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Getting Fired for a Living : Circus Fans Are Thrilled by Special Caliber of Human Cannonball’s Daring and Skill

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Even among co-workers who kiss lions, ride horseback upside down and somersault on the high wire, Jon Weiss is something of a spectacle.

Five hundred times a year, the 32-year-old Long Island native shimmies down the barrel of a huge cannon and waits for an audience countdown to catapult him across the Big Top to circus glory. Three, two, one, BOOM!

Weiss flies out of the cannon’s mouth at speeds up to 65 m.p.h. About four seconds and 120 feet later, the durable veteran hits the safety net, does a forward half-somersault and bounces up to relieved applause.

Meet the Human Cannonball.

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“I love the tradition of the cannon,” Weiss said. “To think people still get shot out of a cannon, it’s still amazing even to me.”

Weiss’ bit of human rocketry--the final act each day for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which finishes its Southern California run today at The Pond in Anaheim--thrills crowds wherever he goes.

“I thought he was awesome,” said Gail Moore, 35, of Moreno Valley, who was at the circus this week with her three children.

“I liked it the way he shot out and flew,” said her son Travis, 8. “It was cool.”

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Looking cool in a daredevil costume while hurtling through midair is no accident, Weiss said. It takes lots of practice.

Weiss, who joined the circus as a clown in 1982, trained for three months before ever crawling inside a cannon. Since 1987, he has been airborne more than 3,000 times, including one flight down New York City’s 52nd Street for “The Late Show With David Letterman.”

“It’s all technique,” said Weiss, who uses his hips and arms to adjust his trajectory during his performance. “I want to make sure I don’t over-rotate and also make sure I’m not coming in straight as an arrow. Otherwise I’ll skid on my face.”

Before technique, however, you need to be the right body size and type. Only if you’re small and sturdy can you dream of becoming a human projectile, Weiss said.

“I’m built like a fireplug,” said the 5-foot-6, 140-pound cannonballer. “You have to be compact. Six-foot-two, 190 pounds is way too big.”

Before becoming cannon fodder, Weiss prepares the equipment and himself. Depending on the arena, he calibrates the cannon to avoid wires and ceilings, and measures the distance and alignment to the net. Then he checks and rechecks the height and angle of the barrel.

Prior to takeoff, Weiss also warms up by jumping rope or running in place. And finally, when he’s nearly ready to slide down the cannon’s throat, he dons special knee and back braces for extra support during his flight.

The force that propels Weiss from the cannon is five times that of gravity. Weiss described the sensation this way: “Picture yourself in a car parked in the center lane of an expressway, hit from behind by another car going 65 m.p.h. Even though you are ready for the impact and you’ve locked every muscle in your body, it’s still quite a jolt.”

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Not surprisingly, Weiss has sustained his share of injuries being a human cannonball. He sometimes has trouble with his neck and a shoulder. He has strained an Achilles’ tendon. And last year he broke his nose when his knee smacked into his head on a landing.

“My nose has never been the same since,” he said.

Weiss said there have been a few deaths associated with the art of flinging a human body so far so fast since it began in the late 19th Century.

“I really don’t like to talk about it,” he said.

Neither does his wife, Laura, 31.

“Of course, I’m worried that he could get killed,” she said. “It’s a very dangerous job, but I have faith in what he does.

“I’d rather see him in a suit and tie,” she added.

But in spite of her reservations, Laura still pulls the switch that fires her husband 11 stories across circus arenas nationwide. The Human Cannonball wouldn’t have it any other way.

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“The only person I can trust on the trigger is my wife,” he said.

The couple, who were married during a performance at Madison Square Garden in 1986, are expecting their first child in December.

“We’re having a little cannonball,” Weiss said. “Maybe when he or she is 19 or 20 they can take my place.”


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