Animal Trainer, Circus Owner
By Dominique Jando
Angel Cristo (1944-2010) was a well-known Spanish circus personality, although in spite of his holy-sounding name, he fame as an artist and a circus director was eventually tainted by notoriety. He was born Angel Cristo Dordi in Huelva, Spain, on October 17, 1944, to an old circus family.
His father, Cristoforo Papadópulos, was an aerialistAny acrobat working above the ring on an aerial equipment such as trapeze, Roman Rings, Spanish web, etc.. The Papadópulos circus family, of Greek origins, had settled in Spain via Romania: Cristoforo’s brother, Miro, was the father of the legendary aerialistAny acrobat working above the ring on an aerial equipment such as trapeze, Roman Rings, Spanish web, etc. Miss Mara, and of the wire dancer Tonito. Angel’s mother, Margareta Dordi, had performed as a contortionist under the stage name of “La pequeña Carolina.”
Angel grew up in his family’s circus, which traveled under a variety of names: Circo Florida (its name in 1948, when Cristoforo acquired the shares of his brother, Miro), Circo Imperial, or Zirkus Aleman Berlin (better known as Circo Berlin). Like most circus kids, Angel was trained in a wide range of disciplines, and participated as needed in a variety of acts.
From an early age, however, Angel’s true calling had been animal training, with a preference for big cats. His break nearly came up when he was seventeen: The lion trainer who worked with the show had left unexpectedly; without telling his father, Angel began trying his hand at lion training, but his effort was quickly put to a halt.
Still, he wouldn’t take no for an answer: On October 17, 1966, on the day of his twenty-second anniversary, Angel Cristo finally made his debut in the big cage as a bona-fide lion trainer. From the outset, he adopted a very spectacular and vigorous style—an approach generally favored by trainers working with lions: As regal and imposing they may look, lions are not prone to great displays of energy; it is up to the trainer to keep a certain amount of excitement in the cage. And Angel Cristo knew how to deliver: He was a born showman.
In 1969, Angel created his own circus, which he first called Circo Ruso, but the Spanish government (the country was then under the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco) immediately became suspicious: Spain had no diplomatic relations with the USSR, and the authorities assumed that a Russian circus company had entered the country without permit. To avoid further complications, the circus was renamed Circo Berlin (the title previously used by Angel’s father), before finally reverting to Circo Ruso in 1972.
Circo Berlin (later Circo Russo) quickly became one of Spain’s major circuses, and a showcase for the spectacular cage acts of its flamboyant director. Cristo trained a lion to walk on two parallel tight ropes, and also presented a tiger and a lion on horseback. His energetic and aggressive style, however, resulted in several serious accidents—notably in July 1990, when the trainer was attacked by three of his lions and a tiger banding together.
Angel Cristo rarely appeared outside Spain, but he was featured in November 1972 at the Cirque de la Voix du Nord, in Lille, France, and on the 16th of the same month, at the prestigious Gala de La Piste, at the Cirque d’Hiver-Bouglione in Paris. He did also a brief tour in France with a short-lived circus show in 1982.
Cristo’s first wife was the aerialistAny acrobat working above the ring on an aerial equipment such as trapeze, Roman Rings, Spanish web, etc. Renata Tanton, of the Tanton Sisters' trapeze act. Renata died prematurely in 1979, and the following year, Angel married Bárbara Rey (b. 1950), the former Miss Spain 1970, and a sultry movie actress whose films were very popular in Spain in the 1970s and early 1980s—especially when censorship relaxed after the end of Franco’s dictatorship (1975).
The new couple quickly became hot fodder for the tabloid press, and Cristo’s status changed from that of well-known cat trainer(English/American) An trainer or presenter of wild cats such as tigers, lions, leopards, etc. and circus director to media celebrity. Bárbara Rey began sharing her husband’s life, eventually presenting Circo Ruso’s elephants—a great publicity coup for the circus. Angel Cristo even had his brief moment of movie stardom in Alfonsino Fons’s El Cid Cabraedor (1983). But he was now living in the fast lane, and stories of drugs and other excesses began to surface in the tabloids.
The couple, which had two children, Angel (b. 1981) and Sofia (b. 1983), divorced in 1988. Bárbara Rey continued her career on television, but it was the beginning for Angel Cristo of a spiraling series of problems, culminating in a suicide attempt on May 20, 1995, and an arrest for aggression on an Italian citizen one month later. In August of the same year, he was the victim of a serious car accident that kept him immobilized him for a while.
He returned to the big cage in 1996 with a group of five lions purchased from the Dutch cat trainer(English/American) An trainer or presenter of wild cats such as tigers, lions, leopards, etc. William Voos. But Cristo began to have problems with the Spanish authorities for his treatment of animals: An embargo was put on his circus in 1998, and in 2000, the City of Madrid fined him 2,000 Euros. In June 2001, he was again accused of mistreatment of his animals, which were seized by the authorities. To get them back, Cristo entered a six-day hunger strike that brought him back to the tabloids’ front page.
Angel Cristo would also make the front page each time his bouts of depression and his drug addiction sent him to the hospital, notably in 1995, when he was hospitalized for a drug overdose, and again in 2003 and 2004. As a result of these many disruptions in his professional activities, his financial situation became precarious. Once more, Cristo overcame his demons, and in the winter 2009-2010, he was back in the ring in Madrid, presenting a group of three elephants from the Circo Americano-Faggioni. He died of a cardiac arrest on May 4, 2010, at the Alcorcón University Hospital in Madrid. He was laid to rest at the Cementerio de la Almudena in Madrid.