At 16, Meluzzi soared in circus as cannonball

By Mark Zaloudek
Published in the Sarasora Herald Tribune: Sunday, November 2, 2008 

SARASOTA - Carrying on a family tradition is nothing unusual except if, like Silvana "Cha Cha" Zacchini Meluzzi, your relatives were repeatedly shot from a cannon.

Meluzzi, whose father and uncles were among the headliners of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1930s with their human cannonball act, became the first female human cannonball in the United States in 1944 at age 16, according to her family.

The sixth-generation circus performer, who never strayed far from the circus after retiring as a performer, died Thursday in Sarasota at 80 of heart failure.

Catapulted by compressed air, Meluzzi reached speeds of up to 60 mph before landing in a net as far as 100 feet away.

Twice a day. Often several days a week. For nearly eight years.

She also introduced the "double-repeating cannon" created by her father, Bruno Zacchini, in the 1940s that allowed two people to be launched in quick

The double-repeating cannon is on exhibit in the circus galleries of the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. The Zacchinis also have been honored with a plaque on St. Armands Circle's Ring of Fame commemorating circus luminaries.

Afraid of heights while growing up, Meluzzi overcame her fear as her father coaxed her to jump from a 50-foot pole into a net.

"She was more thrilled than frightened" to perform, said her daughter, Catia Meluzzi of Sarasota. "Every time she would go down into the cannon barrel, the fear was gone."

Meluzzi performed with traveling circuses, including the Cole Bros. and Hamid-Morton circuses, and at Shrine circuses and state fairs, her family said.

She once broke her leg during a performance, but soon returned to the show with her costume hiding her cast.

After retiring as a human cannonball at 24, she married Roberto Meluzzi, who left Europe with his brothers to bring their tumbling act to the United States.

The couple later operated a circus in South America and imported amusement rides from Europe. At the time of her death, Meluzzi was working in the business office of the Sarasota-based Walker Brothers Circus.

She was born March 9, 1928, in Berlin while her family performed throughout Europe before John Ringling hired them join his circus in the United States in 1929.

She received the Ringling Museum's Circus Celebrity Award in 2000.

In addition to her daughter, she is survived by two other daughters, Adriana Livero of Rome, Italy, and Nina Meluzzi of Sarasota; a son, Robert, of Sarasota; a sister, Olympia Zacchini, of Sarasota; a brother, Bruno Zacchini, of Sarasota; 14 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Monday, with a vigil service at 7 p.m. at Toale Brothers Funeral Home's Colonial Chapel in Sarasota. A funeral Mass will be at 1 p.m. Tuesday at St. Martha Catholic Church in Sarasota, followed by burial at Manasota Memorial Park in Bradenton.