They’ve flown their way through the air across the nation, across the globe, and now their backyard trapeze. Visit with these three traveling trapeze artists, who have in recent years created The Circus Arts Place. The Greatest Show on Earth may be retiring this year, but this act has plenty more circus days ahead.
photography By Dan Austin
It’s uncanny how the timeline for these living legends intertwines.
In 1987 at just 16, Paula Blackwelder learned the art of trapeze from her first coach, John Zimmerman.
Earlier, in 1959, acrobat performer Tony Steele was drafted by the U.S. Army and stationed in Germany, just two doors down from Paula’s parents. In 1996, Tony’s beloved wife of 38 years, Lily, lost her battle with cancer.
Fast-forward to 2005: Still distraught over Lily’s death, Tony came to visit John for a few days and never left.
In 2011, Paula rekindled her friendship with John through a newspaper article she wrote featuring her first coach. It was at that time Paula finally met her parents’ friend Tony and quickly discovered how much they had in common. Though 20 years apart, both flew with many of the same people in performances past.
In 2014, Paula and Tony co-authored Tony’s memoir, From Gazoonie to Greatness. That same year, Paula and John, both now single and in love, were wed by Tony, their ceremony set within the netting of their very own backyard trapeze.
Just as their paths crossed through time, Paula, John, and Tony believe in taking giant leaps of faith on and off the trapeze to ensure their bucket lists of dreams will come true.
JOHN’S DEATH-DEFYING ACTS
Flying helicopters, flying trapeze, and performing death-defying stunts in film and national television are big dreams that became reality for John.
Drafted by the U.S. Army to serve in Viet Nam, John trained in helicopter maintenance and served as a door gunner firing M60 machine guns on Bell Huey helicopters. His childhood dream to become a helicopter pilot came true after graduating with honors from officer flight training. When his tour in Viet Nam was over, he transitioned from a Huey to Jet Ranger and Cobra Attack helicopters while serving three years at Fort Hood, Texas, home of the 1st Cavalry Division, one of the Army’s most decorated combat divisions.
In 1976, John began his second career as a trapeze flyer at the Ringling Circus World theme park north of Haines City, which closed in 1986. After Circus World, John worked for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey traveling shows, living on the circus train and traveling the United States. He performed with some of the greatest flying trapeze artists in history, as a trapeze catcher. John played both catcher and flyer in various trapeze acts, which is very rare.
John was entered in the 1982 Guinness Book of World Records as the catcher on the first triple-twisting double layout. Last September in Las Vegas, he was inducted into the World Acrobatic Society Hall of Fame as a “Legend.”
Act three for John is a career to die for, literally. As a stuntman for the past 20 years, John has performed about 75 death acts in film roles. “The movie business is the most dangerous of all my careers because audiences keep expecting bigger and better stunts,” he says. His 132 movie and television credits include a role as a Revolutionary soldier fighting side-by-side with Mel Gibson and 500 reenactors in The Patriot.
In between movie gigs, John enjoys teaching stunts and flying trapeze. “I like to give back to the young people who are really interested in learning the business.”
Even though John has been trying to retire for two years, stuntmen he helped who are now award-winning movie directors keep offering him lucrative stunt and rigging jobs. “I turn down more jobs than I take, but one friend gave me three weeks of work on Ghostbusters II as a retirement gift. They trust me, and I’m known for telling hilarious stories about the old guys who were famous Hollywood stuntmen.
“God blessed me with a very adventurous life,” says John about the three careers, which he calls “unbelievable.” “Most people wouldn’t believe me if I told them about one of my careers.”
In addition to trapeze and making movies, John has long had a passion for growing tomatoes, onions, potatoes, radishes, bell peppers, and herbs. “We eat a lot of salads and home-cooked meals of fish and veggies.”
John’s key to his success is to make a plan and never give up. “Dreams come true if you persist. Success does not happen overnight. It takes years of practice, and once you get the opportunity, you better do the job 110 percent.”
PAULA’S CHILDHOOD DREAMS
Paula Blackwelder, 47, echoes her husband’s advice. “Never give up on your dreams. We’re all proof that they can come true.”
Her fascination with the circus began as a child dreaming of life in the big tent. “I always wanted to be one of, what I called, ‘those pretty girls up there.’ John was the first one to teach me to fly in 1987. Thanks to him, my dreams came true.”
As a senior in high school, Paula was hired as a dancer for Boardwalk and Baseball, the theme park that replaced Circus World. Her next gig was Epcot’s Daredevil Circus Spectacular show.
Paula credits John for her successful five-year career in live entertainment. She performed in five amusement parks, two casinos, and traveling shows all over the United States and Circo Atayde in Mexico City.
“The circus is a very tight community,” says Paula, calling the circus her family. “I can count on any one of them for anything. If they had very little they would still share it with me.”
Her second childhood dream, to be “Dear Abby,” came true when she spent 10 years as a social columnist with five columns a week for three Central Florida newspapers.
Paula’s third career began after publishing a book on how Tony beat the odds that should have beaten him. She says, “When I blew my knee out and couldn’t walk without assistance, I was angry because it was very inconvenient and not in my plans.” Everyone told her she should write a book about the living legend living next door. “I know God arranged my accident so I would sit long enough to write Tony’s book,” says Paula.
The two sat side-by-side for eight months as Tony recounted the extraordinary things he did to continue his passion. “Tony shares the lessons he learned about how to live life fearlessly and without regrets using your mind, matter, and motivation,” says Paula. Designed to be a self-help guide with the subtitle For the Development of Outrageous Goal Graspers, each chapter of From Gazoonie to Greatness ends with questions for personal reflection.
“The book helps you create blueprints to your own dreams and inspires you to spread your own wings,” says Paula, who makes available DVDs of Tony’s world tour and greeting cards of his artwork and photography.
Paula’s new chapter in life is teaching trapeze in her back yard. “The Circus Arts Place is not a school with classes, but a place where people can receive private training to perfect aerial skills.” She teaches single trapeze, lyra (round) trapeze; low wire; silks; and web, the old-time ropes.
“All the girls did web, even girls in concessions,” says Paula. “We were called aerial ballerinas. It was truly the time of my life. Because of John’s training and belief in me, I have had the blessings of experiencing outrageous thrills and travels, and thank God, they continue today.”
TONY STEELE STILL FLIES
Tony was 15 when, with his lunch wrapped up in a road map, he ran away from home to join the circus. He learned to speak five languages during his 50-year career that took him around the world.
In 2002, Tony was inducted as a “Legend” in the World Acrobatic Society Hall of Fame. In 2010, he was inducted in Sarasota’s “Ring of Fame” that honors world-famous circus performers. He is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for performing the first three-and-a-half to a catcher. At age 80, he continues to soar to great heights.
“I was told I would never be a flyer, but only a decade later I shocked them all with my success,” says Tony, who started his career as a “gazoonie,” an old-time slang term for a working man in the circus.
Years after Tony’s wife’s death, John and Paula continue to be a true support. “John and Paula treat me like a prince,” says Tony, who has no plans to ever leave. “This is my forever home, whether they want me to stay or not.”
The most sought-after trapeze coach in the nation, Tony was in demand as a guest instructor at circus schools and trapeze camps until he suffered a stroke two years ago and had open-brain surgery. Now students come to his back yard. “I can’t walk very far, but I can fly,” he says.
“I really don’t want to expose my insane life too much, but if this book will help someone — that’s why I did it,” says Tony, whose advice combines his deep faith with his wacky sense of humor. “Never give up hope. Believe that at any moment outrageous, incredible, and miraculous things can happen to change your life for good. Take the chance and be courageous. And, may all your days be circus days.”