By Mark Zaloudek – HeraldTribune.Com
SARASOTA – As a member of one of the most celebrated circus families in the United States, Belmonte Cristiani dazzled audiences worldwide with his acrobatic feats on horseback.
Even though he performed with his nine siblings as The Cristiani Troupe, Belmonte Cristiani, who died Feb. 6 in Sarasota at 91, frequently stood out for his athleticism.
In one act, known as the “Triple Backward Suicide Somersault,” Cristiani and one of his brothers, each standing on separate horses circling an arena, simultaneously somersaulted backward through a hoop and landed on their feet on a moving horse behind them as a third brother dismounted his horse with the same flourish.
The fourth-generation circus performers had entertained European royalty in the 1930s before being hired by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to tour the United States in 1934.
They toured with Ringling for eight years before starting the Cristiani Bros. Circus.
“Belmonte Cristiani was a member of probably the foremost circus family in America outside of the Ringlings,” said circus enthusiast Floyd Kruger, president of Sarasota’s Circus Ring of Fame Foundation.
The Cristianis were honored with a bronze plaque on the Circus Ring of Fame on St. Armands Circle in 1989 alongside such circus luminaries as the flying Wallenda Troupe and clown Emmett Kelly. In 1994, the Cristianis were inducted into the International Circus Hall of Fame in Indiana.
“They became what is considered one of the top equestrian acts in circus history,” Kruger said.
During World War II, Cristiani was drafted into the Army during the height of his career. Being selected to perform in a traveling USO show led to appearances on Broadway in “This Is the Army,” a patriotic play with songs written by Irving Berlin. Cristiani also had an uncredited role as a soldier who sang and performed acrobatics in a 1943 movie by the same name that included singer Kate Smith, boxer Joe Louis and future president Ronald Reagan.
Born April 12, 1917, in Italy, Cristiani learned ballet as a child, like his five brothers and four sisters, to carry on a family circus tradition that dates back to 1840.
Although he later manufactured carnival rides and set them up nationwide for Royal American Shows from 1971 to 1984, Cristiani considered performing with his siblings from their childhood until 1962 to be the highlight of his career, said his daughter, Mia Cristiani-Alvis of Sarasota.
After retiring in 1985, he and his wife helped raise two young nephews and a niece.
A Sarasota resident since 1937, he suffered from lung disease in recent years.
In addition to Cristiani-Alvis, Cristiani is survived by two other daughters: Tina Veder of Ocala and Cheryl Ann Turk of Nyack, N.Y.; two nephews, Jason and Justin Zacchini of Sarasota; a niece, Julie Zacchini of Sarasota; a brother, Pete, of Sarasota; a sister, Corky Cristiani-Bowes of Sarasota; five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A celebration of his life is planned for 12:30 p.m. March 7 at St. Martha Catholic Church in Sarasota.
Memorial donations may be made to the American Lung Association Gulfcoast Area, 12734 Kenwood Lane, Ste. 25, Fort Myers, FL 33907.