An adult patron at Egypt Lake Library, trying to focus on computer research, soon gives up and leaves.
Nothing is quite so distracting as a man pedaling a unicycle around the bookshelves, seemingly always on the verge of a spill and shouting in panic as his young audience squeals.
Quiet time at Egypt Lake has been suspended for the half-hour performance of the Fritzy Brothers One-Man Circus. Fritzy, also known as Steve Lombardo, juggles a basketball, baseball and Tic Tac breath mint, eats fire, conducts a volunteer cowbell band and engages in wiseguy patter.
"What's your name?"
"How old are you, Kevin?''
It's just another day at the office for Lombardo, 51, who has managed to make a living as a unicycling stunt clown for more than 30 years in the Tampa Bay area, performing at library shows, birthday parties, grand openings, corporate gatherings and special events. Recently, the Citrus Park resident juggled while balancing on a giant, rolling baseball in a show after a Tampa Bay Rays game.
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His life started revolving around a single wheel when he was a teenager living in Chicago. He saw a unicyclist pedaling through his neighborhood. Everyone was looking at him, and Lombardo wanted that kind of attention. He begged his mother to buy him a unicycle, and after a couple of years, she relented and presented him one for Christmas.
It took him about a day of practice to travel 30 yards on it, his arms flailing, he recalls. "It took about a year to get it to go where I wanted it to go.''
Eager to be a performer, he was working at a bank in 1980 when a musician cousin called from Tampa and told him that a man opening a restaurant wanted to hire a full-time entertainer.
For the next decade, Lombardo wore lederhosen while clowning at the Matterhorn Hofbrau House, a now-defunct German restaurant that packed in the crowds, many of them senior citizens on buses, who ate Wiener schnitzel and swayed to the oompah band.
It was there that Lombardo named his act. Actually, a friend came up with the Fritzy Brothers One-Man Circus. Lombardo repeated it to himself, telling his friend that it doesn't make any sense.
"He said, 'I know, but you just said it three times. So they'll remember the name.' ''
Always adjusting his act, Lombardo learned such performance staples as walking a tightrope and eating fire, and now he's practicing balancing on a ladder while juggling. He has had a few mean spills, he says. Though he has never broken a bone during his act, he has endured injuries, one time cutting his lip so severely in midshow that he had to butterfly-bandage it shut and finish the act without smiling.
Blood is never good during a performance, he notes, imagining a traumatized tyke's response: "I don't want Fritz to come to my party. There was blood last year.'' He breaks into riotous laughter, his face reddening, which often happens when he tells a story.
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His normal fee is $500 for 45 minutes, though he did the library performance for $275. Now that his three daughters are grown, he wants to go on the road to state fairs, which pay very well. His best gig ever was the Pasco County Fair about six years ago, when he earned $900 a day for a week, he said.
He and his wife, Pamela, a stay-at-home mom, raised their daughters largely through the act. He says he managed to work exclusively as an entertainer for about 25 years. But, like so many businesses, stunt clowning has seen a decline in the last few years, and Lombardo supplements his income as a housepainter and deck builder.
Pamela was a customer at the Matterhorn when they met. Fritz sat on her lap and asked her to marry him. Two years later, she said yes. Their daughters, who as teenagers rolled their eyes at their father's antics out of embarrassment, were part of the act as toddlers.
Pamela, 49, would sit in the audience and pretend to be a stranger, offering up a little one to ride on the shoulders of the unicyclist.
She was worried at first, though. "I knew he could ride a unicycle better than he could walk,'' she says.
"All the other moms were looking at me like I was nuts.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.