September 22, 1980 12:00 PM

Tito Gaona, the Ringling Brothers circus trapeze star, was always known as a high-flier away from the Big Top as well as under it. Yet his career clearly came first. He had been influenced as a youngster by the 1956 movie Trapeze, in which Tony Curtis very nearly fails to make the triple somersault that will create circus legend because of his romance with Gina Lollobrigida. Gaona promised himself never to settle down until he had thrown a quadruple somersault in public.

Then, one day in 1976, while he was swinging casually on his trapeze during a charity circus performance, he looked down and saw, 30 feet below, a woman ride by on an elephant. They exchanged admiring glances. He did not know she was Lee Meriwether, divorced, a former Miss America (1955), or even that she was a co-star of one of TV’s most popular series, Barnaby Jones. (“In the circus,” Gaona apologizes, “you don’t watch much TV.”) It did begin to dawn on him, however, that promises are made to be broken.

“I remember thinking, ‘What a beautiful woman,’ ” Tito, 33, says. “The rest of the day, I felt as though I wanted to do everything just for her.” Under the circumstances, however, he could not leave his trapeze. They never even said hello.

A year later Meriwether returned for the same charity circus, only to discover that the Flying Gaonas were with another Ringling troupe that season. It was a great disappointment. In 1978 she was back again. This time, as Tito took his bows, Meriwether felt her teenage daughter, Lesley, nudging her. “Mother,” Lesley whispered, “he’s looking at you.” As calmly as she could, Lee replied, “So he is.” Meriwether and Gaona finally met backstage and, with Lesley as chaperone, went out for ice cream.

Romance began to blossom in the sawdust. This summer Barnaby Jones was canceled, liberating Meriwether, 45, after eight seasons as detective Buddy Ebsen’s daughter-in-law and sidekick. She laughs off any ambition to break into Tito’s act. But she has, for the moment anyway, curtailed her own career to follow Tito and the circus to Australia and Japan.

There for the last six months she has been a member of what she calls the “bored ladies’ club”—nonperforming mates of circus stars. They visit kangaroo farms and tea ceremonies while their men are taming lions, taking pratfalls or, in Gaona’s case, carrying off with effortless grace a feat only a handful of aerialists have dared. Circus old-timers say the triple was first accomplished by Ernie Clarke near the turn of the century and perfected during the 1920s by Alfredo Codona, Tito’s idol. Some 600 times in an 11-month season, Tito swings from his perch and, 50 feet above the pit, somersaults three times into the arms of his trapeze mate, or catcher. Since 1973 he has performed the triple while blindfolded—a circus first. The quadruple, though, still eludes him.

“Turning four somersaults to a catcher will be like winning seven gold medals or being the first man on the moon,” Tito says. “I’d die a happy man if I could do it.” He has often accomplished the feat in practice but never in performance. He is still unsure whether he and his catcher can routinely master the delicate, split-second link that stops his 75-mph fall as he unfolds from the fourth tuck. He is encouraged that the latest in his long series of catchers is Armando Gaona. “He’s my brother,” Tito says, “and he wants to catch me safely that little bit more.”

By the time he finally does achieve the trick, Gaona will probably be a married man. Last summer, over a lobster dinner in Portland, Maine, “I told Lee I had something I wanted her to accept,” remembers Tito; it was an engagement ring. “I’d decided beforehand that if she said no, I’d throw it in the river.”

They say their age difference presents no problem. “It’s feelings that count,” Tito says earnestly, while Lee jokes, “He’s not that much older than me.” They’re still working out how to balance their two careers. When Lee left to shoot a made-for-TV movie, Tourist, in London last April, Tito called from Sydney to complain that he missed her. She hurried to his side as soon as her scenes were completed. “My philosophy from now on is not to take any offer I don’t have to,” says Lee. “Whatever I do will have to be for the fun of it.”

An accountant’s daughter born in Los Angeles and raised in Phoenix, Lee dreamed of the stage as a kid. In 1954 a fellow drama student at City College of San Francisco talked her into entering a local beauty contest, the first step toward Miss California. She was the first Miss America to whom Bert Parks warbled There She Is. During her reign she received more than $60,000 in cash and prizes, traveled to South America to meet Juan Perón and dated Joe DiMaggio—but with her mother and Walter Winchell as chaperones. With the title, too, came the stigma that most Miss Americas are long on looks, short on brains. Lee soon lived it down as a Today show commentator, under Dave Garroway. In 1958 she married actor Frank Aletter (they divorced amicably in 1973). As an actress Lee has appeared in legitimate theater, soap operas, short-lived TV series, films like The Undefeated with John Wayne and, finally, Barnaby Jones. She also became known for her work with such charities as the American Cancer Society, the Blind Children’s Center and Project Hope, which led her to the circus and Gaona.

Tito, raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, has had to live up to a family tradition in the circus that stretches back four generations. In 50 years under the Big Top his father, Victor, has been a clown, a trampolinist, a trapeze-act catcher and coach of all four of his performing children. The three eldest made their debut as the Titos, a trampoline act, on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1961, along with another newcomer, Barbra Streisand. At 13 Tito was inspired to become an aerialist after seeing Trapeze, and his father, brothers and sister followed him into the air as the Flying Gaonas. At 14 he threw his first triple. Word of the Gaonas reached Ringling Brothers in 1966, and they have been a top-billed act since.

Although Gaona quit school at 7, he has had a priceless informal education and now speaks eight languages—including Polish and Bulgarian. He has remained with the circus despite an allergic reaction to animals and a few injuries. (The Gaonas use a net, of course, and Tito has never suffered anything more serious than a broken hand.) “The circus used to conjure up the idea of sword swallowers, midgets and freaks,” he says, “but now I am proud of it.”

Tito insists that Meriwether will only help his career. “If I’m feeling lazy or bored, and I know Lee is coming to watch me,” he says, “suddenly I’m on, just like that.” Lee (unlike Gina in the movie) says she isn’t worried about her flier’s safety, though she admits, “A friend says my body English while I’m watching him is very expressive. I tense up, I shove with my shoulders and try to push him through the act. I also get a real shot of adrenaline when he does the triple blindfolded.”

She and Gaona are planning a December wedding either in Los Angeles, Florida or on the circus tour in South America. Someday the extended Gaona family may increase by yet another member: Lee’s daughter Lesley, 16, whom Tito has been coaching. “She has the talent,” he says, “along with the dedication and the patience. She’s been through the stage where her hands have gotten blisters, and where she’s gotten bored with practice. But she still keeps on with it.”

Lee’s other daughter, Kyle, 20, is an aspiring actress—Lee, in fact, made a soup commercial last year only on condition that Kyle and Lesley appear in it too. The resultant, folksy mom-and-daughter spot hardly portrays Lee as the kind of woman who would run off to join the circus. But then, she says, “It’s not the circus I’m running away with; I’m just running away with Tito.”

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