During the World War II era, entertainments such as circuses and vaudeville shows were common in towns all over America.
Cranston had its share of residents who took part in such traveling shows. Some of these entertainers enjoyed a view of life from what felt like the top of the world. But, in reality, they were walking a tightrope between life and death – and for some, the show didn’t go on.
William Rademaker Arley of Holland and his wife, Fernande, of Belgium, lived for many years on Legion Way in Cranston. With their children Richard, Regina and Irene, they made up a vaudeville acrobatic trapeze act that performed for a time with the Barnum & Bailey Circus. On Oct. 26, 1941, the family was traveling to a show when a locomotive crashed into their vehicle, killing William, who was buried in Georgia.
After their 55-year-old father’s untimely death, Richard and Regina continued to take their act on the road. In later years, Richard narrowly escaped death himself. While performing a handstand with Regina, high up in the air on a sway pole, his pole broke. Luckily, he fell against his sister and was able to grab onto her sway pole.
Another Cranston resident, Nicholas Cozzolino, was a theatrical acrobat and part of a trapeze trio known as the Sky-High Thrillers in 1948. The group, managed by United Amusement Shows of East Providence, also included 20-year-old Clodold Beriau and 19-year-old Richard Marchant, both of Massachusetts.
Thirty-year-old Cozzolino had been born in New York and lived with his parents and siblings. He was the only member of his family engaged in circus work, while his father and brothers found their employment with the local railroad, telephone and electric companies.
On May 4, 1948, Cozzolino was performing with the trio at a carnival in Cranston. While hanging from a trapeze bar held by Marchant, the bar slipped off one of the ropes. Cozzolino plunged 110 feet to the ground below. While trapeze ropes were usually inspected prior to performances, no inspection had been done on this particular day because they were using brand new ropes.
Cozzolino was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where it was discovered his injuries included fractures of the hip, spine, pelvis and elbow. A former sergeant with the Army’s 351st Bomb Group, he died from his injuries early the next morning.
Evelyn Sanzi, a Cranston acrobat who began performing with aerialist shows at the age of 12 in 1934, was luckier than Arley and Cozzolino. She survived three accidents and took her talent around the world before retiring in 1956. She passed away in 1987.
Performing with traveling circuses and carnivals may have been exciting and filled with opportunities to experience what the average Rhode Islander is not afforded. But life on the high-wire often came with a high price. And some ended up paying it.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.