I met Billy in 1976, my first year running around with circuses. He was an amazing person and I adored him.
Billy was in his late forties in 1976 and still doing his signature cloud swing act, as Prince Najvez, the Aztec God of Flight. It was a wonderful, scary, exhilarating act.
A cloud swing is kind of like a trapeze, only it does not have a fixed bar at the bottom. It's just a rope.
Billy was a consummate showman. He'd been in circuses all of his life; he even appeared in the movie Billy Rose's Jumbo in 1962 as a circus performer.
He was friends with Mae West! She nicknamed him "Mr. Sensation". He once told me that Mae West told him that "while everyone else was partying, I was buying the land they were partying on!"
I think he took to me because I was a girl clown. He liked to try to shock me -- once he invited me into his trailer to show a huge, lifelike (right down to the veins) dildo. It stood upright on the dining table. When I didn't run screaming from the trailer, he flipped the "on" switch and it started rotating! I cracked up, along with Billy.
But let's get back to the act for a minute. I wish I had gotten a picture of Billy in one of his ornate Prince Najvez headdresses -- they were the equal of any Mardi Gras Indian or Mummer. When he went all out, his partner Bobby would also dress as a less fancy Aztec. I never got to see that, alas!
But I sure did get to see the act. He did a beautiful aerial routine, including death drops and precarious hanging tricks (like the one shown here).
The grand finale was called "The Flight of the Golden Eagle". After the ringmaster called for silence in the audience, the music would swell and Billy would make a point of donning these velvet cuffs that were hanging from the top of swing. Then he pumped the swing until it was about as high as it could go.
And then he somersaulted OFF THE SWING and HURTLED TOWARD THE GROUND!
Right as he jumped, fireworks erupted on either side of the ring, continuing as he swung back and forth until he slowed enough to plant his feet. As soon as he landed, Bobby ran out with the robe, draped it over Billy's shoulders, and Billy dropped to his knees to accept his applause.
The. Crowd. Went. Nuts. Every single time, the crowd went nuts.
One time, Bobby enlisted my help in a prank. Just before Billy was to go on, Bobby pulled me aside and had me don one of the fancy headdresses. I lurked, just out of Billy's sight, as the Prince Najvez was announced. To the stirring strains of the processional music, I marched into the ring, right behind Billy. He turned to hand me his robe and gasped! Then he said, through gritted teeth, "Now get the hell out!"
The act went on as normal, but Billy was not happy. And an unhappy Billy Barton was not fun to be around. He came up to me after the show, sat me down, and said, "I don't blame you; you didn't know any better. BUT! I am FURIOUS at that son of a bitch who got you to do this. NEVER AGAIN, HEAR?"
You bet, Billy. Never again.
When the show played Baltimore, Billy (who was from a small town on the Maryland/Pennsylvania border) said to me "You know, all my friends are coming to the show tonight."
I replied, "So are mine, Billy!"
And he replied, "Yes, but all my friends are gay!"
And I replied, "Well, a lot of my friends are gay too!"
Billy didn't even hesitate. "I always knew you were a fag hag, Mary!" he laughed.
Billy died in 2005 while working for the Jordan World Circus, a showman to the end.