A Circus Life
Authors note: I met Eddy Ventura in late 2007. I was a newly hired rigger at the Cirque du Soleil show Mystere in Las Vegas, Nevada. It is not common for the rigger with the most experience to also be the humblest, but that was Eddy. He would be the first to volunteer for a rigging project. He was always eager to pass along his rigging skills to younger less experienced riggers, like me. He was also an encyclopaedia on the subject of the circus which I found out was a part of his life since he was a teenager. Now in his late 60’s, he told me in great detail of his time in the circus. This is his story… in his own words.
I never knew my real parents… My adopted parents were not very nice people. They were lousy parents, not just by my standards, but by their own family’s standards as well. The man was extremely violent… We didn’t get along at all… I was short and I was a little fat. I wasn’t athletic at all. Nobody wanted me on their team. It was tough…
In 1961 I went to see a movie called The Big Circus with Victor Mature and Rhonda Fleming. It was about the phoniest circus movie you ever saw in your life. But at 13 years old, I didn’t know any better. In the movie, there is a high wire act that really stuck with me. When I saw this high wire act, I thought to myself, ‘This is something I could learn to do. Then I could get a job with the circus and get away from (my adopted parents.)’ So I went to the local library and found a book on an actual performer named Con Colleano that did this stuff. What I found was that he didn’t do the high wire but he did do the low wire act. So I read everything I could about the low wire act. Soon enough I raised enough money to do some simple rigging to build it. I practiced and practiced. I taught myself a few tricks over the course of the year, so that when the Paul A Miller Wild Animal Circus came to town, I was ready to audition. I got my high school music teacher to compose some music for my act and I even found someone to make me a costume…
I spent a year practicing my act in my backyard. My adopted parents saw me doing it. They knew my intentions were to join the circus. They drove me and my equipment down there. They helped me put my stuff up. I auditioned and I got the job. I told them I was 18 and they believed me. It only paid $50 a week, but that was a lot of money especially when I had no expenses. At this point I went back to the house. I packed up my clothes, some props and some costumes, and I went on tour with the Paul A Miller Wild Animal Circus. I was 14 years old when I joined the circus and I would end up spending the rest of my life in the circus. I did my wire act three shows a day. We would move every week or every other week and so I would help with setting up and tearing down the stages… If you were a kid just getting started you were expected to help out with setting everything up.
The Rasini rocket car was an act that I ended up taking over. I spent a year just learning how to set it up. We had this big ramp, like a ski slope ramp. On top of this ramp, we had a little car the size of a go-kart. This little car would go down the ramp, fly into the air, and do a forward somersault. The car traveled forty feet in the air and landed in what looks like a trampoline, except it had no bounce. For its time it was considered one of the most dangerous acts in the circus. Doing the act though was pretty easy. I ended up replacing the guy that did it before me because he had a drinking problem and the people that he was working for didn’t like that so much… I was 15 when I started doing it… My biggest claim to fame was that I took an act that nobody trusted or wanted and turned it into a successful act again. The last two years that I was doing it it was billed as the ‘Evel Knievel of the circus world.’ By the time I stopped doing the act in 1977, it was a very successful act. At that time, we called it Eddy Ventura’s crater crash. We built the landing to look like a lunar landing crash, so it looked the rocket car was landing on the moon…
I started doing this hanging perch act on the side. Over the years the act got better. I ended up building the outdoor rigging for it, because in those days’ circus’s required you to have that setup. I saw someone on TV doing a layout spin while hanging from their teeth. At the time, that was to me, the triple somersault of aerial acts. So at the end of 1980, I learned how to do the Iron Jaw act. I had someone make me the mouthpiece and then I learned how to hang from my teeth… (My second wife) was a professional dancer and she wasn’t afraid of heights. I obviously didn’t need to teach her how to present herself. And she was smart. The partnership went well. At the time it was strictly business. We worked on a circus together over New Years and ended up hooking up. She was gorgeous and smart. It wasn’t serious or anything but it was a lot of fun. As the year went on we got a lot more serious and we talked about getting married.
By the time we came back to that same circus the following year we were married… We went all over the place. We toured the States. We went to England, Ireland, Holland and eventually we ended up in Australia. When we were in Australia my wife was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer… She didn’t even know she was sick … It was an easy transition, going from being a performer to being a rigger… I realized that I didn’t want to be an 80-year-old man doing this stuff. I had seen 80-year-olds climb upside down and do very good acts but it still looked like they were in their 80’s… (A friend of a friend) got me a job on EFX at the MGM in Las Vegas. My wife got a job working in the show as the assistant circus trainer… But then it wasn’t long before she died… I was there from the day the first piece of scenery went into when the last thing went out.
Things change. Time goes on… In my day if you needed a longe (safety belt) to do your act, you didn’t work, but the performers’ skill level today is through the roof… In my day you went to the circus to see the thrills and the chills. A part of the thrills was someone potentially getting hurt… Now with Cirque du Soleil, people go to see a show… I think the thing about circus that has changed is that the camaraderie is not there anymore. At least not the way it used to be… except for places like Mystere… But that place is different… Mystere really is a family.”
At the beginning of 2016, Eddy retired from Mystere. It was the end of over half a century working for the circus. He would get very animated throughout our talk, to the point that halfway through our interview his voice would grow raspy and tired. He apologized. He wasn’t used to speaking for this long now that he was retired. It was clear this was an exception. He currently lives in Las Vegas where he still keeps in touch with his adopted family at Mystere.