Alton Barbour

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To put this account in the right time frame, it is interesting to consider that the two founders for what eventually became the Denver Imperial Flyers trapeze club were both born in the 1800s.  Mabel Rilling was born in 1883 and lived until 1972.  Granville Johnson was born in 1897 and lived until 1956.  Both were faculty members at the University of Denver in the Department of Health, Physical Education and Athletics.  Mabel Rilling, a dancer, was in charge of health and physical fitness for female students at a time when women wore bloomers, long dresses and black stockings.  Very few at that time imagined there would be female athletes or women doing gymnastics or acrobatics, or that they would actually sweat.  That was so unfeminine.  Mabel Rilling was an advocate for active, physically fit, confident young women. Granville (he was called “Granny” from a very young age) Johnson was in charge of health and fitness for the male students.  Mabel Rilling received a faculty appointment from Chancellor Henry Buchtel in 1909; Granny Johnson received a faculty appointment as an instructor in 1915 when he was an undergraduate and only eighteen years of age.  Both received both bachelors and masters degrees from the University of Denver.  She was his senior by fourteen years.  Mabel Rilling had been on the faculty for six years when Granny Johnson was appointed.  They worked together in the same building, the alumni gymnasium, and the year following Granny Johnson’s appointment to the faculty the two of them co-produced the first “gym circus” in 1916.  So the parent organization of Imperial Flyers can be traced to that date.  It was the beginning of the circus club at the University and first of many circus performances which were presented in the March of each year.  How long ago was that?  It was before the United States entered WWI, before prohibition, and before women got to vote.  The flying trapeze came along five years afterwards in1921.  Most likely this makes it the oldest continually operating trapeze group in the world.  Eventually the Imperial Flyers became the parent group for a number of other trapezes and flyers around the world.
Mabel Rilling c. 1920

There are some “side bars” which might explain the founders’ interest in circus skills and performances.  Since Mabel Rilling was a dancer, she wanted her female students to learn to dance in a variety of styles and also to perform.  She wanted them to put on shows. 
Why learn to dance if you can’t show an audience what you have learned to do?  Her students had strength, balance, form, and agility, so they put on shows for the University community and the public. They had their own all-female dance recitals and performances.  Granny Johnson was a wrestling champion both in college and in amateur competitions after college.  Newspapers accounts from those times quote him as saying that in order to condition himself for his sport, he began to do gymnastics to make himself a better wrestler.  Ultimately he came to believe that no matter what the sport was, an athlete would be better at that sport if he/she had gymnastic or acrobatic skills.  Secondly, during the depression he supplemented his salary during non-teaching periods as a trapeze artist in now defunct circuses.  So he had skill and experience as a flying trapeze performer.  The Rocky Mountain News in March of 1922 has an article explaining that Granny Johnson, a physical education professor at the University of Denver fell 40 feet to the gymnasium floor when the flying trapeze rigging he was working on collapsed.  One reason that story is interesting is that Granville Johnson survived the fall with no ill effects.  Another reason is that it documents that there was a flying trapeze in the old alumni gymnasium as part of the circus equipment in 1922.


           Granville Johnson c.    

  Granny Johnson served in the military during both world wars.  In the First World War he was a first lieutenant and was Athletic Director in 1918 for the U.S. Army in Camp McArthur, Texas.  During the Second World War he filled the same role as a Lieutenant Commander for the United States Navy at a reserve training camp from 1942-1945.  Typically, on university campuses, people in physical education or athletics do not get much respect from their colleagues in the arts and sciences.  University archives newspaper accounts of the lives of both Mabel Rilling and Granny Johnson show, however, that these two were very much respected by their fellow faculty members.  There is a men’s residence hall at the University of Denver on the corner of South High St. and East Iliff named for Granny Johnson.   


“Damn everything except the circus.”

e.e. cummings

  A look at old programs from those early circus performances is instructive.  The shows involved boxing and wrestling exhibitions, which are not typical circus fare.  But they also involved gymnastics, acrobatics and dance numbers.  In 1921, for example, there were “three rings” in the gymnasium.  In those three rings were tumbling, flying rings, vaulting on the horse, parallel bars and horizontal bar, the usual gymnastics events.  But there were also were pyramids or group balancing, tight wire, revolving ladder, trampoline, and there were  clowns.                                                                                   


 D.U. Gymnasts c. 1923.  Trapeze net in background.    Click on Photo to enlarge image.


These were not gymnastics events.  In fact, at this time the trampoline was considered a vaudeville show gimmick.  Also, as a part of the program there were a “balancing trapeze,” single trapeze, double trapeze, and flying trapeze.  In 1930 a “casting rig” act was added to the circus.  The flying trapeze made the move from the University of Denver alumni gymnasium to the Denver Central YMCA gymnasium on 16th and Lincoln streets.  It had a larger space, a much higher ceiling, and iron girders from which to hang the equipment, which was all suspended and then “flown” back into the ceiling of the gymnasium when out of use.  When the flying trapeze made the move, the single trapeze, double trapeze and revolving ladder went along with it and were featured in YMCA circuses.  Bob Gray and Jimmy Kyle did the revolving ladder act, and Manny Crespin and Cheryl Cohan did the double trapeze act on the original equipment.


“If running away and joining the circus sounds romantic to you,
think about sleeping nights in a parking lot and sharing your water with the elephants.”

Lisa Hofsess


  In 1928, the tightwire walkers were Coralyn Carey, Betty Osgood, and Lucille Fitzsimmons; the flyers were Julius Ginsberg, Allen McMillan, Dick Wilder, Granville Johnson, Willis Collins, Chester Preisser, John Klein, Lindsay Keeler, Henry Ham, and Hugh Gunnison.  These are the people who went along with the circus equipment, most likely installed it, and became the first Imperial Flyers at the Denver Central YMCA.  Julius Ginsberg, who had a long distinguished legal career in Denver, was the largest of the acrobats and became the catcher for the group.  He appears in the picture on the left. 



Otto Pribyl Flyers c. 1931.  Left to right: Julius Ginsberg; [unknown];

 Otto Pribyl; Dave Werb; John Pribyl; Yo-Yo Moreno  


He  was a big man with a big frame.  A special catcher’s trapeze was built for Julius Ginsberg in order to accommodate his rear end (see p, 6).  Long after his retirement, this trapeze continued to be used by generations of catchers, who knew nothing of Julius, until the group left the YMCA sixty plus years later.    



  Because it was so well established and so popular after fifteen years at the University it seems unlikely that the circus and the equipment could have moved from the campus without the approval of Mabel Rilling and Granny Johnson.  It was not a gradual move because of attrition but a proactive decision to go to another space, accomplished in a few months.  It is most likely that the date of the move was 1931 because after 1930, there are no brochures in the Penrose Library archives documenting the circus at the University.  And this was the time at which the Denver YMCA began to have circuses of its own with many of the same personnel.  The background of a photograph on page six shows that the net that was used by the circus group at the University was the same net used by the circus group at the YMCA.  At the YMCA it became the two trapeze apron nets.  There are a number of explanations for why the circus group might have moved from the University to the Denver Central YMCA that are both practical and aesthetic.  Any one or all of them might explain the move.  The first is that in 1931 the United States was in the depths of the great depression. This was a time during which one out of every five Americans was unemployed, and also a time when women didn’t work outside the home, which makes the percentage even more significant.  These were very hard times.  Some might have been able to continue to be college students, but many could not and dropped out.  No doubt there were people who wanted to continue circus involvement who were not associated with the University and couldn’t be students.  But for a seven-cent token they could take a Denver Tramway Co. electric streetcar to the YMCA.  When so many people were without money, there must also have been fewer people buying memberships and showing up at the YMCA as well.  The Denver Central YMCA was really two different functions serving two different populations.  One was an inexpensive hostel for visitors to the city who were willing to share a sleeping room with others in exchange for a minimum cost.  The other function was athletic and provided a gymnasium, handball courts, a swimming pool and the like for both children and adults.


  Click on Photo to enlarge image.


 In order to bolster attention, attendance and memberships in his part of the facility, the manager of the YMCA gymnasium, Walter “Hack” Hackenson, made an arrangement with Granville Johnson to install the single trapeze, double trapeze, revolving ladder, and flying trapeze in the Central YMCA gymnasium.  This could not have been done at that time without Hackenson’s approval and encouragement.  Perhaps they both saw it as a win-win situation.  Some of the hardware that the current Denver Imperial Flyers have dates to that installation.  Finally, it must have been appealing to the flyers at the University to see that if they moved from one facility to the other they could put a bigger rig in the larger space and fly higher and perform more difficult tricks.  Whatever the explanation, it was the beginning of a long and productive relationship between the YMCA and the flyers.  “Hack” Hackenson continued to be in charge of the gymnasium including its circus equipment into the 1960s.  Those who remember him from that time also remember that he was happy to have the flyers around because it made the Denver Central YMCA the only YMCA in the world with its own trapeze.  He was extremely generous in giving memberships to teenagers to keep them off the streets and into a more wholesome environment.  He typically gave a “senior flyer” the keys to the gymnasium so that that person could lock up the facility when the flyers were done working out.  That person was designated a YMCA “lay leader” and received a free membership.  This meant the flyers could stay as late as they wished and it was not unusual for them to stay until midnight.  They “suited up” (males in one room and females in another) in a “trophy room” on the north side of the gymnasium balcony.  They were trusted to supervise themselves.


Click on Photo to enlarge image.




For the YMCA they put on over thirty circus shows, the proceeds of which were donated to support under-funded YMCAs around the world.  When the 16th Street Mall was finished and opened, the YMCA was asked by the City of Denver if they could participate in some way in the celebration because their building was at one end of the mall.  The YMCA volunteered the Imperial Flyers to put on an all-day-long exhibition on May 7, 1981.  The gymnasium door was left open so that visitors to the mall could wander in and watch the flyers.  Talk about sore hands.




The Imperial Flyers are without doubt the only flying group that has had a masters’ thesis written about them.  It was done by Lisa Hofsess as part of the requirements for her degree in kinesiology at Iowa State University in 1984.  It tested Kenyon’s vertigo theory about risk takers.  The question the research asked was whether trapeze flyers were seeking to be out of control and were seeking vertigo when they were pursuing the activity.  The concept had previously been tested on sky divers.  Lisa’s population was the Denver Imperial Flyers.  The control group was a YMCA aerobic exercise class.  The two groups answered the test questions differently; flyers are different from non-flyers, it seems.  She gave each person in both groups a battery of tests and gave the flyers a set of items in an interview protocol.  The results demonstrated that being out of control or being dizzy and disoriented were undesirable feelings for flyers.  The flyers expressed without exception that they wanted to be in control of their bodies and their perceptions during the activity.  Although they wanted to be at the limits of what they were able to do, none of them felt that they were putting themselves in excessive danger.  They were in considerable agreement about the most important elements of the activity.  Both males and females reported mastery (a sense of accomplishment, achievement or challenge) as the most enjoyable aspect of flying.  They reported the thrill or excitement of flying as another enjoyable aspect.  They also said that there was something aesthetically beautiful about trapeze that non-flyers were unable either to see or appreciate.  One called it the “beauty of the moment.”

In responding to the question of what they would most miss if they could no longer fly, most people said that they would miss the social experience, that is, spending time with the group of flyers, even though these were people they may not have associated with under other circumstances.  They said that in the group there was trust, mutual support and affection.  They made frequent references to “family” in the interviews.  One respondent said that the flyers were like a “tribe,” and suggested that perhaps they should wear feathers.



 There are gaps in the history of the flyers because people who were in the group during the 1930s and 1940s are now deceased, and whatever artifacts they might have had of their participation are now lost.  Whereas universities maintain archives to keep track of their histories, YMCAs usually don’t, and so much of what happened during those decades is unknown, but it is known that the group continued.       



Alton Barbour, 1961, on Julius Ginsberg’s catch trap.


 The history of the flyers begins to pick up again in the 1950s                

because people do remember those years, and much of that history is of the interconnection of individual stories.  It does not take six degrees of separation to link these people.  Usually it only takes one.  For example:  Not only were Julius Ginsberg, Chet Preisser and Hugh Gunnison the original flyers at the YMCA, so was Otto Pribyl.  In fact, before they became the Imperial Flyers in the 1930s, they were called the Otto Pribyl Flyers.  George (Yo-Yo) Moreno was one of that group.  Otto continued to appear in YMCA circuses into the 1950s doing a vaudeville boxing routine and dealing with a car, which appeared to drive itself.  Otto taught Davey Owens that vaudeville boxing routine.  Otto owned a full sized trapeze in a lot in Lakewood where Ben Coleman, Will Howard, Iris Lucero, Bob Gray and Davey Owens flew.  Ben Coleman and Davey Owens did fair dates in the summer with a trampoline act and a casting rig act.


The Tribe In 1984

Front row (left to right): Manny Crespin, Lucy McConnell, Kathy Hamilton, Vince Nicoletti, Bernadette Pace, Melissa Dunning, Helena Soister.  Back row (left to right): Elise Vanderbroek, Eric Elling, Donna Lopez, Wendy Robinson, Tom Polich, Alton Barbour, Linda Crespin, Lisa Hofsess, Benny Coleman, Barbara Moss, Bob Christians.
Click on Photo to enlarge image.



“It is not accidentally that most trapeze artists are extroverts.  They are an upward and outward-looking tribe, optimistic by nature, not given to brooding on their failures or worrying unduly about the risks they are taking.”
                                                Sam Keen

  It was Ben and Will who got Bobby Christians into trapeze.  Davey Owens also had a clown act in which he ate a fish (a piece of carrot that looked like a goldfish), and juggled both on a rolly-bolly and a unicycle.  He also did a back flip out of an oil drum that had a tiny trampoline rigged in the bottom.  The casting rig act that Bobby and his wife Karen did was learned from Ben and Davey.  Later, Gary and Vickie Baker did the same act using Bobby Christians’ casting rig.  Manny Crespin was the apartment mate of Bobby Christians when they were both students at the University of Northern Colorado.  They also did fair dates together.  Manny Crespin was an associate trapeze instructor for Yo-Yo Moreno at the YMCA and was put in charge after Moreno’s death in 1981.  Crespin continued to be in charge of the YMCA trapeze for the next fifteen years.


David Owens as Dado. c. 1955



“When circus was real, flying was a religion.”

Burt Lancaster, in the movie Trapeze, 1956


  During Jimmy Kyle’s, Yo-Yo’s and Manny’s tenure there, hundreds of Denver area high school students came through that gym including Wayne Wright, Carol Bosselman, Juan Green, Art Jiron, Don Robinson, Andy Arellano, Donna Lopez, Paul Johnson, Tony Carpenter, Vince Nicoletti, Jim Fulcher, Terry Pershing, Bruce Lonnecker, Bruce Minor, Karen Jeffries, Doug Boger, Albert Heinrick, John Quintana,   Georgie DeHererra, Paul Francis, Barbara Moss, Art Guerrero, Jack Van Horn and Richard Greenwood.  Jimmy Kyle, the gymnastics and swimming coach at North High School was a YMCA flyer and was coach for Tony Carpenter and Vince Nicoletti.  Vince Nicoletti was an all-around gymnast for the University of Denver.



Manny Crespin in a layout. c. 1961                                        


   Tony Carpenter was a still-ring gymnast for Colorado State University and flew professionally for a year with the Shrine Circus.  Gymnast, Lisa Hofsess, learned to fly at the YMCA and flew professionally in an “all-girl act” in Mexico City.  Another acrobat, Bob Fenner, maker of Fenner-Hamilton “Gymmaster” trampolines, was the first person known to do a borani-out fliffus.  Davey Owens said the trick should be called a “Fenner.”  Because he had a trampoline factory, when the YMCA needed a net, Fenner generously sewed one for them that looked like an enormous   trampoline (p. 6).  Eventually, because he had not been paid for the net, the net was bought and  paid for by Wayne and Carol Wright even though they were on the road and no longer flew at the YMCA.  It became a gift for the flyers.  For Bobby Christians, Bob Fenner has made all of the of safety belts for the Club Med trapezes and also made the twisting harnesses that ice skaters use to learn twisting jumps without injury.  Those were demonstrated and installed across the country by Jimmy Kyle.  Everyone, it seems, is linked to everyone.  Here are just a few of their stories.

Tony Carpenter, third from the left, as a Flying Luna                                         Ben holds Willy in a lever. c. 1955
Click on Photo to enlarge image.


In the summers of the 1940s and 1950s the Denver Public Schools hired playground supervisors to manage the playgrounds in the public parks and some of the neighborhood schools in Denver.  Typically, there were two supervisors per park or school.  Mornings usually involved arts and crafts, so children could make something they could take home.  In the afternoons, the neighborhood children played ping-pong, tetherball, volleyball, horseshoes or softball.  Equipment was checked out and checked in without cost.  Parents whose children were home from school during the summer felt safe sending their children to the park because they knew there were a couple of responsible adults in charge.  Sometimes, the playground supervisors were college students, but more often they were Denver Public School teachers who were off for the summer and open to the idea of making some summer income.  In 1951, two of these supervisors were Ben Coleman and Will Howard in Pferdesteller Park on 33rd and Wolff.  Not satisfied to do the minimum and not shy about publicity, Ben and Will, who had both been Skyline Conference wrestling champions for the University of Denver, set up a high single trapeze in the park.  Both Ben and Will were members of the Imperial Flyers at the Y.  One of the children who lived nearby and came to the park to swing was Bobby Christians.


  That was Bobby’s introduction to gymnastics and acrobatics and he found that he had a knack for it, so he was invited by Ben and Will to fly trapeze at the Y at the age of eleven.  Bobby ended up becoming the state high school high bar champion.  He went on a full gymnastics scholarship to Florida State University.  After serving an enlistment in the U.S. Army he finished his degree at the University of Northern Colorado.  Although he coached high school gymnastics, most of the rest of his life was spent in show business.  He flew for the Flying Lamars in the Ringling Brothers Circus.

  He and his wife traveled and did shows with a casting rig act and with a triple high bar act.  He was in charge of the cliff diving acts at the Casa Bonita Restaurant in Denver.  In 1974 when Club Med approached him and asked him to make a rig for them so that the staff could entertain the guests, he remembered the fun that he had had at the Denver Y and proposed that not the employees but the guests themselves put on the show.  Club Med bought the idea and Bobby began to install trapezes at Club Meds around the world from Sandpiper in Florida to the Bahamas to Malaysia to Polynesia to Brazil and to train staff to manage them.  Eventually, there were over twenty Club Med trapezes.  Louie King, Jerry (the clown) Coughlin, and Nicky Bruckhart of the Imperial Flyers worked on circus  teams for Club Med, as did Bruce Lonnecker, Alton 

Barbour and Ben Coleman as au pairs.

Bobby & Karen as Grin and Barrett, a casting rig act.
Click on Photo to enlarge image.


Because of the variety of languages  spoken at Club Meds, Bobby Christians taught the whole trapeze world a single “go” signal. He taught them all to say “hup.” At the present time, most of the people in the world who have swung off of a trapeze, hundreds of thousands by now, have done it at a Club Med when the instructor said “hup.”

Nicky Bruckhart in a splits, Playa Blanca, 1992



  Wayne Wright and Carol Bosselman came to the YMCA in 1950 as part of Ivan Jones’ tumbling troupe in while they were still in high school.  At East High School, Wayne was the city champion on the parallel bars.  Carol was a skilled hand balancer and tumbler, able to do front aerials.  At the YMCA they learned hand-to-hand balancing and balancing formations from Ivan Jones.  And they flew on the trapeze. They were in a number of YMCA circuses that usually ended with Wayne and Carol doing the passing leap for a finale.  They attended the University of Colorado, married, and left school to put on shows on their own.  They started out doing trampoline acts for National School Assemblies but broadened that out with knockabout and adagio dancing numbers.  Eventually they joined Edmundo (“Papa”) Zacchini and his “repeating” cannon and were fired out of this cannon in circuses all over the world as Wayne and Carol Zacchini.

  Although there were two explosions and two puffs of smoke from the mouth of the cannon, that was all window dressing illusion for the audience because an explosion is what they expect from a cannon.  The cannon actually housed two enormous slingshots.  Wayne and Carol would wait in the barrel with padded saddles between their legs, and when the explosions were sounded, they were fired, first Carol and then Wayne, by two huge elastic shockcord arrangements through space into a net across the arena.  Local newspapers loved it when Wayne explained that you didn’t often run into people of their caliber.  One particularly memorable shot was from one Las Vegas casino parking lot to another casino parking lot.  Eventually, with their son, Shane, they toured the world with a hand-balancing act titled Marble in Motion.  From the Imperial Flyers to a career of being shot out of a cannon.



  Bernadette Pace brought her four-year old daughter, Elizabeth, to the YMCA in 1970 and discovered the trapeze.  A Ph.D. microbiologist by training, employed at National Jewish, she had never done anything much more physical than bicycle riding, and nothing acrobatic.  But she gave it a try.  She swung off and dropped into the net a few times and eventually the fear wore off.  She became a regular flyer and a skilled acrobat.  She also became everyone’s big sister in the flying group.  When her husband took a job at the University of Indiana in Bloomington in 1982, Bernadette picked a house with a huge yard.  She studied trapeze rigs, drew up plans, and made a trapeze for herself there.  It took a year to build.  She founded the High Flyers Family Circus and recruited people to fly with her including male and female gymnasts from the University.  Since no one there knew how to catch, she showed them films of people catching in Denver, and even though she weighed just 120 pounds, began to catch lighter flyers so potential catchers would have a model to follow.  She put on shows for the people in Bloomington.  Eventually she built another aluminum trapeze rig that was easy to transport and assemble and began to do shows throughout the state.  Some of her local flyers have gone on to professional careers, and she herself has flown in circuses from Stockholm to Tokyo.  The Imperial Flyers have visited Bloomington on a couple of occasions and put on joint shows.


  The person with the longest tenure in the Imperial Flyers, without doubt, is Ben Coleman.  In the 1940s, the YMCA had a weight lifting room, a boxing ring, punching bags, and a filthy black wrestling mat in an old house on Lincoln Street before the second newer gymnasium was built.  Ben worked out on that old black mat and became a champion wrestler for East High School.  In order to get to the old house he had to go through the old gymnasium and there became aware of the trapeze and gymnastics equipment.  He developed an interest and tried out the trapeze.  He attended the University of Denver where he met and knew Granny Johnson who was still coaching in the alumni gymnasium in the 1950s.  Eventually he received an MA at Columbia University and taught history and social studies at West High School and George Washington High School in Denver, and he coached gymnastics.


  Summers he did a trampoline act or casting rig act with his friend Davey Owens, or he would load his wife and three daughters in a mobile home and put on shows doing hand balancing.  Right about that time an Ice Capades show came through Denver which included a hand-balancing act on ice put on by a father and son, Bill and Billy.  Since Ben was already doing hand balancing, he thought he could do the same act for a different show.  He taught his  daughters to skate and joined Holiday on Ice in Europe for two and a half years.  Back in Denver, he resumed his career with the Denver Public Schools and rejoined the Imperial Flyers.  He has been a member ever since and was instrumental in the building of the new rig, including all of the welding.  There is a copper plaque on one of the uprights which states that the rig is dedicated to Ben Coleman.  As of this writing, Ben still skis and snowboards and he still flies.  He still continues to appear in Imperial Flyers trapeze shows.    It is the span of one lifetime, Ben Coleman’s, from Granny Johnson to the present day flyers.


Ben and Davey’s trampoline act. c. 1955

Click on Photo to enlarge image.



  But trouble was around the corner.  John Pateros and Donna Hamilton of San Rafael, CA were members of a trapeze group in San Francisco.  They were in Denver for a professional meeting at the downtown Hyatt.  Through mutual contacts they knew that there was a trapeze in Denver; they asked if they could work out with the group and were admitted without cost as guests, a professional courtesy.  They claimed they both had prior experience with the apparatus and were not beginners.  This was on September 22nd, 1995.  Not while performing a trick on the trapeze, but while letting himself down from the net on a rope, John Pateros fell from the net and broke his hip.  The fire department was called.  They immobilized him on a rigid back splint and took him to Denver General Hospital where he underwent hip surgery.  Back in California, John Pateros received a bill from DGH for $12,000 for the surgery.

  Because he had no health insurance he was unable to pay the bill and was concerned about his credit rating.  He called the YMCA and made an inquiry about whether the YMCA had any kind of policy for people who were injured there, which might assist them in paying for medical expenses.  He believed that he was at fault for his accident.  He did not submit a bill.  He did not contact a lawyer.  No lawyer or representative contacted the YMCA.  He did not make a claim or threaten any kind of legal action.  He did not believe that the YMCA was negligent.  He did not believe the YMCA was liable.  He did not intend to cause the YMCA any kind of difficulty.  He merely made an inquiry about how the YMCA typically handled injuries in the gymnasium and whether there was any program which might help him with his bill.  Whoever took the call referred him to Joan Lyons in Denver who referred him to Crawford and Co., a Midwest law firm that handles claims for YMCAs all over the United States.  Since that is what they do, they assumed it was a claim and treated it as such.  At this point, YMCA Executive Director, Joe Giacchino, shut down the operation of the trapeze on November 17th, saying that the insurance carrier for the YMCA could not insure the trapeze.  When he discovered that the group also had a full sized trapeze rig set up outside at the East Denver YMCA he shut that down too.


  Trapeze represents a kind of paradox.  Although the activity is visually dramatic and spectacular, when properly supervised it is safe to do in the same sense that confidence-building ropes courses in Outward Bound or Executive Ventures are safe to do.  In fact, training in gymnastics or acrobatics is also training in how to fall so one does not get hurt.  Learners who get even the basic skills in trapeze will be safe in the activity and will find that the skill transfers into other activities such as falling on a ski slope or slipping on the ice.  Falling safely eventually becomes instinctive if one has done it enough times.  In the long run, training in gymnastics, acrobatics or trapeze prevents injuries.  In all of its sixty plus year existence at the YMCA the group had never had a serious injury.  To my knowledge, none of the numerous Club Med trapezes has had a serious injury.  One would think that if it were really dangerous, several serious injuries might have occurred during that time, but none has.  YMCAs have had drownings in their swimming pools, but they continue to have swimming pools.   If one were to compare even the rate of minor injuries (sprains, bumps, bruises, abrasions, etc.) in trapeze to those regularly occurring in basketball, volley ball, weight lifting, racquetball, etc. (YMCAs keep records of injuries) trapeze was convincingly safer.  But no YMCA administrators have suggested doing away with basketball, volleyball, weight lifting or racquetball because they were too dangerous for the participants.  The participants in those sports know the risks and participate anyway.  Calculated risks are what make most sports interesting.  It is possible, of course, for people to be injured while participating in nearly any sporting event.  With any kind of athletics, there is some inherent risk, just as life itself involves risk.  No human activity can be made perfectly safe.  Trapeze is not perfectly safe, but properly done it is not dangerous.  As Bobby Christians has said, “If trapeze could be made perfectly safe, no one would do it.”

  Lisa Hogan and Alton Barbour met with Van Nichols (CEO of all ten Denver Metro YMCAs) and Don Gardner on December 5th to appeal the decision.  Van Nichols said that trapeze was a “high risk activity” and that he was eliminating potential lawsuits.  Lisa Hogan offered to indemnify the YMCA against any claims.  Van Nichols said he didn’t believe that could be done.  Lisa Hogan showed Van Nichols a waiver form which could include an indemnification clause.  Van Nichols said he would show it to the YMCAs lawyers.  He never got back to Lisa.  According to Robin Chotzinoff (see bibliography) to this date, John Patero has not filed any claim against the YMCA and has sought other “remedies” for paying his bill.  In the meantime, the YMCA assured Manny Crespin, the supervisor of the trapeze group, that the equipment could remain in the storage closet until the group could make arrangements to move it on March 7th, 1996.  On the date when the move was to be made, Manny Crespin discovered that the YMCA had cut the trapeze rigging from the gymnasium superstructure so the space could be painted.  Because there was no supervision of the painters, some of the equipment, including blocks and tackles and various hardware, was stolen.  Because the trapeze group and not the YMCA owned the equipment, Manny Crespin submitted a bill of $3,200.00 for the group, which was paid by Executive Director, Joe Giacchino, in exchange for a quitclaim against any further charges.  The long Imperial Flyers-Denver Central YMCA story came to an end.



  Perhaps there is such a thing as karma, because just when the Imperial Flyers needed a new trapeze, they had one.  The first Club Med trapeze that Bobby Christians set up was on Eleuthera in the Bahamas.  The intense sunlight in tropical areas is damaging to trapeze nets, and Bobby found it necessary to replace the net.  He called Ben Coleman and said that he had a net available which he would give to the Imperial Flyers free if someone would only pay to transport it to Denver.  Benny paid the shipping fee and stored the net.  Now the group had a “big rig” net, but no big rig to use it with.  So construction began during weekends during the winter of 1994-1995.  The entire group built the rig.  Benny got used, rusty iron piping from oil rigs for the uprights and crane bars, which were cut into sections.  Several people had copies of the construction design made by Bernadette Pace.  She had given them out one year as a Christmas present.  It was an unusually warm winter.  Some said that we didn’t have winter at all that year.  So with no snow on the ground, construction continued on the rig on weekends at Benny Coleman’s until completion.  And in the spring there was a rig to put with the free net.  Lynn Coleman asked the manager of the East Denver YMCA if the flyers could set up on their space inside the fence, and he agreed.  He thought it might be good for the neighborhood children.  The neighbors all said that they enjoyed watching it.  Nothing like that had ever happened in their neighborhood before.  The group set up and flew there all summer, and continued to use the inside rig on Wednesday and Friday nights.   When the YMCA administration decided to shut down the operations in the downtown facility and the East Denver YMCA, the rig was there, waiting to move to a new location.



  Just as some of the flyers made the transition when the trapeze moved from the University of Denver to the Central YMCA, some of the flyers made the transition when the group moved from both YMCAs to the new location in Westminster.  These included Jon Allen, Gary Baker, Alton Barbour, Paula Bridwell, Nicky Bruckhart, Tony Carpenter, Ben Coleman, Eric Elling, Ludwig Goppenhammer, Lisa Hogan, Louie King, Wendy Lesko, Cricket Liu, Bruce Lonnecker, Jackie Moorhead, Vince Nicoletti, Paige Rike and Mark Sexton.  The new rig attracted new members such as Lois Donnelly, Cathy Gauch, Susan Hodson, Jim James, Carol Nixon, Jim Rice, Desiree Sanchez, Laurie Stephenson, and Leesi Heasler, who had flown professionally with Ray Valentine.


  It was Paula Bridwell who made the move possible.  Paula had been a high school and college gymnast and took her sons on a vacation to a Club Med on St. Lucia where there was a trapeze set up by Bobby Christians.  She was good enough to be in the show and loved the activity.  One of the trapeze staff, Jerry (the clown) Coughlin who had started out on the trapeze in Denver, explained to Paula that there was a trapeze and a group back in Denver.  Here are all of those links again from the group to Bobby to Jerry to Paula back to the group again. She joined the flyers and flew at the Y before the  move to the East Denver Y and before the shutdown and exodus.  Across and down the street from her house was a huge unused lot at 7635 Stuart St. that looked to her to be just right for a trapeze.  Paula asked Gilbert Wiseman if he would be open to his land being leased for a trapeze and he said he would.  A lease was agreed to and the trapeze was moved and set up in 1996.  If a group has a trapeze and is having fun flying then what is the next thing that they consider doing?  Why of course, they decided to put on a circus show in 1998 and have done so ever since.  Mabel and Granny would have been proud.


Paula Bridwell over the bar to Eric Elling     



Leesi Ruskaup and Jon Allen doing a passing leap.  Bruce Lonnecker, catching.

Imperial Flyers Circus, 2005


“May all of your children be acrobats.”

                                                                                                                Plato of Athens

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:  Written during the winter of 2006: Much of the narrative about the early years of the group would not have been possible without the assistance and support of Steve Fisher, Claire Williamson, and Kenna Gair of the University of Denver Penrose Library archives.  The enhanced picture of the Otto Pribyl Flyers is courtesy of Molly Ginsberg and University of Denver Photographer Michael Richmond.  Other photographs were processed by Christopher Moorhead.  My understanding of Mabel Rilling comes in part from an interview with my 95 year-old neighbor, Clara Armstrong who was one of her students in the late 1920s and early 1930s.   As the group continues, it is anticipated that additional stories and photographs will be added.




Baker, Vickie. Surprised by Hope, Camp Hill, Pennsylvania: Horizon Books, 2000.


Booth, Michael. “Time Flies When They’re Having Fun,” The Denver Post, Dec. 1, 1998 pps. 1A, 2B.


Burkhart, Nancy. “High Flyers at the Y.” The Sunday Denver Post, October 21, 1979.


Chmel, Jannalee Chard. “The Flying Pioneers,” (Behind the Scenes Column) University of Denver Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 3. Spring, 2003.


Chmel, Jannalee Chard. “Swinging From the Rafters,” 5280 Denver’s Mile High Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 4., November, 2003, p. 26.


Chotzinoff, Robin. “Soar Losers,” Westword, Feb. 27-28, 1996.


Ensslin, John.  “A High-flying Performance,” Rocky Mountain News, April 15, 2002.


Gavin, Jennifer. “Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease,” (Lifestyles Section) Rocky Mountain News, May 29, 1984.


Hofsess, Lisa. “Sensation Seeking in a Recreational Activity: Pursuit of Vertigo among Nonprofessional Trapeze Artists,” Unpublished Master of Science Thesis, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, 1984.


Hofsess, Lisa. “A Somatic View of Flying,” Somatics, Vol. 6, No. 3, Autumn/Winter,1987-1988.


Keen, Sam.  Learning to Fly, New York: Broadway Books, 1999.


Kreck, Carol. “Frequent Flyers Have a Firm Grip,” Living and the Arts Section C., The Denver Post, June 9, 1987.


Lubinski, Barbara. “The Flying Professor,” University of Denver Today, Vol. 8, No. 43, 1987.


Seldner, Joseph. “Trapeze Class Nurtures Future Walendas,” Rocky Mountain News, March 1, 1981.


Sweets, Ellen. “Frequent Flyers,” (The Scene Section F) The Denver Post, Sept. 17, 2003, pps.



Thorne, Patti. “Courting the Heights,” Lifestyles Section, Rocky Mountain News, June 9, 1987.


Tucker, Ernest. “For Daredevils, the Thrill is Never Gone,” Rocky Mountain News Sunday Magazine, Feb. 19, 1984.




D.U. balancers c. 1925

The Morenos in a knockabout act c. 1950




Otto and John Pribyl advertising YMCA Circus in 1930s

Otto and John Pribyl with their self-driving “Funny Ford” c. 1930




Otto and Richard Pribyl Vaudeville Boxing Act c. 1940                                            


Otto and John Pribyl

 Single Trapeze c. 1935


Iris Lucero in a knee hang, 1961



Jimmy Kyle doing an inverted, 1961



Juan Green doing an inverted, 1965