Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Remembering the Strange Tragic Tale of Gerard Soules: When Single Trap Stars Swung High and Wide ...
"The star of stars on the high trapeze!" they billed him on Ringling-Barnum, and rightly so. I can not think of a more exciting aerial act that I have ever seen. He flew almost alone in his greatness.
It seems so long ago. There are so few of them now -- those mortals on the single trap who take it and us on high flying rides. Once they carved daringly wide arcs in the sky. Now they are prone to perform on stationary swings that have nearly gone silent.
Kelly Miller Circus imported Nikita from Australia, and she conjures up some of the old fashioned drama and excitement, albeit conspicuously strapped to a mechanic.
I was watching old video footage I have of some single trap greats, beginning with possibly the greatest of all -- *Canadian born Gerard Soules, who hit his peak I suppose on the Ringling show (1960-1963), working a fabulously fluid, generously endowed act constantly in motion, climaxed with his casting ahead of the bar and catching his breathtaking thrust by his heels.
Music director Izzy Cervone gave Soules terrific scoring, ringmaster Harold Ronk the perfect build up. This was one of those rare acts you waited to see and were held spellbound throughout. Yes, Elvin Bale and Mark David duplicated the routine, though none could quite match the unique Soule's charisma and fluid delivery, so effectively intensified by Cervone's perfect song selections (one of them, Cole Porter's "So In Love") and his expert orchestrations.
The same video footage contained tantalizing excerpts from some other center ring thrillers -- Elly Ardelty, Don Dorsey, La Toria, and Pinito Del Oro performing in the lavishly atmospheric 1955 aerial spec, "On Honolulu Bay."
Del Oro was a self-possessed minimalist, producing an almost hypnotic effect with her standing-up swings back and forth, side to side and in circular arcs. For these reasons, I also place her alone in her particular greatness. No wonder John Ringling North kept her on the show for seven consecutive seasons. He too fell for the spell.
What those true risk-takers did took guts. And poetry. And life-saving skill. They did not secure themselves to lifelines. Okay, yes, I know and I can see half of you throwing your arms up in exasperation over my quaintly outdated attitudes. Is it time to drop this messy subject once and for all? There is a growing segment of the circusgoing public out there who apparently have learned to embrace the spectacle of job protection for circus "daredevils" as an expected component of the new, more enlightened big top experience. May I ask you of a certain quaint vintage, who were there and can remember, this one thing:
Can you imagine what it would have been like back then watching Soules perform attached to a mechanic?
He lived, it has been authoritatively written, in constant fear of accidents, so much so that he engaged in bizarre religious rituals before each performance. He was said to have become so spooked by a couple of traumatizing near misses, that he finally came down for good, and, oh, what a tragic career change. He put together a dog act, ended up in Las Vegas, needed an assistant and picked up a male stranger on the street, stranger's good looks assumed to have sealed an impromptu job offer. Bad bad impromptuette. When the Vegas venue in which Soules was appearing became skittish about his new hired hand and undertook a background check, the forced termination that followed brought a bloody abrupt end to Mr. Soules working there as well. He was cut up into pieces, the final act of his "personal assistant."
Ah, the perils of a life lived dangerously in the upper reaches of the big top. If only the "star of stars on the high trapeze" could have stayed there.
*Others claim he was born in Detroit.
First published c. 3-10-10