The Villams thrilled crowds at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay from 1982 through 1994, juggling clubs and hurtling rings with a Hungarian stage name that translates to the word “lightning.”
Their claim to fame — “The World’s Fastest Jugglers” — had been verified since at least 1960, when Janos and Ilona Csikasz, the couple performing as The Villams, appeared in black and white on television during their breakout performance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Janos and Ilona Csikasz, now in their early 80s and retired in Valrico, enjoyed a globe-trekking career launched in Hungary during the depths of the Cold War.
“I was born in a circus caravan in front of the city hall in Vaskut,” said 83-year-old Janos, whose family was involved in a small traveling circus. Ilona, born in Budapest 82 years ago, had ballet aspirations. “My mother and father had nothing to do with show business,” she said.
Their young lives were shaped by the bitter realities of Central Europe in the throes of World War II. That was soon followed by the heavy communist hand of the Soviet regime that controlled everyday life in Hungary, a nation with borders that had been reshaped during the previous decades by sociopolitical upheaval, regional struggles and international conflicts.
Janos remembers there were no beggars on the streets of communist Hungary. Everybody worked. “You had to find a job. If you weren’t good at one thing, you’d have 30 days to find another job.” He said the government would assign a job to those who didn’t meet the deadline. He was enrolled at the Artists’ School in Budapest and excelled in various areas, including the trapeze. That’s also where Ilona went after her hopes at ballet school were dashed.
“They told my mother I was too short to be a ballerina,” Ilona said. Her mother sent her and her twin sister to the Artists’ School at the suggestion of the ballet teacher. “But they didn’t take my sister,” Ilona said. “I became a very good juggler, and at Christmastime they gave me all the clubs and rings I needed. I took them home and taught my brother how to use them. When I went back, I told them, ‘I have a brother, he can juggle.’ They said, ‘Bring him in.’ ”
A troupe of five jugglers was formed around Ilona, her brother, Janos, and two other men. They became known as The Five Villams.
Meanwhile, tensions grew within Hungary. Citizens despised the communist grip, triggering the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Initially led by students, the armed uprising turned bloody. The Soviets crushed the revolution, and more than 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees.
For Janos and Ilona, juggling became their path to freedom. Graduating from the Artists’ School in 1957 after a half-decade of training, they married the following year and hit the stage performing with The Five Villams. They dazzled audiences throughout Europe with their acrobatic routines, including a three-person-high finale involving four jugglers passing a dozen clubs at a time.
The act caught the eye of Ed Sullivan. His iconic weekly variety show on CBS featured performers including singers, comedians and novelty acts. Countless performers rose to fame on the show, and it’s where The Five Villams got their big break on Oct. 23, 1960.
“He was very nice, very professional,” Janos said of Sullivan, one of the most celebrated entertainment impresarios of the mid 20th century.
They returned to The Ed Sullivan Show once more and hit television screens many other times during the 1960s and ’70s on popular programs including The Flip Wilson Show and The Merv Griffin Show. The troupe was invited for performances before royalty in Great Britain and Sweden. It also took to the stage for a 1977 Jerry Lewis revival of the 1938 vaudeville revue Hellzapoppin’.
By 1979, Janos and Ilona had seen their troupe shrink from five members to just the two of them. The husband-and-wife duo’s juggling adventures on stages around the world soon led them to a permanent future in the Tampa Bay area.
They began their first of several long-running stints as a headlining act in the Stanleyville Theater variety show at Busch Gardens in 1982, the year they became naturalized citizens of the United States. Janos remembered their run at Busch Gardens as the best gig they ever had. “Everybody there became like family to us,” he said.
Performing as many as four shows a day, often in scorching heat and high humidity in what was then the semioutdoor Stanleyville Amphitheater, had its challenges. One of them had nothing to do with inclement weather. “We had always played with a band, and they followed us,” Janos said. “(At Busch Gardens) we had to follow a tape. It affected our timing.”
Even through the hardest times in their lives, Janos said, his and Ilona’s job was to help the audience escape its cares. “The audience can sense your energy,” he said. “They were there, and we needed to make them smile, make them happy. The show must go on!”
And go on it did. The Villams went on to perform periodically at Busch Gardens through 1994. During their earlier years at the theme park, Janos and Ilona made their home in their fifth-wheel trailer at the adjacent Busch Gardens Travel Park, which was on land now occupied by Adventure Island and closed around 1990. “We never really lived anywhere because we were traveling in show business,” Janos said.
Between their engagements at Busch Gardens, Janos and Ilona toured the United States in their sport utility vehicle, making a home in their travel trailer wherever work took them. On breaks, they returned to Hungary to visit family and friends. They also stayed in the Tampa area between performance destinations around North America.
They actively worked into their mid 60s as jugglers and developed a popular plate-spinning act. Receiving many offers from entertainment outfits, they were considering a contract from the likes of Cirque du Soleil when their lives took an abrupt turn.
About 15 years ago, Ilona was running errands by car in the Brandon area when another motorist struck her vehicle. She suffered a serious ankle injury and was unable to perform. Her injuries eventually healed, and Ilona would again walk under her own power. But she and Janos decided it was time to drop the curtain on their stage career.
Their daughter launched a business in the mortgage industry in Virginia, and their grandson flourishes in the musical arts there. With both having charted successful careers in their respective fields, Janos and Ilona sold most of their equipment and retired in the Tampa area.
They traded their home on wheels for a house in a leafy subdivision. “The weather is good here,” Janos said. “And Ilona, she doesn’t like it too cold.” Nearly 40 years after first hitting the stage at nearby Busch Gardens, they still stay in touch with many friends they made there.
Memories of a lifetime on stage adorn their walls. Extravagant costumes, custom-made in Paris, now hang with care in a bedroom closet. A few juggling clubs remain for occasional recreation. Nearby stands a stack of suitcases brimming with playbills, posters, brochures and newspaper clippings chronicling the couple’s six decades in show business.
Ilona, pointing to a certificate on the wall memorializing The Villams’ 1971 Royal Variety Performance before Queen Elizabeth II at the London Palladium, reminisced about meeting the queen in person. “After the show, she came out to greet all the artists and shake our hands.”
Queen Elizabeth II told The Villams they were “very good.”