Soar Losers

Tony Carpenter sells cell-phone service, plays with his two kids, finds his wife a nice Valentine's Day remembrance, contemplates the occasional acting job. Because he injured his shoulder six months ago, he hasn't tried flying lately. In fact, he hasn't even heard that the Y's nearly seventy-year-old trapeze program was grounded in November.

"What happened?" he asks. "How can they do that?"
With the greatest of ease. Last September John Pateros, a guy from California visiting Denver, tried out the Central YMCA's trapeze program one evening. While dismounting from the net, Pateros fell and broke his hip; he was taken to Denver General Hospital, where he ran up more than $10,000 in medical bills. Later that week, Pateros called the Y to ask if it had any insurance that might cover his injury. The answer was yes, the Y had insurance, and no, it was not liable.

Although Pateros did not file a claim against the Y, the executive director roped in the program. After all, what's one physical fitness class, more or less?

"More or less?" Carpenter says. "Listen, you can't equate the trapeze program with anything else in the city, maybe even the country. The flyers are a family. The Y calls it a class, and we do work out, but even if you don't fly for ten years, you still belong. The last time I went, we were joking about Trapeze: The Next Generation, because when we started we were these young studs with our long hair and sideburns, and now our kids are starting to fly. Were starting to fly," he corrects himself.

Forty-one-year-old Carpenter was a kid himself when he first showed up at the downtown Y three decades ago. He'd decided he needed to get into a sport, and his small, wiry build was unsuited to basketball or football. "And I grew up in north Denver, which was a neighborhood in transition at the time," he recalls. "There was a lot of racial tension between the Italians and Mexicans, and I was just ripe for trouble. The Y actually kept me off the streets."

To be precise, it was actually Yo Yo Mareno, the Y's longtime gymnastics instructor, who captured Carpenter's attention and got him to come downtown every Wednesday and Friday, the evenings dedicated to the gymnastics and trapeze programs.

Still, Carpenter did not come into his own as a trapeze artist until the early Eighties, after he'd graduated from college and spent several years trying to make it as an actor in New York City. Returning to Denver for the second season of the newly formed Denver Center Theatre Company, Carpenter gravitated back to the Y to stay in shape--only to discover that the gymnastics program had been canceled. Luckily, he learned, his maturing body had made him "a real natural" for the trapeze. After just a year of flying high above the Y's basketball court, Carpenter took a job as an aerialist with the Shrine Circus for one glorious, nomadic season.

After that he returned to Denver, married, settled into steady film and TV work, took a job with US West and kept flying, learning more circus-quality tricks each year. Over the past decade, Carpenter says, his entire social structure was built around Wednesday and Friday nights at the Y, and the eating and drinking excursions that always followed. And yet, he adds, recently he'd sensed that the Y's program might be on its way to extinction--not because the flyers were losing interest, or even because their numbers were shrinking, but because the management seemed to be looking for an excuse to ground them. Permanently.

"We knew," he says. "In fact, we always had an inside joke--if you get hurt, don't sue the Y. They took away gymnastics twenty years ago because it was dangerous, they said. But I think it's because neither gymnastics nor trapeze are on national TV every weekend, that they just aren't mainstream sports, and so they don't matter."

But they do, he insists. "I know I sound normal," he says, "but this is terrible news. Inside, I am just shaking."

In 1937 Molly soon-to-be Ginsburg was on one of the most unusual dates of her romantic career.

"The first thing Mr. Ginsburg did was take me to see him fly on the trapeze at the Central YMCA," she remembers. "After that, I watched him fly many, many times. I never did it myself. I wasn't the type. But I liked watching. My husband Julius was a big guy. He used to catch Yo Yo Mareno, a little guy. Looking back," she decides, "it was very romantic."

A more prevailing view held that trapeze work built young bodies as well as character--and often, as it turned out, characters. Attorney Julius Ginsburg and Yo Yo Mareno were among the first to sign up for the downtown Y's program, designed in 1927 by University of Denver gymnastics coach Granville "Granny" Johnson. From the start, the rules were few. Once you learned a trick, for example, you were responsible for teaching it to someone else. In the beginning, you didn't even have to be a Y member to join the informal, yet rigorous, classes. But you were expected to show up faithfully every Wednesday and Friday night.

Then again, once you'd soared through the air on the high-flying trapeze, where else would you want to be?

Despite a demanding law career, Julius "Pete" Ginsburg continued as the Y's official catcher until his son, Butch, was about ten years old. "After that," Molly recalls, "the boys just seemed to dissipate."

Ginsburg and Mareno are both dead now, but the Y's frequent flyers remember them. The catcher's trapeze still hanging from the rafters at the Y is a constant reminder: Built in the 1930s to fit Ginsburg's large posterior, it's considered somewhat oversized by any experienced trapeze catcher. Hundreds of Mareno's former students still work out at the Y. Some of them have faded memories of performing in his amateur circuses in the early Sixties--and some of them actually ran away to join real ones.

Bob Christians was eleven when he started with Mareno in 1951. "Faithfully every Friday night," he reminisces. "You got a chance to run around and exercise and see how much courage you had. There was such an appeal. It had to do with just common, ordinary people walking off the streets and having a chance to discover and do these exotic, unique things that most people just dream of."

Christians tried to stay common and ordinary. He got his teaching certificate at Colorado State University on a full gymnastics scholarship, served a tour of duty in the Army, and occasionally coached a year or two of high-school gymnastics. But most of his adult life has been spent on the road with circus acts, from the Flying Lamars to Ringling Bros.

"I was inclined to do more flying than catching," he admits. "It was a demanding life, always in a truck, driving. I was married, and [my wife] assisted me in all our acts."

By the mid-Seventies, Christians was back in Denver helping the Casa Bonita restaurant develop its cliff-diving acts "and other entertainment," he says modestly. Then Club Med called to ask if he could make a trapeze net for its fledgling circus program. Once he was at Club Med's Florida headquarters, inspiration struck.

"The good times at the Y had stayed with me, and it gave me an idea," Christians says. "I proposed introducing the flying trapeze to be done at Club Med, and not by the employees, but by the guests. By anyone."

Christians became Club Med's circus director twelve years ago. Since then, he's installed trapezes in sixteen Club Meds, from Malaysia to St. Lucia to Brazil. And from time to time, when he needs an experienced hand, he imports someone who learned to fly at the local Y.

"I never did make it to Club Med," says 61-year-old Manny Crespin, a boyhood friend of Christians. "In the early days, I did some fair dates with him--New Mexico and other nearby states. I loved it. We didn't make a whole lot of money, but I did some comedy, some clown things, and I enR>jR>oyed myself, and then I went off to college."

At the age of fourteen, Crespin first ventured from west Denver into the Y--and onto the trapeze. "After I did it once, I knew I would never experience anything like that in any other activity," he says. "It was way above the rush of the high bar."

He became an English and drama teacher, but even while he pursued that respectable daytime occupation, Crespin continued to fly at the Y. Eventually he became Yo Yo Mareno's right-hand man. "Yo Yo was on the Y staff during the day and he got me the job for instructing trapeze," Crespin explains. "No salary, but a free membership. Our class was open to anyone who was interested--children, adults, all ages, and they paid us $5 a session, all of which I collected and gave to the Y."

When Mareno died ten years ago of lymphatic cancer, Crespin kept the classes going.

While some neophytes are too afraid of heights to experience the full thrill, others, he says, "would try it once and be so elated with the thing, and become part of our family." Which meant that not only would they fly together, they would "caravan" to the mountains with other trapeze families, eat together, drink together and, more than once, marry each other.

"When the circus came through town, we would ask professionals to come down and show us things," Crespin remembers. "And they in turn were very impressed with us--big-name stars came down as they were passing through, and they could see we knew what we were doing. Over the years I've gotten calls from clear across the U.S. where people were trying to build a trapeze. I don't get those calls anymore."

As a matter of fact, Denver's flyers are fighting an apparently losing battle to keep their own trapeze. Although Alton Barbour has flown on trapezes throughout the Caribbean, he's now focused on saving his hometown rig. "If someone like Manny has worked for the Y all those years as a lay leader," asks Barbour, "and not even gotten his towels for free, shouldn't they say R>thanR>k you at some point?"

Barbour is perhaps the only Y flyer without even a suppressed urge to join the circus. "They live like gypsies," he points out, "and they certainly don't make much money."

A champion gymnast in high school and college, Barbour took up trapeze after a stint in the Army. "I had seen it there as a boy, when I'd take the streetcar downtown," he remembers. "Around 1960, I was looking for a way to keep active, and I went down and I could see right away that most of these people were small and I was comparatively big. I could see I was a catcher."

As Barbour explains it, the catcher is the half of an aerial pair who never leaves his trapeze, but plucks the flyer out of the air and flings him back to his perch--sometimes performing tricks along the way. Barbour has always felt comfortable with catching, as well as with the athletes he catches. "They know where their body is, even when it's upside down," he says of trapeze artists. "And fearless. I remember seeing a flyer's three-year-old daughter climbing up the ladder all by herself--even her feet were tiny!

"But then," he adds, "as you come to learn, the world is full of fearless little girls."

Barbour has been the chair of DU's department of human communications studies since 1965, but he keeps his academic and athletic worlds separate. "It's not widely known among my students that I fly," he says, "and they might not even be interested." Much of his vacation time is devoted to out-of-town trapeze work. He started by filling in at Club Meds for his old pal Christians, then went on to teach the native owners of a Dominican resort how to put on their own trapeze show.

"And last year, I agreed to work in the Caribbean for a month," he says. "I would do a deep dive before lunch, have a nap afterward, and then go catch trapeze all afternoon. Sure, I drop some people. I drop them all the time, but they all get to enjoy hitting the net sooner or later."

Sometimes later. Bernadette Pace brought her then-four-year-old daughter to the Y in 1970 and stayed to fly--"even though at that point I had never done anything and was completely without strength," she says. "I was very afraid. I couldn't bring myself to let go and fly, I had to be pried off. But I just did what they told me, swing off and drop in the net. When the fear wore off, I was just like a skydiver, I started to be a little wild, to do silly tricks. Then I went back to being sensible again. And I never missed a night at the Y. If I could walk, I was there. If I was delirious, I went anyhow, because when you're flying, you're alive."

In 1982, Pace followed her scientist husband from Denver to the University of Indiana at Bloomington, where he promptly left her for another woman after almost thirty years of marriage. The shell-shocked Pace decided to pour her excess energies into her circus skills rather than her career as a microbiologist. "When you're the person who doesn't have any choice," she says, "you go on."

For Pace, this meant building a trapeze in her backyard and forming the High Flyers Family Circus, an organization open to anyone who cared to sign her liability waiver and help maintain the equipment.

"It took a year to build, one piece at a time," she says, "and the whole time I was building it, I was filled with doubt--who am I to be doing this? But people came, and I taught them what I knew."

After a while, university gymnasts showed up in the yard and taught Pace some new tricks. "I now have a stack of liability releases ten inches high," she says. "That's how many people have flown in my yard. Some have gone on to become professional circus people. Some are grounded by family ties but are good enough for the circus, so they fill in on professional tours."

Pace herself heads to Stockholm this summer with an all-female flying group. Once the wimp of the Y--barely able to run a quarter-mile on its wooden track--at 52 she now flies and catches with ease. And every year, she hosts the Denver flyers for a weekend "that comes to resemble a gigantic slumber party," she says. "We have mats all over the house where people sleep, and we fly constantly."

And Pace's place may be the only location where Denver's troupe can fly this year. The demise of the Y program is "an unbelievable loss," she says. "There is nothing like it anywhere in the country, and may never be again. Besides, that program was very safe. All of these years--since 1927--without a claim against the Y or a single major incident. In my twelve years, I think I saw three minor injuries."

"We were fairly responsible adults," adds flyer Mark Sexton. "We wanted a little risk--not meaningful risk--in our lives. We wanted the camaraderie and the interaction between a flyer and a catcher, where you have to really trust each other and the result is wonderful."

A petroleum engineer who'd recently been transferred to Denver from Alaska, Sexton happened into the Y one Friday night in 1980 and "was hooked just watching." While his career burgeoned over the next decade--he eventually became president of a small oil company--his social life stayed exactly the same.

"Wednesdays and Fridays were guaranteed terrific nights," he remembers. "I got completely reinvigorated. We found a way to push the boundaries of this nine-to-five world. I can't tell you how much I miss it."

"We love our trapeze," says 28-year-old Nicky Bruckhart, who came to the Y fresh from three years teaching trapeze at a Club Med. "I had worked with a bunch of people who thought they knew everything. At the Y, there were people who'd flown for thirty years and really did know everything. But there was no ego, nothing pretentious, and much more opportunity to learn."

"And that is what's fun about this group--the shapes and sizes and skill levels of these people," says attorney Lisa Hogan, who started flying ten years ago. "If you could see it--and now you can't--you'd be shamed into trying it."

Hogan had done a bit of semiprofessional juggling in college but had no idea of the kicks awaiting her when she went on her first flight. "There I was in thin air," she recalls, "and I thought, hey, I love thin air, wheee! Flying takes total concentration. It forces you to let go of every stupid thing that happened to you that day. It's about the most thrilling thing in my entire life."

Hogan was quickly absorbed into Denver's cadre of high flyers. Her preferred catcher became her husband; a few years later, they had produced two fearless little girls who were a mainstay at the Y and on road trips to the High Flyers Family Circus in Indiana. Last summer Hogan helped her group build a trapeze outside the East Denver YMCA and drew up a legal waiver neighborhood kids could sign before trying an experimental flight or two. With the use of a "spot rig," which suspends the flyer by a belt and ropes, "anyone could fly," she says. "It was perfectly safe.

"Of course," she adds, "we can't use that now, either. We can't fly at any Y anywhere."

Being both a lawyer and a flyer, Hogan has a hard time accepting the Y's decree. At the very least, she says, she'll go down swinging. "Because it's sadder than anything to watch these older guys. It has always kept them young to fly, and now they can't. And look at me," she adds, holding out her hands. "My flying calluses are gone. I look like an office worker, for Chrissakes."

John Pateros had studied trapeze for one year at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts when he stepped into the Central YMCA on September 22, 1995. He considered himself an experienced flyer. "Not that I ever had any aspirations to be in the circus or anything," he says, "but it was a good way to exercise, and I hate to exercise just for the purpose of exercising."

Pateros and his girlfriend were in town for a seminar: As co-owners of the Anodyne Training Center, the two instruct medical professionals in hypnosis and neuro-linguistic programming techniques. After work one day, he decided to take a flyer. "It was a really nice scene," Pateros remembers of trapeze night at the Y. "A nice cross-section of people."

But as he was jumping out of the net, Pateros says, his foot got stuck in a small hole. "Instead of my feet landing underneath me, I just landed right on my thigh, and it fractured my hip," he explains.

Manny Crespin, who was there, remembers the incident a little differently. "He was hanging onto the net, and for some reason he let go, or slipped," Crespin says. "His feet were already on the floor, and he slipped and landed on his hip. When he fell, my feeling was he wasn't even hurt. He was talking and laughing. But then, he was an older gentleman, over 65, I'd say."

In truth, Pateros is 51, and he remembers being in excruciating pain. "It's still not good," he adds. "I lost half an inch of femur and the screws that hold my hip together are sticking out, so that muscles and tendons get snagged."

Pateros was back in San Francisco when he found out the Y's insurance wouldn't cover the accident. He accepted the verdict, he says, and doesn't plan to file a claim against the Y. "What good would it do?" he asks.

Nevertheless, Van Nichols, executive director for all ten metro YMCAs, says the Central Y's trapeze program was discontinued because "there had been claims."

"Yes," Nichols confirms, declining to provide any documentation. "We just didn't have any staff for this program, and there was some liability involved."

But that wasn't the only reason the Y roped in the trapeze group, he adds. "Number one," Nichols says, "it's a program that should have been closed a long time ago. It has nothing to do with our mission, which is to help young people on with their lives."

The Y flyers, many of whom learned trapeze as children, and some of whose children were in the process of learning when the program was canceled, disagree emphatically with Nichols's assessment of the situation. During the gripe sessions that replaced their Friday night flying, they decided to send Lisa Hogan and Alton Barbour to a meeting with Nichols, in hopes that he would reconsider.

"But he seemed to have no interest in hearing anything more from us," sighs Hogan. "I showed him a sample liability release we could use, and he said, 'You know it's not worth the paper it's written on.' He said he wanted to eliminate all risk at the Y. And I'm thinking, you gotta run more of a risk with basketball. Any cardiovascular equipment has risk. If you really think about it, there's risk everywhere."

"He actually seemed angry at us," Barbour says. "We didn't get anywhere."
Barbour and Hogan went on to lobby members of the Y's board of directors, among them Denver attorney Brian Pendleton.

"I don't know if there was an insurance concern," Pendleton says carefully, "and I know the trapeze has been there a long time. I also know that we're dealing with risk containment at the Y organization."

At different times last week, Lisa Hogan and Jon Allen, her estranged husband and former catcher, visited the Central Y with a petition requesting reinstatement of the trapeze program. Hogan got 75 signatures from her post in the ladies' locker room; Allen was asked to leave the premises.

"I don't think their petitions will help, anyway," Nichols says. According to him, the decision to end the program rests firmly with his office, not the Y's board of directors.

"His attitude has been, 'No one can tell me what to do,'" says flyer Lynn Coleman, a member of the Denver school board. "It's odd. Usually, in a nonprofit organization, your board does tell you what to do. Being a boardmember myself, it's strange to me that we have had a heck of a time even finding out who the boardmembers are."

One, she discovered, is Colorado Ski Country's John Frew, whom Coleman asked to "convene a subcommittee to discuss the trapeze situation." Meanwhile, she mourns the part of her past that closed along with the program. "My father flies trapeze, he always did, and I went there as a baby in my playpen, which is what I did with my own kids when the time came," she remembers.

There are, of course, still the Friday night meetings at Charlie Brown's bar--but although the flyers get plenty worked up, those evenings are not much of a workout. Coleman has looked into the possibility of flying at the East High School gym, but DPS has bigger worries right now.

Denver's flyers do not have high hopes of saving their program. "I heard we might be designated as a historical activity," Hogan reports, "but I don't know what that gets us--a chance to fly at the Molly Brown House? What do I do now? I drink," she decides. "It's taken a lot of structure out of a lot of people's lives."

Barbour attends the sessions at Charlie Brown's but finds twelve-year-old scotch a poor substitute for catching trapeze. "I ride my bicycle and lift weights," he says. "I try to stay in shape. You can work a machine, but it's not the same as throwing people through the air. It never will be.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >