When Eliza Jane Banks was a little girl, she never dreamed that one day, she would be a famous circus star, performing daring feats on the flying trapeze.
She was born on October 8, 1886, in London, England, and came to Saginaw with her parents when she was just a baby. When she was 18 years old, she met a young Welch entertainer, Melzer Thomas, at the Jeffers-Strand Theater. They were married, and when she expressed an interest in his acrobatics, he installed a bar in an archway of their home and taught her everything he knew. She later said that he was a good teacher and she was a good pupil.
In 1912, they joined the Walter L. Main circus as an act they originally called the Flying Thomases. Told that “Thomas” wasn’t exotic enough for circus performers, they became the Flying Melzoras. They travelled all over, appearing at fairs and amusement parks as well as circuses, but always wintered in Saginaw. Saginaw had more circus acts than any other town, due to the huge piles of sawdust that made it easy to practice dangerous stunts.
Later the Melzoras built a huge barn behind their house on Collingwood, equipped with all the apparatus a trapeze act needed to stay in shape and experiment with new tricks. During the off-season, Jane ran a non-profit school for would-be trapeze artists and neighborhood kids were allowed to watch—if they behaved. Many of her students went on to become circus performers. All of them profited from the physical training and discipline they learned.
Jane and Melzer had three boys, Melzer (Buster), Raymond and Bill, who all joined the act as miniature clowns as soon as they could walk. At seven, they started learning to fly. Since there were no girls, Bill, the youngest, had to fly in a blonde wig and tutu which he hated. While a lot of youngsters ran away from prosaic lives to join the circus, Bill may have been the only one who ran away from the circus to become a CPA. The act finally got a real girl when Ray married Ann.
After Melzer and Jane divorced, the boys stayed with “Mom.” She was one of the very few women catchers in the world. It required not only great physical strength but split-second timing since the catcher had to grab a projectile—the flyer—hurtling through the air at 60 miles per hour. Most men catchers won’t work with a flyer who weighs more than 140 pounds. Jane’s sons weighed 180 and 185—40 pounds more than their mother. She said the only reason she was able to catch them was because she’d been doing it almost every day since they were seven years old.
Her son Buster, the star of the show, praised his mother’s skill. “She strives for perfection,” he said, “If we miss a trick, she makes us practice until we have it perfect. She is one of the very few catchers who always makes a proper catch by snatching the flyer at the wrists. Most catchers grab the flyer anywhere between the wrist and shoulder.” Ray was equally thankful for her skill. After losing a leg below the knee in an accident, he flew as a clown with a specially-made artificial leg, making him a little more difficult to catch.
Jane retired in 1938 when she was 52 but came out of retirement when her replacement joined the Seebees in World War II. In 1944, Buster, Ray and Ann were starring with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and Jane was preparing to join them when she got word of the greatest tragedy in circus history. The big top had caught fire and 168 people were killed. Fortunately, the Melzoras were safe.
They all opened with a show that fall in Cleveland and Jane remained with the act until she was 65, the oldest woman aerialist ever. At 71 she decided to paint the barn, swinging from a scaffold to do so. Asked if she was going to slow down she said, “The trouble with too many old people is that they just climb into a rocking chair and rock to their graves.” She continued to work out in the barn, using the trapeze until she was 80.
Jane Thomas died February 3, 1974 at the age of 87.
She was inducted into the Circus Hall of Fame in Sarasota, Florida, in 1966. She was honored by the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame and the Jane Melzora Ring of Model Circus Builders is named in her memory.
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