With a face that alternates between joy and panic, Steve Lombardo glides his tall unicycle through the crowd and pretends at times as if he’s about to plunge headlong into the spectators, only to recover at the last moment. As Fritzy Brothers One-Man Circus, Lombardo has been clowning at grand openings, corporate events, county fairs, libraries and parties for 40 years. He recently performed at the grand opening of the new St. Pete Pier. When entertaining is slow – as it is now with the coronavirus pandemic – he works at his other business, building decks and docks.
He got his start at the long-defunct Matterhorn Hofbrau House, hired by the late owner, Hans Frischknect, to be Fritzy, who, decked out in lederhosen, rode among the tables on his unicycle, juggling and clowning with the crowd. Lombardo, 59, said he’s in the best shape of his life and has no plans to retire. He talked with the Tampa Bay Times about his life on the big wheel.
What made you first want to ride a unicycle?
At the time (age 13), I didn’t know until years later that I went through a little bout of depression. I had no idea what it was, of course, at that time. I just knew I was a little sorrowful. And I felt like, man, I don’t think I ever could laugh again. And then I saw this guy ride this six-foot unicycle and everybody was pointing at him and smiling, and I just lit up.
And I was like, “Oh, my gosh, man, that’s fantastic'' … I felt like I was sorrowful and here he made me happy. And I thought if I could make other people happy when they’re feeling sad, what a great thing to do. And I had no idea that God would make it … for me to have a living doing it and was able to do it for so long. I just feel honored to have had that opportunity. And I still think that it’s not over. I’m very optimistic. I still believe the best is yet to come, really.
You have said that you got your first unicycle for Christmas.
My mom said, “Everybody’s going to get what they want for Christmas.” And my brother Joe … I don’t remember what he wanted, but I wanted a unicycle, and my brother Billy wanted a three-piece suit (laughs). We all got what we wanted, and I pretty much learned on Christmas Day how to ride that thing from one end of the basement to the other ... I kept falling and it didn’t matter ... I mean, I was literally at it for 13, 14 hours that day.
How did you decide on the name, Fritzy Brothers One-Man Circus?
Barney Barnhart (the late drummer in the Matterhorn band) was sitting down with me and said, “You need to come up with a name'‘... And he came up with a few different ones and he said that one, Fritzy Brothers One-Man Circus. And I repeated it three times, a little bit different each time. And then I just said, “Barn, it doesn’t make sense.‘' He said, “Yeah, but you said it three times. At least they’ll remember the name.‘'
Was the Matterhorn your first paid gig?
It sure was. I worked at First National Bank of Chicago … But my cousin Jeff was working at a place called the Oom Pah Pah in St. Petersburg, where Hans was in the band. At that time, he was building the Matterhorn, and Jeff asked me if I wanted to move to Florida. Of course, I was tired of the cold, brutal winters in Chicago and I knew that Florida was where I wanted to be anyway. He said, “I think I could get an entertaining job for you,‘' and I thought, let’s do this. Sure enough, he set it up for me.
You juggle and spin a rope on the unicycle, get up on tall stilts and have even walked a tightrope – three feet off the ground – at the Matterhorn. How did your act evolve?
Prior to the first night, when I first moved here, the Matterhorn wasn’t open yet, so I was just helping countersink nails into the dance floor, and Hans was teaching me different plumbing, different electrical work and carpentry skills ... as he was building the restaurant. And he would also say, “Hey, I want you to play the cowbells when this place opens.” So an hour out of the day he would have me practice “Lili Marlene'' and “Edelweiss” on the cowbells. So I knew two songs.
And the show itself pretty much developed while we were performing. He would just tell me, “If something works, we’ll keep it in the show. If it doesn’t, we’ve got a new audience, try something new tomorrow.‘' So it was constantly changing and I didn’t know at the time he was creating for me the opportunity to literally create a show that catered to all ages, because we had busloads of senior citizens come in, we had families come in, we had teenagers come in that were doing competition for German class in their high schools.
Have you ever actually crashed into the audience?
I remember coming down unexpectedly and pushing myself into a chair, and that person got pushed into the table. And my wheel got stuck into another chair that was pushing that person into their table. And I was stuck. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place. And everyone’s looking at me like, “What do we do?” And I told the person (on the other side), “Pull the table toward you'' … That was really the worst time that happened ...
Were they good sports? Did Hans get sued?
No, everyone seemed for the most part to stay a good sport about everything there.