TBO.com: Tampa Bay Online, The Tampa Tribune and The Tampa Times - breaking news and weather.
Sunday, Nov 23, 2014
Things To Do

Former trapeze artist visits circus for her 80th birthday

By
Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 08:16 AM
TAMPA -

She never talks about that other life. Flying high above rapt audiences gaping at her airborne choreography, the graceful twists and turns in her sparkly sequined costume, was something that happened such a long, long time ago.

"I did it, and when it was over, I moved on," says Teresa Jones matter-of-factly of her years as a trapeze artist with the famous "Flying Zacchinis" troupe of Tampa. "I didn't really bring it up to people."

More than 50 years have come and gone since she's been back to the circus.

She buried one husband, divorced another, raised two children and worked as a counter clerk for a rental car company. The photographs and handbills of her high-flying days, performing at state fairs and with circus companies all over the country, have yellowed with age and were packed away in dusty boxes.

Then, out of the blue, a fellow resident at the Bayshore Presbyterian Apartments in South Tampa presented her with an 80th birthday present: A ticket to Thursday's performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus at The Forum.

It was time to go home and relive some of that glorious past, if only as a spectator.

Terry Nolan, as she was known back in post-World War II London, was just 17 when celebrity beckoned.

The accomplished roller skater had just seen a performance of the "Skating Vanities," whose members traveled the world performing in high-energy musical productions. She was ready for some adventure. So she auditioned and got a role.

"Next thing you know, I was on an airplane to New York City," she recalls. "It was all very exciting for a young girl who had to dodge bombs and shrapnel during the war."

She had a three-year run with the skating company. When the show closed for a few months and her work visa was no longer valid, it was back to London. But that didn't last long. The lure of the entertainment world was too strong, so she returned to the United States in search of employment.

As it turned out, the Zacchini brothers – famous for the shot-from-a-cannon act perfected by their Italian-born father – had seen the petite blonde English girl in one of her skating shows. They were looking to replace their sister, who was retiring from circus life. So they offered her a job as a trapeze artist.

"I signed a contract, though I had never done such a thing in my life," she says. "But why not? How hard could it be?"

She learned just how hard the first time she climbed the dangling ladder that led to the towering platform. She couldn't get a footing on the swinging steps or a firm grip on the ropes, burning her hands raw. By the time she made it to the top, she looked down in terror. Even the netting that served as a security blanket below did not ease her fears.

What have I done? She thought, her heart racing. She took several deep breaths and calmed herself down.

That would be the last time she was frightened of heights and falling. But to this day, don't mention the trampoline.

"Hated it. Hated it," Jones says. "It was so easy to lose control in the middle of a jump. No telling where you might end up."

It took her about six months to master the act. She worked with George Alvarez, a Tampa native with taut muscles who had the pivotal responsibility of catching her – a role simply called "the catcher." Thirteen years her senior, he was as dashing as he was kind.

She trusted him with her life every time they performed. Then she decided to trust him with her future. After a year's courtship, they married. The season was in full swing, so they only got a two-day honeymoon across the bridge in St. Petersburg.

The couple teamed up with Eddie Zacchini for the show's grand finale, their airborne acrobatics drawing "oohs" and "ahhs" from the crowd. Being the top act had its perks. Instead of traveling in the crowded club car of a noisy train racing along the tracks, the trio rode in a shiny new Cadillac.

It also meant long, hard hours of practice. In a profession known for injuries and even deaths, the Alvarezes were lucky. Only once did George have an accident, hitting the net with such force that he bounced onto the cement floor, breaking his arm. Another time, she fell into the net, burning strap marks into her back.

When she looks through the old pictures, tucked-away memories come alive again. Like the time she stood on the platform after a show, enjoying a birds-eye view of a young Elvis Presley with his shiny black pompadour, surrounded by adoring fans clamoring for an autograph. Or traveling to Cuba with the troupe before Fidel Castro's revolutionaries took control of the country.

Mostly, though, she remembers an arduous travel schedule. The cities and towns all ran together after a while. There was never any time to sightsee or relax. The routine was always the same: Set up, practice routines, rehearse the act, perform, break down and move on.

As exhilarating as it was to perform under the Big Top, as much as they loved the bright lights and enthusiastic crowds, they started yearning for stability and a family. They didn't want to raise children while living on the road. So two years after they wed, the couple left the act.

George Alvarez bought a house in Tampa for his bride and began working with a heating and air-conditioning company. Their son, Alan, came along in 1956. Eight years later, George decided to go solo, buying his own truck and printing up business cards. But before he could launch the business, he died suddenly of a heart attack. He was just 44.

"We never argued or fussed. It was a good marriage," she says with a sigh. "He was way too young to leave us." She had a brief marriage years later to a man named Jones that produced daughter Laura, but she concedes that union was a "sorry mistake." Clearly, the love of her life was her catcher.

Alan Alvarez, a former Marine who retired from the postal service, says his mother didn't talk much about her years as a trapeze artist. She was more concerned about earning a paycheck and keeping food on the table for her two children.

"As far as she was concerned, that part of her life was way behind her," he says. "It wasn't easy in those days for a single mother. She worked hard to provide for us. With my father gone, there wasn't much point in talking about the past."

Until Thursday night.

Macular degeneration has claimed most of her eyesight. She can't drive or read print anymore. Teresa Jones is legally blind now, but that didn't stop her from having the time of her life at the circus.

"It was beautiful, just beautiful!" she gushes in her still distinct British accent. "A first-class show."

Some things surprised her. Jones couldn't smell the familiar sawdust. The 2013 version of the Big Top is "so clean and immaculate." The pacing of the acts was faster. She wasn't too fond of the clowns back in her day; now they seemed funnier and more professional. And there were no "flying ladies," as she describes her former profession.

What a thrill it was to be back. This gift of love from her friend, Mary Ann Heaps, is something she will never forget. The best birthday present ever, she says.

She wants to remember now. Because how many people can tell the story of floating through the air with the greatest of ease? She was once that daring young woman on the flying trapeze.

The 143 {+r}{+d} Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus continues through Sunday. Performances are at 11:30 a.m., 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. today, and at 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $16 to $70, and are available at ringling.com, www.ticketmaster.com, Ticketmaster outlets, the Forum box office and by phone at (800) 745-3000.

mbearden@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7613

Subscribe to The Tampa Tribune

Comments