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Circus film, fans swing into B-N, the 'trapeze capital'
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Circus film, fans swing into B-N, the 'trapeze capital'

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NORMAL — You might say a three-ring circus is coming to Normal this week.

In the first ring is Illinois State University's Gamma Phi Circus, the oldest collegiate circus in the nation, with performances scheduled Friday and Saturday in Redbird Arena.

In the second ring is the Circus Fans Association of America, holding its national convention Wednesday through Saturday in Normal. The convention is focusing on Bloomington-Normal once being known as the “Trapeze Capital of the World.”

The third ring contains the flying trapeze — in this case, a film about trapeze artists called "The Flight Fantastic: A Story of Legend and Legacy on the Flying Trapeze," to be shown for free at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Normal Theater.

It will be followed by a question-and-answer session with two members  of the Flying Gaonas, Tito and Richie Gaona, who are featured in the film, and its director, Tom Moore, a successful television, feature film and Broadway director who directed the original Broadway run of “Grease.”

Moore was just 7 or 8 when he and a cousin earned free tickets to the circus by helping set up the tent and bring water to the elephants.

Thus started a lifelong love of the circus arts. Even though Moore said he “put his focus into theatrics,” he never overcame his fascination with the trapeze and eventually learned to become what an old song describes as “the daring young man on the flying trapeze.”

“I was much more daring then than I am now,” said Moore, but he still “flies” when he can, 20 years after he first learned from Richie Gaona and others.

Moore said the singular focus and concentration required pushes aside other concerns while you are up there, plus he likes “just the thrill of soaring through the air.”

The documentary was “something I felt needed to be done,” he said. “It's about a spirit, it's about an art and it's about a family.”

Moore hopes viewers will “come away inspired and embrace the spirit of life.”

Any good three-ring circus also has midway entertainment.

In preparation for the convention, Maureen Brunsdale, head of special collections and rare books at ISU's Milner Library, has set up a display of some of the amazing items from ISU's Circus and Allied Arts Collection. There will be an open house from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on the sixth floor of Milner to which the public is invited.

Sequinned costumes hang from the ceiling and are displayed on mannequins given new life after the closing of J.C. Penney at Eastland Mall. There are old trunks, photographs and other artifacts, including a copy of the book, “Born to Fly: The Story of Tito Gaona.”

Moore said the Gaonas are one of the most famous flying acts of all time and “very charismatic … and extraordinarily caring.”

The library display includes a photo of one of the Gaonas with Bloomington-Normal's most famous flier, Antoinette Concello, the first woman to do the triple somersault.

“It all ties back to Bloomington,” said Brunsdale. “It spins your head how many times I'm out there talking circus history and say, 'That ties back to Bloomington.'”

The 1870s to about 1950 were the heyday of Bloomington-Normal as a producer of aerialists. There were practice barns on East Emerson Street in Bloomington and Grove Street in Normal as well as rigging in the YMCA where youngsters could learn to fly.

Moore said ISU's circus collection and Brunsdale “played a huge part in getting this movie going.”

He spent several days doing research for the documentary.

“The collection is remarkable,” said Moore. “One of the reasons I'm excited to come back is for that purpose: to thank the library.”

Brunsdale hopes people who come to the library exhibit will “start telling their stories” and perhaps share what they have in their homes.

“We know there are more circus artifacts in town,” she said.

Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota

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