For nearly seven decades, members of the Zacchini family donned leather suits and superhero capes and stuffed themselves into the barrel of a cannon to be launched through the air.
Sometimes, traveling more than 90 mph, they soared far enough to clear a few Ferris wheels. The journey ended in a net.
More than a dozen Zacchinis, men and women spanning two generations, performed the stunt throughout the world for carnivals and circuses including Ringling Bros.
The last of these human cannonballs was Hugo Zacchini. He died in his Tampa home Oct. 30 at the age of 88.
“Everyone loved him,” said his son, Tor Curran, 52, who toured and performed alongside his father. “He was outgoing. He was funny. He loved to dance. He was still ballroom dancing every month.”
With a laugh, cousin Mario Zacchini Jr., 64, described Mr. Zacchini as “a real cocky dude who loved the ladies and correcting grammar.
“Hugo hated slang. He said it was for low class people.”
Asked how Mr. Zacchini would want to be remembered, son and cousin agreed – as an entertainer.
“He was a real-deal celebrity,” said friend Luciano Prida, 66. “The whole family was. They were Hollywood. They were known all over.”
Mr. Zacchini attended Plant High School, graduated with two engineering degrees from the University of Florida, and served in the U.S. Army.
It was assumed he would bypass the family business for a white-collar career.
But he couldn’t stay away.
“He loved performing,” Curran said. “He would have kept jumping – what we call it – forever. But one day, age told him enough is enough.”
His last jump was in 1991 at Plant City’s Florida Strawberry Festival. He was 63.
“I jumped until 1996,” Curran said. “But I’m a stepson, so not a Zacchini. So, he was the last of the Zacchinis to jump.”
The performing Zacchinis date back to the early 1900s when Ildebrando Zacchini joined Italy’s Circus Olympia, which he would eventually take over, according to the book Two Hundred Years of the American Circus.
In the early 1920s, Ildebrando’s son, Edmondo Zacchini – Hugo’s father – became the first member of the family to perform the human cannonball stunt, which he perfected and popularized.
“They were world-famous,” said cousin Mario Zacchini Jr. “They performed in Europe, Egypt, Milan, Africa, everywhere. They were independent contractors, so worked for a lot of circuses and carnivals.”
Mr. Zacchini was born in Germany in 1928 while the family was performing there. In 1932, the family moved to Tampa.
“All the carnival people settled in Florida, and Tampa was one of the more popular spots,” cousin Mario said.
Circuses and carnivals took a break in the winter. Living in the Sunshine State allowed them to relax in warm weather since they missed the chance while working summers traveling, he explained.
The family built large, Spanish-style houses along Fountain Boulevard in Palma Ceia. Behind their homes was a shop where they built and repaired the cannons, both single- and double-barreled.
“I remember going to their home and thinking ‘these are real celebrities,’ ” said Clarisse Castro, 72, of Tampa, a distant cousin. “It was a beautiful home where the birds always seemed to be singing. It was where successful people lived.”
Mario Zacchini said the family performed like real-life superheroes.
“Once you left barrel you were in free flight,” he said. “They would fly through the air like Superman, controlling their bodies to land in a net.”
Some of what went on during the performance was an illusion. The cannons flash and smoke came from fireworks and an electrical charge.
How they shot a human being from a cannon remains a family secret.
One popular theory, actually spread by the Zacchini family, has been compressed air.
Not true, Mario Zacchini said.
“They had electricians design a panel with compressed air gauges that flickered light on and off and had fake switches and spinning needles. All a PR thing for reporters. It didn’t do anything.”
In the years following Mr. Zacchini’s retirement, he continued to live off his reputation as a performer while appearing as a celebrity personality for local businesses.
“He would get into the leather suit and take the cannon on location to wherever the advertisers were shooting,” Mario Zacchini said.
“He’d stand in front of it, say a few lines and go home. He loved it. It was a lot easier than being shot out of cannon.”
Contact Paul Guzzo at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.
Hugo Zacchini, who wowed crowds as human cannonball, dead at 88 11/10/16
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