Paul T. Gilbert

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the stories: Snake CharmerArthur Borella, ClownThe Flying WardsReporter in TightsElephant TrainerTight WireDress Rehearsal

Post Man Tries Hand as Flying Ward in Circus

Defying Death in Midair—He Gets Thrill, but is Glad to Get on Ground Again

—Paul T. Gilbert, from the Chicago Evening Post, April 18, 1924

photo right: Miss Erma Ward, champion aerial gymnast, is seen hanging by one arm, while holding the amateur performer by the teeth. photo below: Eddie Ward, master of aerial somersaulting, does a "head and foot" with Paul Gilbert.

erma ward, tooth hold

I may be nursing a lame back and lame shoulders this morning; I may feel as if I had been run over by an automobile. But I have achieved a lifetime ambition. A dream of boyhood's golden days has come true.

Who hasn't, at one time or another, envied the trapeze performers in the circus? Who hasn't cherished a secret desire to don white tights and spangles, to dart thru the air, high over the heads of the gaping spectators, like some brilliant tropical bird, to the lilt of a Strauss waltz played by the circus band?

Well, today I was given my first lesson in aerial gymnastics by the Flying Wards, the star midair performers of the Sells-Floto show. Those of you who have seen the Wards in their "dare-devil, death-defying" leaps and catches; those of you who have held your breath as they turn their double and triple somersaults, can imagine possibly the thrill that I experienced.

No Disillusionment This Time.

And there was no disillusionment about it, either, as there was last year when I went on as a bareback rider, only to discover that pink tights and spangles were no longer de rigeur in the sawdust ring.

The aerialists still cling to circus traditions. They haven't arrived at that stage of boredom where they have to resort to "character" stuff and do their feats in the costume of a London dude or a wild Indian.

This time I didn't have to borrow an old pair of cotton tights from a clown, but had my own silk fleshings and spangles.

"We'll make an actor out of you yet," said Eddie Ward as he helped me to get into them.

It was a proud moment indeed when I surveyed myself in the tiny mirror in the dressing room, then poked my toes into a pair of wooden "slop shoes" and shuffled out into the sawdust arena. I must say, however, I have worn more comfortable shoes than these.

eddie ward,

Looks "Splendid in Tights."

The big life net had been rigged up, and the tiny swinging ladders had been let down from the lofty platform. The band was tuning up. A group of cowboys were practicing with a lariat, and a girl was riding a white horse around the ring.

Mrs. Mayme Ward gave me a look of admiration. "Why, you look just splendid in tights!" she exclaimed.

"Thanks," I said, "only I hope they don't bust."

It looks easy enough to scramble up that little ladder, but if you think it's anything like ascending a step-ladder, you're mistaken. The first few rungs you have to take hand over hand, and I was glad when finally I could get a foothold.

Up I went, feeling like a spider, until I found myself under the steel girders of the Coliseum. Erma Ward, the little red-headed girl who does 101 aerial somersaults, or "one-arm rollup," was on the platform waiting for me. It was not a steady platform, and it was not particularly wide.

The big brown net stretching below seemed ever so far off. I began to wish I was back on terra firma.

Cheers Him with Accident Tales.

"What if I fall?" I suggested. "You won't," said Erma. "We'll hold on to you. Eddie isn't going to let go of your legs."

"Of my legs!" I gasped. "Do I have to swing upside down?"

"Certainly," said Erma, "but if you do decide to fall, be sure to come down on your back. One of the boys in this act was killed last year. He broke his neck."

Not so good! Not so good!

"Now, I'm going to hang to one of these rings by one arm," the little red-head continued, "and swing out, holding you by my teeth. Don't jerk, or you might pull the mouthpiece out."

"But I weigh 165 pounds," I protested. "Are you sure—"

"That's all right," said Erma. "Let's go."

Had Friends at Yale.

I thought of the loved ones at home; the pleasant friends I had known at Yale, in Cincinnati and at Emil's. Then I grasped the loops at the end of the strap which hung from Erma's teeth, and cautiously swung out. I thought I'd never get back to the platform, but I did. "The strap slipped a little," said Erma. "That was because you jerked."

Eddie then announced we would try a "crab." "Mayme and I will show you how to do it," he added. He hung by his knees from the "trap," as he called it. Mayme grasped his hands, locked her feet in them and made a hoop of her body.

Compared with hanging to a strap held only by a girl's teeth, a "crab"—or "bird's nest," as we used to call it—looked easy. The only mistake I made was in trying to turn a somersault off into the air—causing Mr. Ward a moment of uneasiness.

Try Hand-and-Arm.

"Fine!" he said, when I regained my footing. "Now for a 'hand-and-arm.'" A "hand-and-arm" is somewhat more complicated than a crab, as you find yourself dangling upside down, held by one hand and one foot, and it's difficult to find the platform again.

Our next stunt was to be a "catch." Erma lassoed a trapeze for me and told me to hang to it and swing out. "Eddie will catch you when you let go," she said.

"When I let go!" I echoed.

"Sure. I'll tell you when to swing."

"You'll do nothing of the sort, Erma," I replied firmly. "I may look like a Flying Ward, but remember, girl, I'm a newspaper man, not an aerial gymnast. How do we get down?"

Erma launched herself on a trapeze, turned a somersault in midair and rebounded from the net.

"Hold the ladder steady," I called. "I'm going to get down the way I came."