By Dominique Jando
María Papadopoulos Vaquero (1934-2013) was born in 1934 in San Fernando, in the province of Cádiz, Spain, to Miro Papadópoulos Stavanovich, who had Greek ancestry but came from a Romanian family, and his wife, Remedios Vaquero Canela. María was the firstborn of a very large family: She had six brothers and one sister, and all her life she would assume a sort of matriarchal responsibility for her siblings, including her brother Antonio, known as Tonito, who became a celebrated acrobat on tight wireA tight, light metallic cable, placed between two platforms not very far from the ground, on which a wire dancer perform dance steps, and acrobatic exercises such as somersaults. (Also: Low Wire)—before developing a famous tight wireA tight, light metallic cable, placed between two platforms not very far from the ground, on which a wire dancer perform dance steps, and acrobatic exercises such as somersaults. (Also: Low Wire) duo, The Tonitos, with his brother Jorge.
Mara, as she became known, made her debut in the ring at age five in 1939, in Cartagena, where she performed a small trapeze act in her father's circus, Circo Florida. A very strong girl, both physically and psychologically, Mara developed in time a remarkable trapeze act in which she did most of her work swinging—not a common presentation at the time. Her tricks included heel-catches, neck-hangs, and a slide to heel-catch in full swing, which had been a specialty of the great Australian trapeze artist Winnie Colleano. Mara worked at dizzying heights, without any safeguards.
Mara's act was quite exceptional for its time—and would remain so for many years. In April 1945, the famous Spanish circus impresario, Juan Carcellé, noticed her at the Feria of Seville, where Circo Florida was performing. Three years later, when Miro Papadopoulos sold his circus to his brother, Cristóforo Cristo, Mara was free to strike out on her own. It was the beginning of a rich and brilliant international career.
Mara was contracted by Circo Segura, where she struck a lifelong friendship with Cristina Maria del Pino Segura, better known as Pinito del Oro, another legendary aerialistAny acrobat working above the ring on an aerial equipment such as trapeze, Roman Rings, Spanish web, etc.. It was during her time with Circo Segura that she sustained a fall from her trapeze for the first time: Badly injured, she was incapacitated for one month.
International StarIn 1949, Mara embarked on her first international tour, traveling first to Portugal, then to the south of France, with the brothers Castillo's Circo Alegría. On March 4, 1950, in Seville, she married Enrique Campos Muñoz; she was just to turn seventeen. Their union was to last 18 years. Now emancipated, she was free to travel on her own; John Ringling North, and in October of the same year, she signed a contract with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, The Greatest Show On Earth, then in its final years as a traveling behemoth under the big topThe circus tent. America: The main tent of a traveling circus, where the show is performed, as opposed to the other tops. (French, Russian: Chapiteau).
On March 1, just a month and a half before making her U.S. debut at Madison Square Garden, Mara had given birth in Seville to her only child, Enriqueta. Mara sailed to the United States in April 1951, where she would eventually spend six years with the Ringling show. There she would reunite with her friend, Pinito del Oro. On September 11, 1953, in Tacoma, Washington, Mara fell again—this time with very serious consequences: She would undergo no less than seven surgeries. But that was not enough to deter her, and on March 4, 1955, she returned to the show, where she resumed performing her original act, unchanged.
Mara returned to Spain in December 1957, and was immediately contracted by Circo Americano. The largest traveling circus in Spain at the time, Circo Americano was under the management of the powerful impresarios Manuel Feijóo and Arturo Castilla, who also ran the legendary Circo Price in Madrid. She worked for Feijóo-Castilla in several of their ventures (Circo Americano, Circo Price, and Spanischer National Circus with Carola Williams) both in Spain and abroad through 1963. In that year, she received the Oscar Internacional del Circo, a prize that was awarded annually for several years by the International Circus Federation, a circus organization controlled by Arturo Castilla.
Mara also worked with her uncle, Cristofóro Cristo, at his Circo Berlin. During the 1960s and 1970s, she toured extensively throughout Europe, flying from time to time to the U.S., where she appeared on television in the Ed Sullivan show. She even made it all the way to Australia in 1972.
In 1976, along with her brother Tonito, Mara participated in the third International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo. Unfortunately, Mara was a little past her prime, and the competition in the festival was fierce, led by younger artists; having been awarded a special prize rather than the coveted Gold or Silver Clowns, Mara, who was in her own way a true circus diva, refused to participate in the final Gala Performance and left the Principality to everybody's consternation. She eventually retired from performing in 1979, at the end of a season with Circo Atlas—then one of Spain's major circuses, which was owned by Spain's most celebrated clowns, Manolo and José Villa, better known as the Hermanos Tonetti.
In 1992, the Spanish government awarded Miss Mara its Premio Nacional del Circo (National Circus Award). This was one of the many distinctions she received during her career as well as after her retirement. Mara had immense charisma, great natural elegance, and a powerful personality—not to mention outstanding talent. Hers remained, until the 1970s, among the greatest trapeze acts the circus had ever seen. Remarkable trapeze performers such as Isabella Nock, Judy Merton, and more recently, Silvia Zerbini have since continued in her footsteps.
By the late 1980s, Russian trapeze artists, beginning with Elena Panova, transformed the character of the swinging trapeze, deemphasizing danger in favor of more elaborate tricks. This transformation also brought about tricks that, although increasingly more amazing, were sometimes made possible only by the use of a hand-held longe(French, Russian) Safety line connected to a performer by a belt, going through a pulley, and held on the other end by an assistant, or a teacher. Also know as a ''mécanique'' (see this word).. Still, in her days, the flamboyant Maria Papadópulos Campos reigned supreme over the single trapeze world, and took the risks (and paid the price) to maintain her position.
Mara retired in Madrid. She was an avid reader, a classical music lover, and was keenly interested in the arts (her brother Enrique became a painter), so she kept herself busy. Mara passed away on December 14, 2013. She was seventy-nine. To those who saw her perform, she will always been remembered as "La Mara," as she was often called—one of the truly great circus performers of the twentieth century.
- Video: Miss Mara, at the Spanisher National Circus (1962)
- Simón González, Una Vida apasionante en la Barra del Trapecio (Madrid, Ed. J. García Verdugo, 1999) ISBN 84-95144-23-9