Flying high with the trapeze artists of Westminster

The scene: A vacant field at 76th and Stuart in Westminster, now home to the rig of the Imperial Flyers, quite possibly the oldest continuously operating amateur trapeze group in the world.

The cast: Daring young men, some not so young, and daring young women, too, all floating through the air -- in some cases with the greatest of ease, in outfits ranging from spandex to denim.

The mission: To get high, of course. Really high. And to see if inveterate gymnast Gayla Tracey still has the stuff.

Longtime readers might remember Gayla as the determined elementary-school teacher profiled in "Lessons From the Third Grade," a Westword feature from way back in 2000. Lately she's been teaching in Cambodia, and she found herself telling her second-graders about this crazy trapeze group back home, and not many of them had ever seen a trapeze, and those that had greatly doubted that Ms. Tracey had ever been on one, so she promised to bring proof.

That's how your faithful photographer ended up in a field off Sheridan Boulevard, catching a few snaps of the coolest impromptu aerial display to be found this side of the Air Force Academy. The Flyers arose out of the gymnastics program at the University of Denver in the 1920s, then moved their apparatus to the downtown YMCA, where they operated for most of seven decades as a come-one, come-all club of trapeze enthusiasts. Some of their best have gone on to professional careers in circuses and such; but they've also had lawyers, CEOs and even a member of the Denver school board (Lynn Coleman, Gayla's sister).

The group had to leave the Y back in the 1990s, for reasons best explained in Robin Chotzinoff's "Soar Losers." They now lease the field and welcome visitors and novices who want to chip in and learn the ropes, so to speak. The place is open to the public--except for the next couple of weeks, while the group is preparing their annual show, the only and therefore best free circus in town. (The show takes off August 23 at 7:30 pm--arrive early for a good spot.)

The day of my visit, the rig was attracting a solid crowd of regulars, including Ben Coleman -- who, at eighty, is the eminence grise of the whole operation, having been involved in the club since the 1940s. Benny used to tour with Holiday on Ice, skating around with his little Gayla doing handstands on his head, and he's still got the stuff (see photos below). He managed to nudge his daughter into doing a little trapeze work for the cameras, for the benefit of the kids back in Cambodia.

She did it with a whoop and a graceful plunge to the net. Then returned for a backflip. Yes, she's still got it, too. Along with some videos, pix and a whole teaching unit on the art of the trapeze (did you know the leotard was invented by a trapeze guy named Jules Leotard?), painstakingly researched by a Denver Public Library reference specialist, to take back to her students in Cambodia.

For more on the group's history, the public show, and some amazing videos, check out their website.