By Penny Fletcher
RIVERVIEW- It isn’t often you meet someone who started in show business at 11 months old, but Robert Lange made his debut at just that age.
“Here’s a photograph of my dad holding me up (in the air) in 1941 when I was 11 months old, and then, that’s me holding him up in 1967,” Robert Lange said. He was pointing at one of hundreds of newspaper and magazine photographs on his table, many of which were peopled with famous names and faces including Judy Garland, Abbott and Costello, Tony Curtis and Liberace.
The now-retired high wire acrobat began his career as part of the family business which began in
His dad, Ervin, and mom,
Because of the family’s performances on variety shows, he began meeting other world-famous people at a very young age.
Some of his earliest memories are of sitting in Jane Russell’s lap and wearing the now-famous derby belonging to Lou Costello, both of which are backed up by yellowing newspaper photographs.
Robert’s wife, Jane, also an acrobatic aerialist, started her acrobatic gymnastics at the ripe old age of 12 and joined the troupe at 16. Her sister Grace also worked in the act.
When Robert and Jane were 21, they married, and have been together for the last 49 years.
“One night, we told his parents we were going bowling, and we got married,” Jane said. This happened while the act was playing a show at the Stardust night club in
Eventually Robert’s parents decided to start a new act based around chimpanzees, and Robert and Jane began their own aerial acrobatic show.
While traveling 40 weeks a year, Jane managed to birth, rear and home-school four children and design and sew all the costumes for the shows while Robert put together the acts and made all the props.
They and their children enjoyed their life on the road.
“I didn’t want my kids to have to stay home while we traveled,” Robert said, recalling his younger days when he would live with his grandparents while his parents toured, except during breaks from school. “We took our children with us. The standards for home-schooling were very strict then. There was always someone checking up to be sure the kids were doing the acts because they wanted to, not being forced, and doing their lessons too.”
The family toured all 50 states, every province in
Their oldest daughter Vickie Lee was on Don Ameche’s International Showtime television show when she was 7 months old and developed her own acrobatic act as the years rolled by.
Some of the highlights of the family’s career are performing on the Milton Berle (television) Show and in
A lot of work went into putting on the shows.
“My dad used to say it took 100 hours of practice for every trick in the act,” Robert said. “So when people asked me how it felt to work 4 minutes a day, I’d just laugh.”
A lot of their memories are preserved in photographs, including a half-page in Look magazine, which was one of the two largest magazines in the country from 1937 to 1972.
“One of the best things about doing what we did was getting to work with so many great people,” Jane said. “Vickie played Barbies (dolls) with Marie Osmond growing up, and we taught Donny Osmond to juggle. The Osmonds had really great kids.”
The Lange’s projector may be broken now but they keep about 40,000 feet of film on reels to remind them of their days with personalities such as Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and Jerry Van Dyke.
“I remember meeting Lou Costello when I was 8 years old,” Robert said. “He had just lost his son, who was about the same age as I was, in a swimming pool accident and he took a liking to me.” Which is why Robert thinks Costello gave him the derby that now sits on a shelf in his den.
In June 1982, the couple had a reunion with all the people they could locate who had been in their act, and they keep the large paper with everyone’s signatures on it that was made for them that day.
Many of the people who worked in their act went on to have acts of their own.
“It isn’t the same now,” Robert said. “There used to be so many variety shows on television. Now they’re just about all gone.”
It seems “variety” shows have been replaced with “reality” shows, he said.
Besides touring and appearing on television, the act made many charity appearances, for which they garnered letters of thanks and recommendations which they have kept in an album; many from people associated with the Shrine Circus which supports 22 Shriners Hospitals for Children.
In all the time his dad and mother performed their high-wire acrobatics, Robert only remembers one broken bone.
“My dad broke a bone in his foot once, but he had to keep on working,” Robert said. “We (he and Jane) never had any broken bones in our act. Not one.”
Neither did anyone in their group, he said proudly.
The two continued to perform into their 50’s and finally retired in 1997.
When asked why they chose Riverview to retire – after seeing pretty much the whole world– they said they’d liked the area when visiting friends nearby.