Tuesday, Aug. 26, 1947: Aerialist dies in fall at fair

Posted on August 29th, 2006 – 6:24 PM
By Ben Welter

More than 18,000 spectators at the State Fair grandstand were on the edge of their seats. High above the grandstand turf, Lloyd Rellim rode a bicycle back and forth across a narrow bar at one end of a 30-foot-long metal frame. Another performer twirled on rings and a trapeze bar at the other.

Llloyd Rellim
Lloyd Rellim

Near the end of the performance, the frame jerked as it was being lowered for Rellim’s dismount. He lost his balance and fell 75 feet to the ground. Grace Rellim, who was operating the rigging, let out a scream and ran to her husband’s side.

“In typical ‘the show must go on’ fashion,” wrote Minneapolis Star reporter Willmar Thorkelson, “the orchestra struck up a tune and some acrobats started performing. But nobody watched them. We were looking at the bottom of the twin towers where we saw people with flashlights. In a couple of minutes there was an ambulance. As it took Rellim away, its siren drowned out the orchestra.”

The Minneapolis Tribune’s initial account, displayed on Page One under an all-caps banner headline, reported that the Rellims’ two children – Joyce, 11, and Neil, 5 – had witnessed the fatal fall. Neither of them had, it turns out. The sidebar below is a fly-on-the-wall account of their next few hours. Joyce Rellim, now Joyce Kuhlman, agreed to an interview last week. You’ll find that update at the end of this entry.


Mother to Tell Son Dad Is Dead

Minneapolis Tribune Staff Writer

Today Mrs. Lloyd Rellim is going to have the hardest job of her life. She must tell her son, Neil, 5½, that his father is dead.

Rellim crashed to his death from a 75-foot perch at the Minnesota State fair Monday night.

His daughter, Joyce, 11, burst into uncontrollable tears after the accident, but hours later Neil still did not realize what had happened.

Rellim's rigging
Lloyd Rellim’s rigging was built at a New Orleans shipbuilding company after World War II ended. A 30-foot-long rectangular frame was affixed to 70-foot pole. Rellim, astride a bicycle, performed at one end of the frame; Ruth McCrea worked the rings and trapeze on the other. (Minneapolis Star photo)

Mrs. Ruth McCrea, who accompanied Rellim to his act, took the two children into her trailer just behind the grandstand, while their mother went to Ancker hospital.

Mrs. McCrea’s face was drawn with shock at the sight she could not forget – of Rellim’s body toppling past her to smash into the sod. It was drawn, too, with the strain of trying to keep Neil from knowing what had happened.

Boy Sees Fireworks

Back of the open-air stage, it was dark, so that tinseled performers, singers, dancers and dwarfs stumbled over guy ropes as they came off stage.

On the other side there were bright lights. Bright lights, a roar of laughter from grandstands that less than an hour earlier had seen a man fall to his death. Lights, laughter and applause.

Backstage, Neil kept pleading with Mrs. McCrea. Finally, at the finale, he won his point. Like other little boys, Neil wanted to see the fireworks. And see them he did.

His tousled, yellow head bent back as rockets zoomed into the sky. His sister, sober-faced, hung in the background.

Rellim’s partner, Ruth McCrea, had completed her act on the other side of the platform when the accident occurred. “I’ll never go into the air again,” she said afterward. (Minneapolis Star photo)

“Hey, look, Jim,” he called to a friend. “Come here, look at Uncle Sam,” and he pointed to the fireworks.

There was a bang like an exploding arsenal, and a flash that lit up the whole fairgrounds. Neil didn’t wince – his eyes just grew a little bigger, a little rounder.

Once he said, “Mama went away. Why did she go? I wish she could see all this.” But a moment later, some new sight had caught his attention.

“I’d like to hold one of those rockets in my hand,” he said. And then, as huge globs of yellow fire dripped from the sky, he said, “Gee, I’d like to catch one of those.”

From the grandstands came the cries of other children, like Neil, and grownups, too. Backstage, the smoke of the fireworks filled the air and clung to the ground like fog. Biting, acrid smoke that made people’s eyes glisten as they watched the youngster.

Alone in World

“Everybody’s standing in front. I can’t see anything,” said Neil, and he ran out in front of everybody, out onto the field so that he stood silhouetted against the glare of the dying fireworks – a boy of 5½, standing alone.

The crowd left then, and as the performers hurried off to put away their tinsel and take off their grease paint a car from the sheriff’s office drove up. In it rode the woman who today is going to face the hardest job of her life.

AUGUST 2006 UPDATE: Joyce (Rellim) Kuhlman, now 70 years old, still lives in Payson, Ill., where she and her brother were raised. She remembers her father as a soft-spoken, artistic and mechanically minded man. “I remember setting on his lap at night listening to the radio, ‘Amos and Andy,’ curled up in his lap, me on one side and Neil on the other,” she said.

The Rellims spent a lot of time on the road in the 1940s. With his family in tow, Lloyd traveled to 42 states, Canada and Mexico to entertain audiences. “We had a truck that carried the rigging, and a trailer pulled by a car,” Joyce said. “It was a LaSalle. It was pretty good size. It was black and it had white sidewalls. … We had kind of a shoplike area in the truck, where he had his tools and stuff like that. He could make darn near anything.”

Born Lloyd Miller, her father legally changed his name to Rellim – “Miller” spelled backward – when he began performing an aerial act professionally in the late 1920s. He got his start in storybook fashion: “As a kid he ran away with the circus,” Joyce said. “He started out as a roustabout and decided that’s not what he wanted to do. He wanted to be a performer so he started training and created a high-wire act.” He and three partners worked most frequently with the Barnes-Carruthers Circus.

Rellim's children
Contrary to the Tribune’s initial report, Rellim’s children — Joyce, 11, and Neil, 5 — did not witness the accident. (Minneapolis Star photo)

When World War II began, he lost his partners to the draft. He gave up performing and found work at Higgins Shipbuilding in New Orleans. “They built battleships,” Joyce recalled. When the war ended, he offered to perform at the shipyard’s victory celebration if the company would build the rigging for a new act he envisioned.

The act was called “Blondin-Rellim Cycling in the Sky.” Rellim rode a bicycle across a bar at one end of a rectangular frame that pivoted up and down atop a 70-foot pole. A trapeze artist, Ruth McCrea, performed on rings and a trapeze bar on the opposite end of the frame, about 30 feet away. Rellim’s wife, Grace, operated the motorized rigging. “There was no other act like it before or since. He made $100 each time he went up,” Joyce said.

To mount the frame, Rellim and McCrea first climbed a ladder and stood on a platform near the top of the pole. “That was the culprit,” Joyce said. “There was a hook that caught on the platform and threw him off.” Up until a short time before the accident, he had used a safety belt in case of a fall. “But he thought he had perfected the act and was no longer using it,” she said. “He never worked with a net.”

Joyce, then 11, was in a grandstand dressing room when she learned of the accident. “Some other show kids came and told me my dad had fallen,” she said, but she thought they were joking. “When the adults came and wouldn’t let me go outside I knew something was wrong.” Neil hadn’t seen the accident, either. “I guess he was down in the dressing room too,” she said. She doesn’t recall seeing any reporters or photographers.

After the accident, the family returned to Payson to rebuild their lives. Within a year, a Motorola radio factory opened in nearby Quincy, and Grace Rellim got a job there, eventually working as an inspector. Said Joyce: “That’s what put us kids through school. She made 90 cents an hour, which was good money at that time.”

Her brother doesn’t recall anything about the accident; he was a few months shy of 6 at the time. Now 65, he lives in Quincy, about 10 miles from Joyce’s house. He served in the Navy and later worked a truck mechanic. He became an over-the-road driver, Joyce said, when “he got tired of slinging wrenches.” He’s now retired.

Their mother, Grace, now 91, also lives nearby. I wasn’t able to locate Ruth McCrea, who would now be about 89 years old.

Joyce married a farmer. “When my husband decided to quit farming,” she said, “I went to work for construction companies. I was office manager for three construction companies.” Eventually, she grew weary of getting laid off and took a job at the unemployment office, finding other people jobs. She and her husband, now retired, make and sell scale-model trucks.

Lloyd Rellim is buried in Quincy’s Greenmount Cemetery. He was first laid to rest in a poorly maintained cemetery in Marion, Ill., his hometown. But, at his widow’s request, he was reburied in Quincy within days. “My mother couldn’t stand the thought of that old cemetery and the shape it was in,” Joyce said. Etched in the granite marker is a picture of his final act, “Cycling in the Sky.”

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