and shouts, “Look. I’m going to do a twister.” Antoinette likes to cook, and sews costumes for the other girls, and at present is having a lot of fun horsing around with an electric organ. She played My Blue Heaven for me, peering intently at the keys, concentrating as if she were going to try a double cutaway half twister, the only trick she hasn’t done, ducking her head apologetically when she hit a wrong note. She drinks in moderation, but chain smokes. “I wish 1 had Art’s will power,” she said. “If he decides to eat
nothing but string beans and lettuce, he just does it.” She loves to watch teen-agers jitterbug and has a secret desire to try it, hut has the usual adult terror of giving way to the impulse. She has a gift for gesture and pantomime, and has a lively repertoire of slang, circus jargon and her own verbal inventions. Once, she looked at some sombre oil paintings and said, “It’s supposed to be wonderful hut I wouldn’t give a hoot and a scoot for the whole lot of them.”
Sometimes she thinks she’d like to
quit the circus and settle down to cook and keep house, but she knows that it wouldn’t work. Her husband would be on the road from spring to fall, and she would be lonelier than if she stayed with the circus. More than that, she’d like to fly again.
“I don’t need an audience,” she said. “I’d just like to swing again. Just for fun. Art doesn’t want me to go back. He isn’t as much of a ham as I am. But there’s my arm.” She fingered her shoulder and said thoughtfully. “They say there’s a new way of fixing it.” if