Still Flying High: 79-Year-Old Trapeze Artist Tony Steele
By Donna Kelly
Tony Steele had the guts to do what many kids of his generation only dreamed of doing.
He “ran away” from home to join the circus when he was 15 years old.
It wasn’t wanderlust or abusive parents that sent him in search of a land of clowns, lions, and acrobats.
That honor goes to Danish single trapeze performer Norma Fox, who appeared under the name of La Norma. Steel’s fireman father and housewife mother took Steele and his half-brother to the circus whenever the wagons rolled into Boston Garden. Steele was enthralled with the beauty the moment he saw her.
“La Norma was very beautiful and she’d flirt with the audience. She had a special talent for that. She’d have an auditorium with 3,000 people in it and be able to flirt with every one of them with just the way she looked at them,” says Steele, now 79, his eyes twinkling. “She was with the Ringling Brothers for several seasons. My family and I used to go to see Ringling Brothers every year at the Boston Garden.”
The circus-driven teenager didn’t wait for fame and fortune to find him. He wrote a letter to John Ringling North asking for the titles of books he could read with tips to become a trapeze artist. North replied, offering no book suggestions but wishing him luck in his endeavor.
Inspired by La Norma and the electricity of the circus performers, Steele made a single trapeze bar, hung it in a tree in a nearby park, and practiced whenever he could. He taught himself the skills needed to start his career. It wasn’t long before he decided it was time to live his dream.
His mother and father didn’t try to stop him.
“My parents said, ‘We’ll pack your lunch in a roadmap and give you a $45 Greyhound Bus Ticket,’” says Steele.
They had no idea he’d grow up to become one of the most celebrated trapeze artists in the world.
They Called Him Gazoonie
The bus took him to Gainesville, Texas, where he met up with an amateur circus on the fairgrounds. But he didn’t immediately jump onto a trapeze. He had to pay his dues.
He found shelter in the equipment barn.
“The groundskeeper kept kicking me out and I had to find a new place to sleep every night,” he says.
Steele’s luck began to change when a professional circus arrived at the fairgrounds.
“I joined up with them and I still slept in the barn with bales of hay and rats running around,” he says “But they had a cookhouse, so I got to eat and I kept trying to sell my trapeze act to the owner of the circus, Mr. Gil Gray.”
For awhile, Steele spent his time painting wheels and doing other odd jobs.
His big break came when a trapeze artist was injured.
“They sent me over to wardrobe and made me a silk costume like the jockeys wear, and I got to perform and I knocked them dead,” he says. “Since then I’ve been a trapeze performer.”
Getting along with other members of the troupe, he says, was his biggest challenge.
“They already had their members and they didn’t like me coming into it. I was sort of an orphan anyway. Most people are born the sons and daughters of other performers,” Steele says. “I just came off the street and walked in. I never was accepted until I started doing things. I was held back and limited.”
To set him apart, his troupe mates gave him a nickname – and it wasn’t meant as a compliment.
“They used to call him Gazoonie – a person who works with a circus but doesn’t have any circus skills. They are workers that come and go. They set up the tent and drive the stakes. They’re doing the real work that it takes to run the circus, but there’s no real skill involved,” says Paula Blackwelder, who used the moniker in the title of her biographical and inspirational book about Steele’s life, “From Gazoonie to Greatness.”
“A gazoonie is also used for a person like myself who came from nowhere,” Steele adds.
The bullying only made him work harder.
“Not having people behind you makes it different,” Steele says. “It makes you stronger because they’re using reverse psychology without even realizing it. By saying, ‘You can’t do that’, it made me say, ‘Oh yeah?’” His eyes twinkle again.
Nobody provided moral support as he weathered this negativity. To hone his skill, he practiced alone. He never stopped challenging or believing in himself.
Steele’s life has been colorful. He’s traveled all over the world – from Mexico to Saudi Arabia to London to China – and performed for kings and queens, prime ministers, and other heads of state. And he has stories to tell.
He was even a stunt double in a few James Bond movies.
He met his French-born wife, Lily, in 1958 while he was performing in a circus in Mexico, where she was dancing with a ballet. It was a love match. The following year, at the highpoint of his career, Steele was drafted and the couple was sent to Germany, where he continued to practice on a makeshift trapeze.
The highpoint of his career was the triple somersault – until someone challenged him to do more.
“There was this kid who said, ‘You do three, why don’t you do four?’” says Steele. “I said, wait a second, four is impossible.”
But it gave him food for thought.
He remembers asking himself, “What about going a little further than the triple and giving the catcher your legs? That would be a 3 ½.”
In 1962, Steele became the first flyer to land a somersault with 3 ½ rotations, a feat that put him in the Guinness Book of World Records.
“And that was a highlight for me,” he says.
Twenty years passed before the record was broken by Miguel Vazquez, a 17-year-old member of the Flying Vazquez circus team who landed the quadruple somersault.
“That’s the span it took somebody with the either the guts or stupidity,” says Steele, a smile tugging at his lips.
The Gazoonie had proven himself.
“Everybody who told me I’d never get anywhere as a flyer so I may as well quit, well, they had to apologize because I climbed the ladder all on my own,” he says.
“Basically, he became a household name,” says Blackwelder.
He’s satisfied with the life he’s led. He doesn’t have any regrets.
“Everything seemed to come at the right time and at the right speed,” he says. “Well, I would have done the quadruple, of course, now that I know it’s possible. ‘
Serendipity: Visiting La Norma
Steele has lived the life of a vagabond, first bouncing from town to town with different circus acts, and then as a longterm guest with various friends. These days he lives with Blackwelder and her husband, stuntman John Zimmerman, in a wooded flyer’s paradise outside Haines City. Both Blackwelder and Zimmerman are flyers.
The rest of the story plays like a Hollywood movie. Some might say destiny decided Steele would meet Blackwelder.
When Blackwelder, then a columnist and freelance writer for local newspapers, discovered in 2011 the legendary Tony Steele was not only living in Haines City, but living with Zimmerman, one of her first trapeze coaches, she wasted no time scheduling an interview.
But Zimmerman wasn’t the only connection between Steele and Blackwelder. They discovered that during World War II, Steele and Lily had lived in the same apartment building as Blackwelder’s parents in Germany in 1961-62.
“My mom and Lily would look out of the windows of the house they lived in and they’d wait for the guys to be walking up the driveway home. They’d go to the commissary together, ride the bus together,” says Blackwelder.
Blackwelder took her mother, Marilyn Blackwelder, and Steele to Sarasota’s St. Armands Circle to see the Circus Ring of Fame and the monument to Steele’s 2010 induction.
“And so as they were- my mom and Tony – reading all of Tony’s accolades, my mom said, ‘Can you imagine when we first met in the staircase of that building that the best thing to ever happen to you hadn’t happened yet?’” Blackwelder says as Steele chuckles.
After the Steeles returned from Germany, he was included in the Guinness Book of World Records, inducted into the World Acrobatic Society, and was the inspiration for a series of postage stamps.
“Basically, he became a household name,” says Blackwelder.
As for Steele’s original muse, La Norma Fox, she retired at age 45 after her son was in a motorcycle accident. Now 90, she lives in Sarasota and creates figurines.
“She went from performing arts to creative arts, visual arts. She was with Ringling Brothers,” said Blackwelder, who often takes Steele to visit Fox. “Every time they get together it’s very endearing because she’s the one who got him in the circus.”
Faith: A lifelong thread
Throughout his life, Steele has set goals and attained them. His self confidence stems from a deep faith in God.
“If I was capable, I’d love to be a preacher and tell everybody about Jesus. I don’t do it because I don’t think I’m qualified,” says Steele. “I think it would be great for everybody to have salvation.”
He may not become a preacher, but he’s more than happy to share his story with others.
“I grew up sorta believing,” he says. “It’s a wonderful thing to get there, to believe.”
After nearly a lifetime of ‘sorta believing,’ Steele discovered the TV show, “Through the Bible with Les Feldick” a decade ago. During the show, Feldick simply read from the Bible and Steele listened intently.
“I went from a sort of a believer to I have no doubts anymore,” he says. “It’s a wonderful thing to get there like that.”
Blackwelder describes Steele as sincere in his belief and his desire to walk in faith.
“I asked Tony, what do you want to do with this book?” explains Blackwelder, referring to “From Gazoonie to Greatness,” a project they worked on as a team. “He said, ‘I want to help people.’”
Practically immobilized in 2014 by a serious knee injury sustained on a trampoline, Blackwelder used her recuperation time to hunker down, interview Steele, and write the book they’d been discussing for three years.
The book is an inspirational biography and each chapter includes a part of Steele’s history – from injuries to accolades – and questions for personal reflection. Blackwelder says life lessons taught through his life experiences include: Don’t give up, no matter what; You can survive with very little; Making your dream, your reality is up to you; and There’s always hope.
“What I hope they get from the book is adversity isn’t always down and out. It has some benefit to it,” Steele says. “In everything I’ve been through; there’s always been opportunity in adversity.”
It’s the same wisdom Blackwelder discovered as she wrote his story.
“The most significant lessons I learned from writing this book about Tony Steele is that, in spite of anything bad, I can make it good, and sometimes an accident can turn out to be one of the best things to ever happen to you,” she says.
Of the Highest Importance
Steel is slowing down these days, the result of breaking a leg in 2003 and having had a stroke in January. His hearing fades in and out. He uses a lift to get to the trapeze platform.
He’s retired from serious flying, but he still flies today. His impish charm, zest for life and desire to help people remain strong.
Steele has an incredible ability to reach people. They learn both finer points of trapeze and the art of living by spending time with him.
Nicolina Karlberg, founder of the Cotton Candy Club, a private organization in Simi Valley, California, designed to promote and encourage the advancement of independent flying, has considered Steele one of her greatest mentors since she met him in 2008. He helped her conquer her fear of heights.
“He stood there and flew and returned to the platform without any safety equipment and with great ease. I felt inspired. I felt joy. I felt God’s purpose for some of us,” she says.
She was inspired at the skill and agility he showed then, at the age of 72.
“I only met him in his later stage of life and some people in their youngest stage of life could never do what he can today. That is inspiring,” Karlberg says.
His health issues don’t get in the way of mentoring.
“I saw him this year in April in Florida after he’d had a stroke and he survived it. He came back and flew and mentored, and was a great joy to be around,” says Karlberg. “He’s always cracking jokes and smiling.”
Susie Peterson Goldfarb, a 35-year-old yoga instructor who works at a gym, says Steele changed her life when she met him two years ago. At the time, she was in the publishing industry and doing trapeze on the side. She wanted to make a change but was hesitant.
“I read the book about his story – twice. It just inspires me,” says Goldfarb. “There are some people you know are the greats. He’s one of the pioneers of the modern flying trapeze.”
Goldfarb was 32 when she started on the flying trapeze without a dance or gymnastics background.
“It’s a constant struggle wanting to be better and accepting where I am,” she says. “When I came to circus I said I’d never be good enough.”
But Steele changed her thinking.
“It doesn’t matter how old I am, but it might progress differently than others,” Goldfarb says. “If I want to achieve these things, it’s getting over thought thoughts in my head that I’m too old.”
Steele’s story gave her the courage to take a chance.
“After I’d gone through the book and found it so helpful at a transitional time of my life, I had this opportunity to go to California to teach the flying trapeze. After reading the book, I thought I really wasn’t too old to do it. That was the biggest take away from the book,” she says.
Goldfarb recently visited Steele and was in awe watching him on the trapeze.
“He went up there and took a swing. He doesn’t let his age and whatever happened to him hold him back,” she says.
Goldfarb describes Steele as a charming, consummate performer.
“It makes you want to be by him and hear his stories and learn from him. I feel very fortunate that I have an opportunity,” she says.
Steele’s passion, says Goldfarb, is what makes him a great flyer.
“Every time we go over there he comes out with us,” she says. “He’s taking those moments in. He’s watching you and wants to help. And he enjoys it. I think that passion keeps him doing it.
Steele may be small in stature, about 5’4”, but he makes a big impression on folks. When he speaks, they listen.
“It feels honest. He’s not just giving you a one-size-fits-all response. He looks at where you’re at and gives you an appropriate response,” says Goldfarb. “It feels like he has a vested interest in you.”
Praise for Steele’s feats on the trapeze and his effectiveness as a mentor is found on the Internet and in pages of Blackwelder’s book. She believes his trustworthiness makes him a valued mentor.
“They trust him because he really was a pioneer in the trapeze industry. He was a pioneer because there are at least five tricks that we know of that he was the first to do and he’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for three of them,” she says. “He was the first, he invented them, he created them, and he was the one brave enough to throw them. And his catcher was brave enough to go after him.”
Steele has found joy in sharing his knowledge with young people through circus schools and circus camps.
Not the retiring type, he’s determined to continue helping others. His latest project involves teaching youth the tips and skills he’s learned over his lifetime.
Blackwelder and Steele are launching The Circus Arts Place, a program offering circus and aerial skills training to children ages 8 to 18. The one-hour classes include single trapeze, Lyra, silks, and web. They will be held at their property outside of Haines City. For more info call Blackwelder at 863-412-3558.
Steele smiles when asked how it feels to pass along a lifetime worth of knowledge and expertise.
“It’s the most important thing in my life,” he says, beaming.