The Barnum neighborhood is named after PT Barnum, of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame. Barnum visited Denver and purchased land in Colorado from 1870 to 1890.
Barnum’s daughter, Helen and her husband Dr. Will Buchtel lived in Denver. Will’s brother, Henry was Governor of Colorado and Chancellor of the University of Denver (DU). During Henry Buchtel’s tenure at DU, in 1916, “gym circuses” were created. These circuses led to the creation of The Imperial Flyers which is the oldest amateur trapeze group in the United States and still flying in the Denver area.
The Flying Trapeze:
In 1921 or 1922, flying trapeze was added at the Alumni Gymnasium at DU. Programs from the “gym circuses” in 1921, mention “three rings” with tumbling, flying rings, gymnastics, group balancing, tight wire, revolving ladder, trampoline, and clowns.
Programs also indicate shows featured boxing, wrestling, gymnastics, acrobatics, dance, “balancing trapeze,” single trapeze, double trapeze, and flying trapeze.
According to the history of the Imperial Flyers, written by Alton Barbour, flying trapeze was moved from DU to the Denver Central YMCA in 1931. The YMCA Circus shows featured single and double trapeze, and a revolving ladder. The Denver YMCA was the only “Y” in the world with a flying trapeze! The Y Circus shows and trapeze introduced show business to many including the Coleman family.
The Coleman Story
In the 1940’s, Ben Coleman was a wrestler who saw the flying trapeze at the Y and was intrigued.
The experience from the Y changed Ben’s life. Ben learned to fly trapeze and started performing professionally on the trampoline and in a double trapeze act with Will Howard at the Denver Coliseum and other venues in Denver.
During the 1950’s Ben joined up with Dave Owensand later Bob Christians, and they took their trapeze, trampoline, and clowning acts on the road. They had met and honed their skills at the downtown Y as part of the flying group. The Y was like a family and offered a place for new performers to learn from more experienced performers.
When Lynn was age three, Ben added a hand-balancing act. Over a three-year period, the Coleman and Owens families traveled together performing from town-to-town in State Fairs across the U.S. and Canada. Their equipment was strapped to the roof of the Coleman’s station wagon and each family had their own small trailer to call “home”. Often their show dates were back-to-back and they had to perform, teardown, drive all night, then set up and perform in another town.
Holiday On Ice:
While on the road, Ben was inspired to convert the hand-balancing act to an ice-skating act. The family learned to skate in one winter. They were hired to join the European tour of Holiday on Ice. In the 1960’s, they traveled with the ice show for two and a half years performing for audiences in arenas, an ancient coliseum, and wrapping up in Israel before returning home to Denver.
Trapeze & Roller Hockey:
The trapeze left the Central YMCA in 1995. In the spirit of the Y, Ben along with others in the trapeze group designed and installed a trapeze in 1998 between two roller hockey rinks at Bladium. Thin Air Trapeze was created as a non-profit to teach trapeze, and this led to performing opportunities. Ben, Lynn, and other trapeze enthusiasts made friends with other Circus performers and Lynn flew as a fill-in flyer with the Flying Lunas in the Shrine Circus, 2002.
Aerial Fabric Acrobatics:
Cirque du Soleil was the inspiration for Lynn’s daughter Tanya to want to perform on aerial silks. In 2002, there were few people doing aerial acts in nightclubs, but the Church nightclub offered Tanya the opportunity to perform.Â Ben was the “rigging” advisor with his 50 plus years of circus experience, and Lynn formed Aerial Fabric Acrobatics as a performing company.
From 2003 to the present time, the company has trained students from the Denver School of the Arts for a performance on aerial silks and bungee trapeze at DenverÂ¹s Pepsi Center, performed weekly aerial silk, hoop, and bungee trapeze shows at The Church nightclub Since 2008,Â there have done monthly shows at 910 Event Gallery in the Denver Santa Fe Arts District. Aerial Fabric continues to perform, teach, including at a Denver Public School. The company designs and sells aerial equipment around the world.
The Creation of the Festival:
In the summer of 2010, Lynn was intrigued with the concept of how aerialists could connect, perform, compete, and learn. She was inspired by two events: Apogaea, the Colorado Regional Burning Man Festival and being a judge for an aerial and pole competition in Hong Kong. At Apogaea, Colorado aerialists were able to share skills. In Hong Kong, aerialists competed, but also were sharing skills.Â This led her to research the standards of Aerial and Circus Festivals around the world.Â With the help of those with more knowledge, the Aerial Acrobatic Arts Festival-Denver took shape.
Coming Full Circle:
The Aerial Acrobatic Arts Festival-Denver is new and will continue to evolve. In line with the Barnum tradition of innovation and discovery, and using standards established in the Circus Festival tradition, the Denver Festival will inspire audiences and aerialists alike. It comes from Lynn’s family tradition of performing, and is a contribution to the long line of circus-based performing families who opened the door for so many. The Festival was created with circus innovation and family tradition.
It is a platform for semi-professional artists to connect, compete, see what is happening in the aerial world, learn new skills, and be inspired.
Newspaper Articles in the Western History Collection of the Denver Public Library
History of the Denver Imperial Flyers By Alton Barbour
The Great And Only Barnum by Candace Fleming
Horse Dung Trail: Saga of American Circus by Joe McKinnon