The Flying Gaonas are circus royalty. For decades, the Mexican family of trapeze flyers wowed the world over with their flawless form and extraordinary grace. Born into a circus family that traces its roots back to the Circo Gaona y León in Mexico, the trapeze family had in Victor Gaona Murillo a natural leader. Three of his kids (he had six with his wife María Teresa Palencia) would first develop a trampoline act called the Titos. Together, Chela, Mando, and Tito mastered the trampoline and would soon be practicing on the trapeze in their spare time.
By 1962, alongside their father they made their debut as “The Flying Gaonas” at Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros Circus in Palisades Park, New Jersey. For Richie Gaona, the fourth sibling ten years removed from circus superstar Tito (who would go on to regularly perform the elusive and awe-inspiring triple somersault) becoming a trapeze artist was a dream from a young age. “I knew from the get go that I always wanted to be a trapeze artist, or be flying with [my siblings] at some point,” he told Remezcla.
As the documentary film The Flight Fantastic shows, Richie did eventually join his siblings in the air before eventually shifting careers and becoming a successful stuntman. Since his first job on Back to the Future II, Gaona has worked on Marvel properties, Pirates of the Caribbean flicks, and several TV shows, including most recently, Jane the Virgin. Not that he left the trapeze behind. In addition to his stunt work, Richie spent the ’80s working with Circus of the Stars, an annual CBS show that got your favorite TV and movie stars to perform circus acts that ran for close to 20 years. He’s also found a way to keep the art of trapeze alive by teaching classes out of his California home to a wide variety of different people, from celebrities interested in training to kids out of a drug rehab program in the state.
Ahead of The Flight Fantastic’s opening in Los Angeles (on June 17), Remezcla chatted with the charming Gaona flyer about the film, his run-ins with celebrities in his work, and what it feels like to have his family history preserved on screen.
On His Trapeze Career Highlights
Maybe two: one was when I was performing and I was still kind of learning and I was with my father at Circus World and I caught my very first triple somersault. That was a huge thing. That was September 7th, 1977 — I know that date like it happened yesterday! I’ve seen it on film but I can feel it like it was yesterday. Sadly my father wasn’t there that day but back then we had an 8mm camera and we would film everything we were doing or practicing. When I was learning the triple I would film it all the time. Luckily, I have it on film the very first one I caught. That was a very big day for me. I’m very proud of it.
The other big one was the first time I got to perform with my brothers officially, just the four of us. We opened in Australia for the very first time. That was very big for me. But one of the highlights, I would say, was in Geneva or Zurich, when John Ringling North and Henry Ringling North came to visit the show and saw Tito perform again, and I was there for that. It was a big history, full-circle kind of thing because it was John Ringling North who’d brought Tito back to the United States in the Ringling Bros. for over fifteen years. So I got to meet him and his brother before they passed away. It was like being rediscovered by the Ringling Bros. all over again. I know Tito was very nervous that day but when he gets nervous he performs a thousand times better! It’s that adrenaline that flows through him. So he threw all his tricks that night. We were very proud of that performance.
On How The Film Came Together
I’d just finished Circus of the Stars training (I used to teach that show) and I was still doing stunts and I was actually doing a film in San Francisco called Flubber. Tom had called the San Francisco Circus School to ask who can I fly with in the LA area to do trapeze? There was a guy there who knew me very well who gave him my number. He called me up and said, look I’m in the middle of shooting this film but I’m coming down in a few weeks during a break. Actually, before that, he’d left a long message on my phone and, well, Tom’s a well-known director of Broadway and television and some films, but I had no clue who he was. But my ex-wife said, “Oh my god! That’s Tom Moore! He directed ‘night, Mother on Broadway!” She was very impressed because she recognized the name. Eventually Tom came over and we hit it off. And he started taking classes (around 96/97). He got to meet a lot of my family. He was really into the trapeze.
At first he wanted to make a documentary about the history of trapeze. He began interviewing all the old timers who had started doing trapeze and just going through all the historical stuff. It became too big of a thing for him and started focusing more on the family and what we had done, what we were doing, and how we would pass it on eventually. He started concentrating more on the family and it’s the avenue he took. I had a lot of footage that I’d copied to VHS. My brother had all the 8mm in Florida. We have tons of photos. It was lucky that my family was one of those that took a lot of photos and took a lot of movies. So that helped.
On Seeing His Family History On Screen
Yeah. It’s like you know the history but it’s kind of nice hearing Chela talking about Tito, or Tito talking me, or my dad… because you never sit down and say “What do you guys think of each other?” Here is an opportunity that everyone, separately, talked about everyone and how they really felt about each other. When we traveled around, we knew each other but we didn’t vocalize a lot. And in the film you’re like, “Oh, my dad really remembers this and this and that.” I told Tom, “You did the family a great thing here that we can actually pass on to my kids and his kids.” Trapeze is kind of a dying art so if they ask, we can just stick in the DVD and say “This is what we did.” For us, it’s an awesome thing to have.
On Going From Trapeze Artist to Stuntman
We had a friend of the family who was also a trapeze artist who worked as a stuntman. He was in Hollywood and he would travel sometimes with my family. Every summer we were in California he would visit and keep me up on all the movies he was making. At the same time, I wanted to do both. I had said, well I’ll do the trapeze and once I finished high school I went for the trapeze. Eventually though I decided to see if I could do stunt work. It got to a point where traveling was a little bit rough because I’d just had a son and I thought that maybe if I’d stayed in one place he’d go to a regular school. So I moved out to California and got into the stunt work. I got my union actor for the Screen Actors Guild. In one of my first movies I met this second unit director who was getting ready to work on Back to the Future II and he said I’d be good for that movie because there was a lot of wire work. When I did that film that opened the doors to other projects. And at this time I was also contracted to work Circus of the Stars which we’d train for in the summer and shoot in the fall.
On Whether He Gets Starstruck
I got very starstruck with the people I was working with as a stuntman. Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Leo DiCaprio — all these people. But eventually a lot of those people actually came down to my house and train with me. I had Tom Cruise come out to my house a couple of times. I’d met him when I was still touring with the Apple Circus in New York. I get a lot of stars through my classes that I am starstruck by. I had Jackie Chan come up and Tom Cruise, Gisele Bundchen, one of the top models in the world. Claire Danes. We’ve had so many people come down. On Circus of the Stars we had a couple of kids who became huge stars right now. Giovanni Ribisi, for example. He was like 15 when he did that show with me. He was a little brat kid and now he’s a huge star. He’s in everything! We’ve had Frank Zappa’s kids in the show. Towards the end of the Circus of the Stars, we had like Brian Austin Green from 90210 — he did it a couple of times. We had Alfonso Ribeiro from Fresh Prince of Bel Air. They really loved doing that show.
The Flight Fantastic opens at Laemmle’s Music Hall on June 17, 2016 in Los Angeles.