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Rene Zacchini left circus to serve in Florida House, Tampa and circuit court

TAMPA — For a while, Rene Zacchini seemed destined to take after his famous family — daredevils and acrobats who could shoot themselves out a cannon further and higher than anyone else.

He performed at Army bases and state fairs and enjoyed the camaraderie. But by the time he finished college, the youngest member of the Flying Zacchinis had chosen another path.

He became a lawyer, then a circuit judge. He ran for office and served two terms in the state's House of Representatives, where he chaired a committee on consumer fraud.

Mr. Zacchini died April 13 of kidney failure. He was 80.

"He wanted to give the Zacchini name a good boost from another direction," said his brother, Hugo Zacchini, better known as the "Human Cannonball."

Mr. Zacchini was the youngest of five children of Edmondo Zacchini, who perfected the human-cannonball act, flying 100 feet through the air. Edmondo's father, Ildebrando Zacchini, started the family business more than a century ago with a traveling circus that toured Europe and Africa. The family moved to Tampa in the mid 1930s.

Mr. Zacchini graduated from Plant High School in 1947. He attended the University of Florida, joining his family over the summer at state fairs in places like Wisconsin and Minnesota.

After shows, Mr. Zacchini and Hugo watched bejeweled dancers from Chicago and New York.

"We loved those shows," Hugo Zacchini said.

Then Mr. Zacchini met Joan Shipley in Gainesville. "They started going out, and boom," his brother said.

They married in 1954, the same year Mr. Zacchini graduated from the University of Florida's law school and was drafted into the Army. Hugo also was drafted.

The Army put the brothers to work staging an acrobatic variety show for troops across the country and in the Far East.

In 1956, Mr. Zacchini returned to Tampa and set up a law practice.

He ran for state representative in 1962. He won the seat despite being derided by a few locals.

"They would make inferences that maybe he was happier in tights than in a suit," his brother said. "It would kind of upset him."

Mr. Zacchini ran again in 1964, defeating his opponent by a 2-to-1 margin.

He chaired a legislative committee investigating commercial fraud, particularly in the home-repair market.

He advocated for statewide laws that would make it easier to prosecute fly-by-night companies that set up a business in one part of the state and conducted it in another.

"For years, lawyers have been reluctant to take such cases, because the chances of recovery are so slim," Mr. Zacchini lamented in 1966.

In 1968, Tampa Mayor Dick Greco appointed Mr. Zacchini to serve as his assistant city attorney, a position he held for four years.

"He came from a prominent show-business family, but he was very quiet," said Greco. "He took all of his responsibilities very seriously."

He continued to visit his family performances at fairs and circuses, where he and his brother would recall their younger years.

"We always had that to fall back on," his brother said. "I wasn't too much interested in Tampa politics or whatever. But he was interested in what I did on the road."

In 1972, Mr. Zacchini was elected to a circuit judgeship, and served on the bench six years.

He returned to private practice, retiring in 1992 to get a real estate license and manage the family's properties.

Mr. Zacchini and his wife moved to Sarasota eight years ago.

As he lay in recent weeks at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, Hugo Zacchini sat by his bed. He reminded Mr. Zacchini about the old days with the circus, and the good times they had.

"I hope it brought him some good memories," he said.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]


Rene Anthony Zacchini

Born: March 28, 1930.

Died: April 13, 2010.

Survivors: Wife Joan; brother Hugo; one grandson; and several nieces, nephews and cousins.

Rene Zacchini left circus to serve in Florida House, Tampa and circuit court 04/21/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 21, 2010 11:50pm]
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