During my time away from work, one of the projects I have been working on is an oral history based on an amazing lost figure in the entertainment industry, Frank Belmondo. Many of you may not know who he is, but his work has spanned many decades and he has had as diverse a career as any man living. Every Thursday I will put up a new chapter of his life. Please take the time to appreciate this incredible man's life, and feel free to share with your friends!
CHAPTER ONE: HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
STEPHAN BELMONDO, FRANK’S BIRTH FATHER: We were known as The Flying Belmondos – it wasn’t our real last name, but The Flying Belmondozaviches was just not a choice. We worked the carnival circuit throughout the northeast United States as the stars of an acrobat troupe. I would jump through the air and my wife, Reza, would catch me. She’s as strong as a bull moose. I met her outside of Zagreb where she was famous for leg wrestling. I used to hear her matches on the radio. She was undefeated. I get a ticket, I see her go against Magda Davidski – they called Magda “The Clamp” – for thirteen hours straight until Reza won. By the time Reza passed out from exhaustion I knew that I was in love. I talked to her manager and arranged a meeting.
REZA BELMONDO, FRANK’S BIRTH MOTHER: Men in our homeland have different standards for what they look for in women. Leg strength is considered to be very sexy. Stephan used to have me crack walnuts behind my knees. It aroused him very much.
The couple married two months after meeting. The wedding was a small civil ceremony that was attended by both families and Stephan’s pet goat, Georgy.
Shortly after their wedding, however, financial issues caused strain between the couple.
STEPHAN BELMONDO: There was not much need for an acrobat in my town. One of every five males in my town was involved in a tumbling vocation in some kind of way.
Also, due to an unusual mental illness with Reza, a permanent food taster had to be hired by the family, causing more financial strain.
STEPHAN BELMONDO: I could never understand why we needed a food taster. She was always afraid that her food was being poisoned, but she cooked all of the meals by herself. But I loved my wife, so I tried to help her.
REZA BELMONDO: He thinks I am crazy, but please explain how two times before Stephan was about to fire our food taster, they die from food poisoning? Two times! So, who is crazy now?
With a dwindling local economy and increased expenses from burying two food tasters, the Belmondos realized that their only hope was to move to America.
STEPHAN BELMONDO: Reza, my brother Merkin, our food taster and I sneak on a boat in 1969 and made our way across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, the food taster died from botulism on the way there, but the three of us landed safely in New York. I knew a friend that worked as an acrobat in a carnival. I teach Reza some tumbles and how to catch me. She was a natural; she only drop me twice. Six months later, Reza and I begin an acrobat troupe.
Things were improving for the Belmondos as their act gained a small level of popularity. But then, Reza discovered that her body was going through a change.
REZA BELMONDO: I started getting sick every morning. I at first blamed the food taster and tried to kill him with a hatchet, but Stephan calmed me down and had me visit the carnival doctor. He was not a real doctor, but he used to check the horses for hernias. Anyway, he says I am pregnant.
STEPHAN BELMONDO: I had noticed during the pregnancy that Reza was acting really strange. The carnival doctor said it was hormonal, but when she started having conversations with heads of cabbage…I should not say conversations; they were more like arguments. Very one-sided, too – I think that the cabbage was winning. She would get very defensive. When Reza would get frustrated she would throw the cabbage into boiling water. Then she would complain that she could hear the heads of cabbage screaming and that the sound of their screams was like locusts tearing into her eyeballs. I was obviously concerned.
But fortunately, despite Reza’s unusual behavior, the Belmondos had a healthy pregnancy and childbirth.
STEPHAN BELMONDO: We had a boy. We name him Francis Conrad Belmondo, after Connie Francis. Reza loved Connie Francis – she had seen Where the Boys Are at least 27 times on the TV. The only problem, beginning with the whole hatchet thing with the food taster, I was starting to believe that Reza may not be a good woman to raise my son. I thought she was – how do you say it? A homicidal maniac, yes.
Two deaths among carnival workers confirmed Stephan’s suspicions.
JACK MCGANNITY, SHERIFF, LATROBE, PENNSYLVANIA: We had found two clowns inside one of those tiny cars. We at first suspected suffocation since those cars are so tiny and they try to fit so many clowns into it. But then one of our deputies noticed that there was a huge hole underneath the car where all of the clowns would climb up into the car and get out of it from there, so that made suffocation less likely. Then, the same deputy noticed a large hatchet in the back of one clown and hatchet wounds in the other. That ruled out suffocation completely.
STEPHAN BELMONDO: The police they come and interview me and my wife – it’s called “canvassing”, right? I learned that from watching N.Y.P.D. Blue. Reza has blood all over her hands and says that one of her heads of cabbage committed the murders. I was surprised that they didn’t arrest her right away – it took them two days.
While the two days passed without an arrest, a third man, John P. Saunders, an assistant Ferris wheel operator, was found murdered. He was killed with seven strategically-placed lawn darts. Reza Belmondo was arrested and eventually confessed to all three murders.
JACK MCGANNITY: The third murder was unfortunate, but we had some bad press from a previous investigation and didn’t want to miss anything on this one, so we tried to be patient. Of course, we ended up getting even more bad press than we did on the other case, so what are you going to do?
Upon the arrest of Reza Belmondo for triple homicide, Stephan Belmondo was faced with a dilemma: how to raise a newborn son alone while continuing his career as an acrobat. He realized quickly that he couldn’t.
STEPHAN BELMONDO: The life of an acrobat does not give you a lot of time to be a parent. I had no one to help me as my brother Merkin had his own career as a chainsaw juggler to deal with and you cannot have a young child around him when he is practicing.
During a tour stop in Cedar Creek, West Virginia, Stephan had read in a local newspaper about a local pastor, Jeremiah Laster, who had done several good deeds in the community, including saving twelve kittens from a barn fire. Stephan knew at that moment what he had to do.
STEPHAN BELMONDO: I could tell that Reverend Laster was a good man. It hurt me to do so, but I knew that he would be able to help. I put Francis into a basket and left him on the doorstep of the Laster’s house and then I did what the kids call “ding-dong-ditch”.
Unfortunately, if Stephan had read the article on the next page of the same local paper, he would have been made aware of a militant group of Jehovah’s Witnesses known as Witnesses for the Execution. The organization was widely rumored to have committed violent acts toward religious leaders of other faiths in West Virginia, including sneak attacks involving baby ocelots.
BRAD GURNEY, FORMER MEMBER OF WITNESSES FOR THE EXECUTION: What you’d do, see, is take a baby ocelot – we had a secret farm where we’d raise them, see – and you’d rile ‘em up real good, but the whole time they’d have a blanket on their heads, so they couldn’t see anything. By the time the blanket would be lifted they’d sure be pissed, and they’d take it out on the poor guy that would look into the basket. It’s like training a falcon, but, instead, it’s an ocelot.
JEREMIAH LASTER: I was well aware of the Witness for the Execution, and I heard about the ocelot attacks. They also had put a beehive in the one of my friend’s pulpits, Father Hannigan at St. Luke’s. That didn’t turn out well. So, when I saw the basket on my doorstep, I was a little wary. When I saw some movement in the basket, I guess I panicked. I picked up the basket, ran into the backyard, and dropped the basket into the well. I turn around and I see a note that fell out of the basket, saying, “Please take care of my son. I am unable to do so. Thank you for your kindness.” When I heard the crying coming from out of the well, I knew that I made a big mistake. Luckily, the basket landed bottom-first, and it floated. We got him out but it took about an hour and a half.
FRANK BELMONDO: Ever since that time, I’ve had an acute fear of wells. And from what I’ve been told by doctors, that time I was in the well caused a strain in my vocal cords, which has never healed. That’s why I have such a deep voice, even when I first spoke. When I said my first word, I’m told that my dad almost had me exorcised.
GWEN LASTER, FRANK’S ADOPTED MOTHER: I had to talk Jeremiah out of exorcism. Frank was a good boy, you can tell. It took seven years for Jeremiah to be convinced, but he eventually gave in.
(to see Chapter Two, click here)