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The Ringling Honors the Stars of the Big Top during Circus Celebrity Night

Victoria Unus

The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art will honor stars of the American Circus during the annual Circus Celebrity Night Award event.

First awarded in 1970, the Circus Celebrity Awards are given to circus performers and innovators who helped to establish the American circus into the preeminent form of live family entertainment. During the 2015 ceremony, three performers will receive accolades including Circus Celebrity honoree Victoria Unus and Greats of the Past Galla Shawn and Unus.  Heidi Herriott will host the awards ceremony, which will begin at 7 p.m. on Jan. 24 in the Historic Asolo Theater. No tickets are required to attend, but seating is limited.

“The Museum would not exist without the circus,” Steven High, executive director of The Ringling said. “So it is important for The Ringling to continue to document the history of the circus as well as honor the performers responsible for creating and maintaining this unique American institution.”

Full details on the honorees:

Victorica Unus, 2015 Circus Celebrity

Victoria Unus was born into a family of circus performers. Her father Franz Furtner was the acclaimed performer Unus, and her mother Valentina Furtner was his assistant. Young Victoria took no interest in the circus until a performance by her father at Madison Square Garden swayed her to begin training at the age of 15. Victoria spent hundreds of hours practicing and choreographing a routine with the celebrated trainer Wolfgang Roth. She became a featured performer at the Sarasota High School’s Sailor Circus, and after her graduation from high school she debuted with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Prior to the 1963 circus season, press promised that a new star would emerge under the big top of “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Originally billed as “La Toria,” Victoria fulfilled her potential as an aerialist to become that promised circus star. Her performance included acts of amazing strength including aerial splits, hand stands and other poses, but “La Toria” was best known for looping one-arm swings, where she would twirl in consecutive rotations as a Ringmaster shouted out the count. Her record for swings is said to be 250.

Victoria was a featured performer on the Ringling show during the 1960s and 70s. She also performed in circuses in Germany and Spain and made appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “To Tell the Truth” and in the John Wayne movie “Circus World.” She retired in her prime in 1977 to a standing ovation.

Galla Shawn (1934-1992), 2015 Great of the Past

Born on a circus lot in Sioux Falls, S.D., Shawn (Mary “Tiny” Gallagher) was born into a family of acrobats, and she was practicing balancing by age 6.  She performed in a teeter board act with her five brothers and two sisters as a child performer before moving on to the act that would make her famous—the trapeze.

Shawn’s act took her 40 feet in to the air where she would balance her head on the trapeze with spinning hoops on each arm and leg. She would conclude her act by switching to another trapeze where she would spin upside down. Shawn’s act was a feature show during the 1957 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey season. She spent eight years with Ringling including as a member of the first American circus troupe to visit the Soviet Union. She appeared in other circuses including Shrine shows in the U.S. and Cirque Bouglione in Europe. She also appeared in the movies “The Ring of Fire” and as Zsa Gabor’s stunt double in “Three Ring Circus.”

Unus (1907-1994), 2015 Great of the Past

Best known for his trademark one-finger hand balancing act, Unus (Franz Furtner) went from the son of an Austrian lumber cutter to one of the most acclaimed acts of his era. Known as the “Great Unus,” his act took to him to great heights including 180 feet above Royal Albert Hall in London, and it is said that John Ringling North witnessed one of Unus’ hand balancing stunts on a building above Brussels.

He debuted in the Ringling show in 1948 as, “the upside-down, gravity defying, equilibristic wonder, the debonair, incredible Unus, the man who walks on his forefinger.” He performed with the Ringling until 1965, performing for famous figures including President Eisenhower and Ernest Hemingway. Unus was on the cover of Time Magazine, and he appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Jackie Gleason Show.”

The awards are selected by a panel of judges comprised of former performers, circus fans and scholars. In 2014, The Ringling honored Nik Wallenda, The Rudynoffs and Felix Adler. Established in 1970, the Circus Celebrity award has been handed out annually since 1993.

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