Mario Zacchini, 87, human cannonball star

Published Jan. 31, 1999|Updated Sept. 28, 2005

One of America's most famed and beloved circus performers died quietly Thursday in Tampa at St. Joseph's Hospital after a lifetime of thrilling crowds to roaring cheers.

Mario Zacchini Sr., 87, was the last of the original Flying Zacchinis, who became famous by being shot out of cannons in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus earlier this century.

The Zacchinis invented the human cannonball act, perfected it and became famous for it. The family left Italy almost 70 years ago, when they were hired by John Ringling to bring their act to America. Mr. Zacchini's brothers and sisters all participated in the act in some way.

In the early days, the entire Zacchini family lived in one house on Fountain Boulevard in Tampa's Hyde Park. As their act became more successful, they spread out through the neighborhood. Although Mr. Zacchini's family no longer lives on Fountain Boulevard, his widow, Lydia, and their three children, Yvonne, Mario Jr. and Tyrone all still live in Tampa, along with several nieces and nephews.

For a while, Mr. Zacchini was shot out of a cannon three times a day. But Mr. Zacchini's career as a human cannonball lasted only 10 years, cut short by an accident at the 1940 World's Fair in New York. He landed wrong after being launched over a Ferris wheel and broke his spine, shoulder and some ribs.

Although his days as a human cannonball were over, Mr. Zacchini was still an entertainer. He couldn't help it. It was in his blood. He worked in carnivals, even putting his own amusement park rides together and taking them on the road. He also worked as a movie stuntman, but he later said in interviews that he couldn't stand all the waiting involved in filmmaking.

In recent years, Mario dressed as a clown to entertain children at hospitals, his widow said.

"He was a fun guy. He loved everybody," she said. "He loved to entertain, to make people laugh," she said.

According to his nephew Hugo, who was shot out of a cannon some 5,000 times during his own career, Mr. Zacchini was a master with a lasso and perfected tricks that amazed crowds.

"My uncle was one of the best gauchos this country has ever known," Hugo told the Times nine years ago for a feature story about Mr. Zacchini. "He was a better performer as a lasso man than he was as a human cannonball."

In that article, Mr. Zacchini's youngest son, Tyrone, marveled at his father's lifelong career as an entertainer. "He's the last of the old-time performers," Tyrone said. "After he's gone, there won't be anybody else."

The Zacchini family will be receiving friends from 7 to 9 p.m. today at Blount Curry & Roel Funeral Home on Armenia Avenue. Funeral services are at noon Tuesday at the funeral home. Burial will be at Myrtle Hill Memorial Park.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.