Swinging into the ring, attired in a loincloth, he was “Tarzan Zerbini, Lord of the Jungle” in one of the most innovative and crowed-pleasing wild animal acts of the 20th century. His dedication to the circus led him in 1980 into ownership of his own circus, a highly successful one-ring European style tenter that is the largest producer of Shrine shows in North America
Jean “Tarzan” Zerbini: A Life in the Circus Spotlight
In the captivating world of circus entertainment, Jean “Tarzan” Zerbini is a name etched in both daring feats and harrowing encounters with the majestic yet formidable denizens of the wild. The storied career of this fearless showman has been marked by a series of heart-stopping moments that have tested his mettle, leaving an indelible mark on the annals of circus history.
Zerbini’s life story is a tapestry woven with audacious exploits and a profound understanding of the creatures he once commanded in the center ring. The Saturday mornings spent at PAL Sailor Circus, where he candidly shares his experiences, bear testament to a lifetime molded by both triumphs and tribulations.
Recalling a fateful incident from his youth, Zerbini reminisces about an ill-fated decision that led to a brutal encounter with a 400-pound lion. “I was an idiot — I mixed male lions and female lions together, which I never should’ve done,” he reflects, recounting the episode that left him with a broken arm and required 500 stitches to heal. “The male just wanted to get to the female, and I was in the way.”
Despite the perils he faced, Zerbini’s resilient spirit and unmatched showmanship have not gone unnoticed. This weekend, he stands alongside five other luminaries of the circus world as they are inducted into the prestigious Circus Ring of Fame at St. Armands Circle.
In a public ceremony on Sunday afternoon, Zerbini, alongside bandmaster Charles Schlarbaum and the revered sideshow performer/owner Ward Hall, will be honored for their contributions. Among them are the Atayde brothers — Andres, Alberto, and Alfredo — stalwarts of Mexico’s enduring Circo Atayde Hermanos. These ceremonies promise a glimpse into the lives of these entertainment legends, inviting the public to share in their remarkable journeys.
Amidst these accolades, Zerbini, now 68, remains an emblem of daring and innovation. Embracing the persona of Tarzan, he adorned himself in a leopardskin diaper, swinging into the cage akin to the legendary King of the Apes. Yet, unlike some renowned trainers, Zerbini chose animated vocal commands over traditional implements like the whip, chair, or blank-shooting pistol.
His career was marked by unforgettable incidents. At 25, Zerbini faced a life-threatening mauling by a lion named Fred during a live performance in Detroit. Accepting responsibility for the accident, he astonishingly returned to the ring, bandaged but unbowed. Even in the aftermath of such incidents, Zerbini would perform, connecting himself to antibiotic IV drips to stave off infections.
Such moments of danger and resilience were not isolated incidents. Zerbini recalls an instance where he found himself with a lion’s jaws wrapped around his head after a spectator’s balloon startled the creature during a show. “I ended up with a few stitches from that one, too,” he recounts with a wry smile, reminiscing about the blood and the subsequent swift action by paramedics that allowed him to resume his performance.
Despite his retirement from animal acts fifteen years ago, Zerbini remains a sage figure within the circus world. Offering advice to aspiring performers, he distinguishes between lions and tigers, asserting a preference for the former due to their perceived limitations. “Tigers are a lot more agile,” he advises, “they’ll figure out all the angles before they attack. A lion, if he’s going to attack you, he ain’t gonna think about it twice, he’ll come right at you.”
Reflecting on a career that spanned decades, Zerbini’s enduring legacy lies not only in his fearless interactions with apex predators but also in his invaluable insights into the enigmatic world of circus entertainment. As he continues to operate a circus out of Webb City, Missouri, his experiences stand as a testament to the indomitable spirit that defines the realm of the big top.