"Flying isn't the hard part; landing in the net is."

Well they came to town
With the elephants and clowns
On a hot and sticky August day
Every telephone pole
Had a poster that told
Of the thrills that were coming our way

There were trapeze flyers
A man that ate fire
And things that we never dreamed existed
And the radio and TV told us we'd be fools if we dared to miss it.

All three rings held wondrous things
Marvels of every invention
But the shroud draped shape of the cannon in the corner
Increasingly drew our attention

There were bareback riders
Lions and tigers
And the clowns in their itty-bitty cars
But every woman and man
And child in the stands had come to see the star

Hugo, was the eldest of nine children of Ildebrando Zacchini, a gymnast who ran away with a circus and subsequently created the Circus Olympia in Italy in the early 1900s. Ildebrando was the first to come up with the idea of a "Human Cannonball" and Hugo was the first to fly in 1922 on the island of Malta. The attraction created such a sensation that soon two teams of flying Zacchinis were crisscrossing Europe. Eventually five of the seven brothers flew from a cannon.

Then a hush fell over the crowd
As the men pulled the shroud
From the muzzle that was thirty feet long
And to screams and cheers
And he suddenly appeared and flamboyantly bowed to the throng
He wore red sequined tights
That sparkled in the lights
And boots that came to his knees
And a chromium football helmet
And a cape that flapped in the breeze
And the dazzled crowd shouted out loud
You could hear them one and all
We want Hugo! Hugo! Hugo! Hugo!
The Human Cannonball

John Ringling discovered the Zacchinis performing in the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark, and brought them to the Ringling Circus by 1929, the nephew said. Hugo and his brother Burno, introduced the human cannonball act to the Ringling show. In 1934, Hugo and another brother, Victor, began performing a double cannonball act, being catapulted nearly simultaneously. Mario, the youngest replaced Victor that year

After the Zacchini family's contract with Ringling expired in the late 1930s, Mario Zacchini continued to be a human cannonball at circuses and carnivals and at the World's Fair in New York. He retired from cannoneering in the early 1940s and put together his own carnival, which toured the United States for years.

The aim was carefully calculated
The trajectory was precise
The gunpowder charged was measured and poured
Into the into the loading device
The fuse was trimmed
The lights were dimmed
Hugo slid down the barrel and then
And all was ready and
Hugo's Daddy counted down from

TEN! And the drums rolled
NINE! And our blood ran cold
EIGHT! The ambulance stood by
SEVEN! Several women cried
SIX! The spotlight hit the net
FIVE! No one would ever forget
FOUR! Eternity passed
THREE! Every heartbeat fast
TWO! And the silence was broken by
"Are you veady Hugo?"
ONE! And from the bowels of the gun
"I'm-a ready papa!"
    -BOOM-


A decade later the next generation of Zacchinis took up human cannonballing, performing with the Ringling circus from 1958 to 1963. In 1965 there were five different Zacchini cannon acts performing around the United States. Aside from the original five brothers who took flight, eventually two of their daughters also became human bullets (Duina and Egle Victoria).Hugo, who is a son of Mario's brother Edmondo, said he was the last Zacchini to be a human cannonball; his final flight was on Aug. 29, 1991. The Zacchinis also suffered several serious accidents, including one, where two of them collided in mid air having been simultaneously shot from opposing cannons.

While the Zacchinis always acknowledged that their shattering cannon blasts were purely sound effects (achieved by igniting half a cup of black gunpowder), they never revealed the secret of the Zacchini launching mechanism, to deter copycats. But other circus performers have said that the propulsion was accomplished by a jolt of compressed air that moved a platform upon which the performers stood. These days, many human cannonballs from other circus families are launched with elastic bungee cords


Well fire and smoke belts out of the boar
And the earth trembled for a while
And the big gun roared and Hugo soared
Through the air like a projectile
250 feet he flew, like an air force fighter jet
But at the apex of his trajectory he knew
He was going to miss the net!

Arms flailing, he kept on sailing,
That terrified screaming creature
And the crowd scattered as
Hugo splattered all over the upper bleacher

In the aftermath of the tragedy
Disbelief filled every face
There was Hugo,
And there was Hugo
There was Hugo all over the place

Well the dust has finally settled now
And the smoke has finally cleared
And Hugo's name and Hugo's fame will always be revered
But no one ever took his place, no matter whom they were
Because the never found another man of Hugo's calibre.


The younger Hugo also had his share of celebrity. (apart from being launched from a giant cannon, that is...)


In 1977, the Supreme Court addressed for the first time the right of publicity doctrine in a case named Zacchini v. Scripps. Hugo Zacchini, a performer known as 'The Human Cannonball', would perform an act in which he was shot from a cannon and land on a net some 200 feet away. A videotape of the entire 15-second act was shown during an evening news program without Zacchini's consent. In determining that the broadcast violated Zacchini's right of publicity, the Supreme Court established two key concepts that are still in effect today. First, the Supreme Court held that each state had the power to enact right of publicity statutes that could be crafted to protect not only a person's image, but their name, voice or other singular characteristics. Second, The Supreme Court explained in Zacchini that First Amendment interests may override the right of publicity.

However, the Court did not fully explain how such a determination would be made. The Court did find that broadcasting his entire act had severely hurt Zacchini's economic interests, because those who saw it on television would have little incentive to pay a fee to see a live performance of the act. However, the Court also found that Zacchini's rights would not have been violated if something less than the complete act had been shown. Significantly, the Court did not indicate how much of the 15-second clip could be eliminated until the point was reached where the broadcaster's First Amendment rights would outweigh the right of publicity.


This entertainment continues today by a handful of male & female performers. Recently (February 9, 2002) , Ermes "the Human Cannonball" Zamperla was injured when he missed the air bag target by some 25 feet during a show at the Florida State Fair. He flew about 100 feet.


The circus' main attraction,
The greatest star of all,
It was Hugo! Hugo! Hugo! Hugo!
The Human Cannonball.


And in case you were wondering, most of the Zacchinis have died peacefully in their beds, of old-age related ailments.

Lyrics are by Ray Stevens, but I originally heard them spoken as a campfire story.

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