This event is such an honor for me. At the same time, it is also a humbling experience to be including in the Ring of Fame with many of the greatest names in circus history. I regret that because of my present physical condition and that of my husband’s, we cannot attend and partake of this great honor. I will, however, share with you some of the remembrances of my life as a High Wire Walker.
I was born in 1924 in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, to a 3rd generation circus family of trapeze and high wire artists. My father was Joseph Berosini, a renowned Czechoslovakia performer. My mother, Magdalene, was also Czechoslovakian but did not come from a circus background. I began my performing career at a very young age. My father started training me on the wire at three and I was performing shortly after that.
At 6 years old, I remember traveling to Russia where we stayed for 4 years. During that time, I received a metal from Stalin. He gave it to me as a child for my performance of standing on my father’s shoulders as he walked across the wire 60 feet in the air. At that time, the act included my father, my two uncles and me.
I remember that we were always working hard to improve our act and later we developed an extraordinary “Three High”. This included my father as the bottom man, with my uncle riding on his shoulders, and then me riding atop my uncle’s shoulders. My father would carry us all to the middle of the wire and then stop. At that point, I would slowly rise to my feet and stand on my uncle’s shoulders. From there, I would carefully step with both feet on top of my uncle’s head. After I was standing on my uncle’s head, my father would then lift one of his feet off the wire and balance using only one leg. At that same moment, I would begin to raise my leg and hold it up above my head while balancing with one foot atop my uncle’s head. This was done without a net at 60 feet.
In those days, we traveled back and forth across Europe. In 1939 we were booked into the Winter Garden in Berlin, Germany. During that time, Adolph Hitler came to one of our performances, and afterwards I was brought to his private box to meet him. Although I was only 14 years old, I looked so much younger because I was thin and delicate. Surrounded by a number of people, Hitler made the most of this political opportunity. He smiled and asked me if I was afraid doing such dangerous things so high in the air. When I answered, “No”, everyone watching applauded and laughed with delight. Hitler took special interest in our act because he thought we were leaving shortly to represent Germany at the upcoming World’s Fair in New York. Little did he know that my father had helped many escape the terror of his regime. If that had been discovered, it would have been the end of all of us.
We were, indeed, booked to perform at the World’s Fair, but not to represent Hitler’s Germany. This idea would, however, prove to work in our favor and help save many others trying to escape. These were very tense times.
We crossed the Atlantic on a ship with a number of Jews who narrowly escaped Hitler’s murderous wrath. In fact, right before our ship was ready to leave the dock, there was a surprise boarding by a number of Hitler’s henchmen. They wanted to stops its departure. My uncle, who was clever and had a wonderful gift of gab, convinced them that they must let the ship leave immediately. He explained that we had just performed at the Winter Garden, and we had been chosen by Hitler to represent Germany at the opening ceremonies of the World’s Fair! In order to arrive on time, the ship needed to depart immediately. After a few phone calls, the ship was released and on its way. The passengers were so elated that they picked my uncle up and carried him around the ship on their shoulders. He had become their hero. Thanks to my uncle’s intervention, we arrived on time, and no one was taken off the ship.
After the World’s Fair we traveled across America performing at Fairs, Amusement Parks, Circuses, and Nightclubs. Our act was always in demand because of its intensity and danger. By this time, my brother Otto was working with us and we were performing some difficult pyramid routines. I was also the first woman to perform the Walk Up and Walk Down.
The Walk Up and the Walk Down is how we started and ended our act. While the rest of the troupe climbed to the top of the wire using a ladder, the spotlight featured me as I walked up the wire anchored from the ground that rose at a 45 degree angle to join the horizontal wire where we performed. Doing this required great strength and balance because of the steep angle and the height at which we worked. I only carried a fan for balance. It was one of the special features that made our act unique. Also the pyramids done together with my father and brother were extraordinary. I attribute this ability as a troupe to my father’s skill as a performer. He was a master at what he did and he passed that knowledge on to us.
In 1949 and 1950 my life changed dramatically. 1949, while working on the Pollack show, I met a handsome High School Rider from the famous Konyot family named Alex. He was so well educated, charming and good-looking that it wasn’t long before he captured my heart and became the man of my dreams. Three years later, in 1952, we were married.
In 1950, just when things seemed perfect, I was in love, the act was at its pinnacle, a horrible tragedy happened that devastated everyone. My beloved brother, Otto, was checking our rigging up high. We were in Waco, Texas at the time. Somehow he accidentally lost his balance or slipped, no one knows exactly, and he fell to his death. His loss to us was beyond expression. It is still difficult for me to think or talk about. Besides being the brother that I loved dearly, Otto was such a vital part of what we did. The pyramids we performed could no longer be done. The act, as it had been, could not continue without him. His death marked the end of the Berosini Troupe.
The Circus propels its own through the tragedies of life. For those of us who have taken on her challenge, the mantra that is inscribed deep within us is that “The Show Must Go On”. Through pain and disappointment we seem to reinvent ourselves, and carry on, and so it happened here, at this crossroads of time. A decision was made that I should continue performing by myself. This was the reason and the beginning of my solo act.
From 1953 through 1955 I was booked by Johnny North for the Ringling show. In the first season of ’53 we went to Havana, Cuba and performed. After our stint with Ringling, our son Randy was born in 1956. In 1960 Alex and I crossed the ocean to perform with Circus Knie and then later went to Mill Bros. in England. I continued to work both here and in Europe, and then in 1961 our daughter, Tina Magdalena was born. Alex and I were blessed with two beautiful children. Life couldn’t have been better, but in life there are no guarantees. On year later, our son Randy became seriously ill, and his life hung in the balance. It was then, in 1962, that I made the decision to stop performing and devote all my time and efforts to helping Randy get better. Over the next few years I traveled to hospitals and specialists trying to save our son. Finally our prayers were answered and Randy made a complete recovery. Alex had already developed a thriving horse training and sales business in the Ft. Lauderdale area, which we continued this until his retirement a few years ago.
We now live in Palm City, Florida and we are fortunate to have our children near us most of the year. Both Randy and Tina have followed in the Konyot tradition of horsemanship, and have their own successful businesses in place. Randy trains and sells Jumping horses to top competitors, and Tina has become one of the top riders in the sport of Dressage. In 2004 she competed in the Olympic selection trials for the US team and came in 7th. We are so proud of both of them.
In conclusion, I want to express how privileged I feel at being inducted into the Ring of Fame. I thank all of you who have made this recognition possible. It has been 42 years since I last walked the high wire, and I never dreamed that the circus would reach out from my past to touch me in such a way. I feel that through the Ring of Fame, my life has come full circle and that my experiences as a performer are just a breath away. Thank you for this gift.
Induction into the Circus Ring of Fame—Konyot Family
It is such an honor for me to be here talking about a family that I have known and loved since I was a child. My relationship with the Konyots—Arthur, Alex and Dorita—has spanned over 5 decades, and they have been an important influence in my life, since I have, over the course of years, been instructed by 3 generations of them.
Let me share a bit of heritage of the Konyot family. It began in 1870 when a young 15 year old boy from Rajec, Hungary ran away to join the circus. His name was Leopold Konyot. Within five years, this enterprising youth, worked his way up from being a stable groom to an acrobat and aerialist. By the age of 21 he had married Henrietta, the daughter of Simon Blumenfeld, the owner or Blumenfeld Bros. Circus and within a short time they started their own circus, Circus Leopold.
Over the years, Henrietta and Leopold had 12 children, six boys and six girls. Arthur was their 4th son born in December 1888. As the children grew up, rooted in the tradition of equestrianism and acrobatics, the Konyot family of that time became known as incomparable bareback riders.
They were hired by the leading Circuses of Europe, and as a result, in 1907 John Ringling saw them and contracted them to perform in his newly acquired Barnum & Bailey Circus. So Leopold and Henrietta closed their circus and the whole family, 25 of them, sailed in 1909 for the United States. They toured with Barnum & Bailey until 1912 when they returned to Europe to open their own Konyot Bros. Great American Circus & Wild West Show, which turned into an overwhelming success.
This was a happy and rewarding time for them, but just when the Konyots were riding the crest of their good fortune, tragedy struck, in January of 1914, with the death of Mama Henrietta. Her loss was a shock since everyone expected Father Leopold, who was ailing, to go first.
Henrietta was the one who had directed their efforts, fired their dreams, and conducted the business, since Papa Leopold had been ailing for years. Arthur felt lost without his mother’s guidance.
But as life unfolds, through the darkness there eventually comes light, and 3 months later while Arthur was visiting the Circus Barogaldi, he saw a beautiful Russian ballerina named Manya Guttenberg, and his life was changed forever. Arthur and Manya courted, fell in love, and by October 1914 were married. Terrible hardships soon followed with the coming of the First World War. Arthur, along with two of his brothers, almost immediately went into the Austro-Hungarian Army. In the midst of these turbulent times, Alex was born in Budapest in the summer of 1915.
The war came and went, and the Konyots endured it. Through hunger and devastation they never stopped holding true to their art, always returning to the Charmed Circle, as they referred to the Circus Ring.
In 1920 Arthur and his brother, Adolph, were hired to manage a circus in Italy. So Arthur, Manya and 5 year old Alex left Budapest for sunny Italy. When their contract in Italy was over, they went to Germany for a short time, then France, and even North Africa. After these tours, they spent 5 years performing in the French circuses, and while in France in 1923 Dorita was born.
By this time, Arthur’s training skills were sought after by many circus owners. Besides horses, he trained camels, zebras, bears, dogs, chimps, and monkeys. He had put together many liberty horse acts which were heralded throughout the circus world as the best ever seen.
In 1926, when Alex was 11 and Dorita was 3, Arthur and Manya crossed the Pyrenees to Barcelona. They took their two bareback horses, a high school horse, and five bears. This is the beginning of a long stay in Spain and Portugal that the modern legacy of the Konyots as celebrated high school trainers and riders would emerge. As children Alex and Dorita had the opportunity to ride under some of the greatest equestrian masters of the era, and they developed into outstanding equestrians.
Arthur then put together a family high school act with Portuguese and Spanish horses that he acquired and trained. During the 1930’s Arthur, Manya, Alex and Dorita appeared on their majestic Andalusians and Lusitanos all over Europe to rave revues.
They crisscrossed the Continent going from Germany to England to Denmark and Czechoslovakia, where in 1937 they narrowly escaped the grip of Hitler’s anti-Hungarian and anti-Czech policies by fleeing to Poland and then later to Paris.
When World War II came in 1939, Alex was drafted into the French Army where he went to North Africa, but with the help of influential friends, the Konyots were able to obtain a leave of Absence and an American visa for him because they had been contracted by John Ringling for the 1940 opening of his circus at Madison Square Garden.
By this time, Arthur was already 52, Alex and 25, and Dorita was 17, and despite some long hard years, the strength and resolve of this amazing family remained intact. Their destiny and a rainbow to the West lay before them in what was to become their new home in America. From 1940 to 1944 they performed for the Ringling Show. Alex, because of the war, had joined the US Army in 1942 and was sent off to Ft. Riley. He was shipped to the Italian front and became a decorated soldier. He acted as a valuable interpreter for the army because he was fluent in many languages.
In the meantime, Arthur, Manya and Dorita continued to perform their high school act for Ringling to the delight of their audiences, however, in the season of 1944, suddenly Manya became ill and after a short time passed away.
Arthur’s devoted helpmate and companion of 30 years was gone. Alex was still serving overseas at his mother’s death. Despite this terrible loss, Arthur and Dorita stayed on with the circus until the end of the season, which would have been what Manya wanted.
After the war Alex returned to his family and Arthur, Alex and Dorita continued to perform in circuses across America sometimes together and sometimes in solo.
In 1949 Alex met the beautiful high wire star, Josephine Berosini, and by 1952 they were married. Around the same time, Arthur said farewell to the circus and moved to Chicago to open his own equestrian center. It was during this period that he met a lovely lady named Elizabeth Ann Murphy, who was to become his future wife and give him 5 more children. Dorita joined her father at his Chicago Riding School. They both trained and showed Arabian horses to championship status, and Arthur became the exclusive trainer to Arthur Godfrey.
Alex and Fina continued to perform in center rings both here and in Europe. They were blessed with a son, Randy and a daughter, Tina. In 1962 when their son Randy became ill, they left the circus. It was at that time that Alex opened his own equestrian center in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where he trained both horses and riders, many of whom reached Olympic status.
Dorita returned to Sarasota and also opened her own School of Equitation. She trained and schooled many horses for both performers and private clients, and taught countless people the principles of classical horsemanship. She married a handsome flyer by the name of Ray Humphries, and they had a son whom they named, Ray. He still resides in Sarasota. Dorita kept close to her circus roots and continued to produce equestrian acts for other performers and big equestrian shows.
Both Arthur and Dorita have passed on. Alex is now 87 and lives with is lovely wife, Fina, in Stuart, Florida. However, the Konyots and their talent and fame with horses continue to shine through the work of Randy and Tina, Alex’s children.
Among experts, Tina is considered as one of the most beautiful and accomplished trainers and riders in competitive dressage today. She is presently ranked 7th in the nation after competing in the 2004 Olympic trials. Randy trains and sells jumping horses to top trainers and competitors in the US and Europe, and lives near his family in Stuart, Florida, as does Tina.
The contribution that this family has made to both the circus and the word of equitation is beyond measure. I am only one of hundreds that the Konyots have influenced and helped by the generous sharing of their talent, experience, and knowledge. I love them as my own family.
At this time, on behalf of Arthur, Alex, and Dorita, and their families, I would like to thank the Sponsors and the Board of Directors for honoring them today in the Ring of Fame.
Defying Death on High Wire
This is the time of year when little girls home from the circus dream of growing up to become glamorous stars in spangles & tights, performing feats of daring while crowds applaud. It is a symptom of spring that mothers recognize without alarm, having once been little girls themselves.
So dreamed Josephine Berosini, when she was a little girl. Today, at 29, she is billed as “Queen of the High Wire” at the Ringling Circus in Madison Square Garden. It is most unlikely, however, that Josephine’s rise to the pinnacle of circus-dom can in any way be duplicated by any of the starry-eyed little girls viewing her at the Garden these days. Josephine’s career as a high-wire artist might almost be said to have started before she was born. Five generations of Berosini developed the art her father passed on to her.
She crossed a wire high in a circus tent or the first time when she was 5 years old—on her father’s shoulders. He lay down on the wire & little Josephine did a headstand on his chest. This was in Czechoslovakia, where the Berosinis originated.
At 6, Josephine walked the high wire alone. She fell, during a rehearsal shortly afterward, & papa made her go back up & walk the wire 10 times “so the fear” wouldn’t get in me, “ she said. At 7, the young wire artist fell during a performance in Copenhagen. “Fortunately, there was a net,” she said.
“It was not because of my footing,” she adds proudly, “but I was so tiny & fragile, the wind blew me off balance.” Josephine runs, dances & walks blindfold across a wire high in the Garden. She also rides a bicycle across it—standing up. And she is the only woman in the world who walks up & down a wire stretched at a 45-degree angle from the floor to a height of 50 feet. “It’s a fake, she’ll never fall, she knows her business,” cynics sometimes comment when the performer occasionally stumbles & regains her balance during her perilous passage along the wire.
“She does, indeed, know her business.” But so did her uncle & aunt, who fell to their deaths in Europe while performing on a high wire. So, too, did her uncle Ludwig, who spent 4 years in a hospital & has not yet recovered fully from a fall in Buffalo in 1939. And so did her beloved brother, Otto, who died in a fall in Waco, TX in 1950, when he was 23.
Before Otto’s death, the Berosini performance was a family act—Papa, Mamma, Josephine & Otto. It included a new member, a girl from Birmingham, Alabama, whom Otto was engaged to marry. After Otto’s tragic death, “we all gave up,” Josephine explained. “It just seemed there ought to be some other way of making a living.”
Papa & mamma are still in retirement, down in Florida. Otto’s fiancée abandoned the high wire & took up bareback riding. But Josephine decided her brother would want her to carry on the family tradition & she returned to the wire. She described her return.
“It was 2 months after his death—at the Ohio State Fair. When I first came into the ring & looked at the wire, I thought of my brother & said to myself, I just can’t do it. But I did it. I used his pole & his other equipment & I am still using it. It’s getting kind of worn & in this business everything has to be perfect mechanically, so I should replace it. But I am sentimental about it because it was his.” She shrugged her shoulders, “I never think about death when I’m up there. I don’t dare. After all, I’m just a human being.”
Underneath her, moving step by step on the ground with her every step in the air, is a ‘handsome, mustached dark-haired man, unobtrusively clad in a circus uniform. He is Josephine’s husband, Alexander Konyot & a circus star himself. During his own act, Konyot is the rider who takes the center ring for an exhibition of fancy horseback riding. But in his wife’s act, he plays the unannounced role of “human net.”
When she is safe on the sawdust once more, his face is dripping with perspiration & so is hers. “I don’t like it, feeling my heart freeze twice a day, but there’s nothing I can do about it. The high wire is Josephine’s destiny & there is where she has to be,” said Konyot.
“Alex is there to break my fall if anything happens. I can’t see him—for I must keep my eyes fixed 6 or 8 feet ahead on the sire—but I know he is there,” Josephine said. Until the circus stars were married 2 years ago, her father walked under her. Her parents now live in Miami & have a very big yard with both a high wire & horse ring, so Josephine & Alex can practice between seasons. When not at home in Miami, she keeps house in a railroad compartment. She prefers housekeeping the 4 off-season months in a home that stands still & raising a family. She won’t raise her future children as high-wire artists, however, explaining, “There will be no more Berosinis on the high wire—not only because of my brother’s death, but because I have seen my mother’s face as she watched her children perform. It is more strain for a mother to watch than for the child to learn.”
Remembering Alex Konyot
On February 13, Alex Konyot was buried and memorialized by his friends and family in Palm City, Florida. Olympians Robert Dover, Ashley Holtzer, Michael Poulin, Bent Jensen and Carol Lavell paid their respects to a man know for his genius with horses, his humor and his passion.
Charlie Porter spoke eloquently about his long time friend, Alex, whose last words to him was “Ciao Charlie”. All those in attendance at the Forest Hills Memorial Park Funeral Home were moved by Charlie’s words and have asked for copies of his eulogy. Mary Phelps of Dressage Daily shared her copy of his speech with Sidelines.
Alex was fluent in many languages. Traveling throughout Europe with his father, Arthur Konyot, known in European circus tradition as the “White Rider”, Alex was comfortable speaking French, Portuguese, Hungarian (his native language), Italian, German and English.
His family moved to the United States in 1939. In 1940 his family performed in the center ring of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. His father established a Riding Academy and School of Equitation in Chicago in 1950. Several years ago Alex was inducted into the Circus Hall of Fame. His daughter, Tina, accepted the award for him as Alex suffered from heart disease in his later years and was unable to travel. Ultimately, in early February, he succumbed to heart disease at the age of 91.
Alex joined the Army in the U.S. Cavalry Division at Fort Reilly, Kansas. He presented himself to his commander as a novice equestrian. After several days of imaginative “beginner rider antics” his commander realized that he was a skilled equestrian with supreme balance and ability. His punishment for his deception was three days peeling potatoes.
Ultimately his army unit was sent to Germany. His commander sent him across the border into Italy to spy on the Germans. Alex hung around the cafes posing as an itinerant. He spoke perfect Italian, and could understand the German soldiers’ conversations. The information he gleaned in his numerous sorties into Italy provided valuable information for the Allies.
What is not know about Alex, but was a moving finale to his funeral, is that he earned a Purple Heart for his bravery in service to his then newly-adopted country. Two representatives from the U.S. Army were present at his internment. A bugle salute of “Taps” was performed in his honor.
After his internment friends and family attended a luncheon reception at the beautiful “Rolling Rock Stables” owned by Susan and Ralph Roberto in Palm City. Alex’s widow “Fina”, his daughter “Tina” and son “Randy” spent a sunny afternoon with great food and spontaneous affectionate memories of Alex. It was a special afternoon that will be cherished by all that attended.
The dressage community was well represented by Susie Dutta, Emily Kannenstein, Sue Jacoma, Bent Jensen, John Zopatti, Carol Lavell, Nan Sexton, Ashley Holtzer, Jennifer Huber, Louis Warner, Charlie Porter, Kathy Von Ertfelda, Michael Poulin, Mary Phelps, Heather Bender, Mary Ann and her mother Carol Grant, John Grimes, Karen Reid-Offield, Tamara Gerber, Charlene and Robert Douglas, Mary Anne McPhail, Allyn Schiavone, Jeanette Sassoon and Martha Love to mention just a few in attendance.
The Konyot family wishes to thank all their friends that participated in honoring Alex. Your support and love helped the family cope with the loss of this exceptional man.
Anyone wishing to make a donation in the name of Alex Konyot may do so to: Equine Rescue & Adoption Foundation, 10152 West Indiantown road, Suite 136, Jupiter, Florida 33478.
A Eulogy for Alex Konyot
So I hope I don’t say anything cliché during my humble eulogy today because there was not a single thing cliché about Alex Konyot’s life, or his persona.
Alex was, I think, sort of a renegade renaissance man. He was a connoisseur of life’s pleasures: food, good wine, guitars, talent, the magic of the dance, trick handshakes, and the fire in one’s heart fuelled with that passion and his sense of humor was stage worthy.
When I would have dinner at the family farm in Palm City we would all sit down to his beloved Josephine’s famous Chicken Paprikash and this sort of film would start to roll not unlike one Federico Fellini. There would be laughter, hard language, and then more laughter, great stories and I would come away from there feeling like I had just done the town with Zorba and his whole family. I was exhilarated. It would erase the brooding English Victorian in me because repressive feelings were not allowed in the Konyot home.
Psychiatrists should have been in therapy with Alex Konyot.
Alex would look into a horse’s eye for two reasons; One, they told him a lot about the horse, and two, they were windows to the photo archives of his own life.
Alex could look into a horse’s eye and see the sandstorms in North Africa when he was in the French Foreign Legion.
Alex could look into a horse’s eye and see the snows of Russia when he was 12-years old as he sat next to his father in a horse-drawn sleigh racing across the fields with starving wolves chasing them, while the driver shot at them as they hurried to safety to their destination, a small village.
Alex could look into a horse’s eye and see the American and Allied armies marching into Italy with him as their translator, as he fought for his newly adopted America for which he was wounded and decorated.
Alex could look into a horse’s eye and see the beautiful Camargue in the South of France with wild ponies pounding across the water plains.
Alex would look into a horse’s eye and see his adored Josephine and himself as they danced to the Samba the Rumba and the Tango in South America or at the Fontainebleau in Miami.
Alex could look into a horse’s eye and see Randy and Tina in his arms as small children with their arms wrapped around their Dad.
Alex could look into a horse’s eye and see the many performances he gave to an audience from the stage and from the ring.
I can still see the photo of him standing at the horse’s croup while the horse is kneeling down on both legs taking a bow and, there is Alex with arms outstretched to the audience and that big Gilbert Roland smile on his face saying “How do you like me so far?”
He was a Beau Geste, he was a Zorro.
Alex looked into people’s eyes like a resident of Cassadega (a Psychic community in Central Florida). He was a reader or as they say in the language of the old Romani he was a receiver.
And, he was tough. Let his example of strength in enduring the years of old age and physical maladies. He was an example to us all because as Katherine Hepburn said in her last televised interview with Barbara Walters “Getting old is not for the weak, Barbara!”
Alex is probably looking into a horse’s eye in heaven right now because Nuno and Herbert just asked him if he thinks it’s a good horse. And he said to him and I have heard him say many times with that wink in his eye “They are all good horses, all of them.”
I loved Alex’s horsemanship. It was not myopic or confined. It was like Boucher’s “Come to the manege in Paris on Friday night and I will show you horses that can do everything classical and still canter on three legs and canter backwards.”
I often think it should be that way in at least one separate class of the Freestyle in competitive Dressage. No strictly ballroom, just one class where anything goes in the tradition of the old masters. Because … God forbid, we should draw a crowd!
There were two words I know Alex did not have in his five-language vocabulary: “Ordinary Life.”
I’m going to end here with my version of a verse in song from the old country that was actually translated and covered in an album by Fleetwood Mac in the seventies …
“I wouldn’t want to be a chimney sweep all black from head to foot from climbing in those chimneys and cleaning out the soot. I’d much rather be the Circus Man camped at the edge of town, the one who has the dancing horse that follows him around.”
The White Rider written by William Reichmann—Photos from the book