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The World Bellyflop and Cannonball Diving Championship: Yesterday and ....

Bellyflopping with fire effect

Interview with Butts Giraud,
Four time World Champion
By Chris Hamlyn
Nanaimo News Bulletin
(Reprinted with permission)


Who would know that a small splash in a pool in Vancouver, B.C. Canada would create such a big wave across North America? Or for that matter, around the world.

But that is just what happened when a gentleman by the name of Tom Butler had an idea an idea for the opening of the pool at the Bayshore Inn in 1975. The idea was the World Bellyflop and Cannonball Diving Championship.

"Tom Butler was the promotion manager for the Bayshore Inn and quite a public relations kind of guy,"remembers Butts Giraud, who took part in the first event and went on to become and became a four-time world bellyflop and cannonball champion in six years.

"The May 24th weekend was coming up with the opening of the pool and he wanted to attract publicity to the Bayshore." Invitations were sent out and the event attracted stars such as professional wrestlers Andre the Giant. Gene Kiniski and Giraud as well as Bill Baker and Wayne Smith who played football for the Saskatchewan Roughriders and radio personality David Ingram.

"About 26 of us were invited to the inaugural World Bellyflop and Cannonball Diving Championships to open the pool,"remembers Butts. Later on they changed the date to July from May because of bad weather The first competition had a lot of publicity thanks to the job Tom did. Minimum weight was 250 pounds but there was not a lot of rules or regulations Judges included columnists George Daacon of the Honolulu Star Bulletin, Earl Bradford of Radio CKNW, Kay Alsop of the Vancouver Daily Province and Joy Metcalf.

The day dawned beautiful day and a crowd of about 2,500 people came out to watch. Andre the Giant stood 7'4" 525 pounds and had never been in a pool in his whole life. "He never actually tried a bellyflop but I think he would have broken the board,"says Butts. "Those boards weren't made for him even though they had brought in special boards just to handle all the weight."

From inception, the event was an immediate success and Tom had hit on a great idea. Butts won the first championship and attributes it to practice, practice, practice. "If you're going to go out and do something, you have to know what you're doing,"he says. "I didn't want to go out and be a flop, pardon the pun."

The event won the American Hotel and Motel Association Gold Key public relations achievement award out of New York in 1976. After that first year Butts worked on perfecting the dives, understanding it's all about show business. Next year (with a wrestling background) he combined new ideas and new gimmicks to make it better. "When you only have three cannonballs and three bellyflops, you couldn't go out and do ordinary dives. You had to do something spectacular,"he says" "Timing is everything and even though it's all tongue in cheek, there's a good bellyflop and a bad bellyflop. "And of course being a little bit crazy and taking on a particular personality doesn't hurt. "What you have to do is incorporate some excitement in your dives because it's show business.

"If you just keep your mouth shut and dive, nothing happens. "We were entertainers doing our job on a stage." The second year took place at the Bayshore Inn with Butts successfully defending his title. The third year the championship moved out to the Delta Airport Inn and the competition moved to a new level. "The third year we worked with stunt coordinators Tom Fisher and John and Betty Thomas,"says Butts.

Fisher won a special effects academy award for the Arnold Schwarzengger film True Lies But the pros couldn't make it due to commitments with the Superman movies, and with a pyrotechnic miscue, Butts came second to Jake Decker. Tom Butler's efforts with publicizing the championship continued and included Butts making an appearance on To Tell The Truth, What's My Line and increased interest from NBC Sportsworld

"Tom's forte was to take this World Bellyflop and Cannonball Diving Championship from a little pool opening to being publicized all over the world with coverage including Great Britain, Germany, Spain and Australia,"says Butts.

"We came close a couple of times to appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. That would have been the big time but our schedules didn't fit."

The annual event took off to a point where crowds were poolside two or three hours before the contest even began and for the fourth year the competition moved from the Delta Airport Inn to the Coach House Inn in North Vancouver The Coach House could accommodate the 3,000 or 4,000 people that were now attending.

NBC Sportsworld came up to cover the championships and competitors came from as far away as Hawaii, Fiji and Japan. "The Coach House was the big time,"says Butts. Arte Johnson from Laugh In and former New York Jets Mike Adamley came up with NBC as commentators and Tom Butler pulled off a huge coup by arranging for Billy Carter to come up as a celebrity judge.

"Tom Butler was a master of protocol and putting together these events, saw a great opportunity and contacted Carter's agent,"says Butts. "Billy was getting a lot of publicity as the president's brother in the tabloids." "Now the World Cannonball and Bellyflop Diving Championships had the athlete show boats, television exposure and a world renowned judge like Billy Carter." Local exposure was also a big factor in the success of the championship.

"From a Vancouver radio standpoint, we had CKNW Radio with Earl Bradford Frosty Forest and Rick Honey,"says Butts. "Without them it wouldn't have been the success it was."

World Cannonball and Bellyflop Diving Championships caught the attention of U.S. media and with the television personalities, the event had the package, all the ingredients to take it up a notch. Giraud toured in Seattle, promoting the championship and again the event received U.S. media exposure. In the fourth year, Butts won the championship for his third time, successfully diving off the board with flaming pyrotechnics. Then he retired.

With the championship up for grabs in 1979, the fifth event went ahead at the Coachhouse and Robin Gentile found himself the world champion. In the meantime, Butts and Tom became partners and while owning half of the business, Butts was still a headline act and came out of retirement.

That's when Tom put together a whale of a promotion. Working with the Vancouver Aquarium, Butts went up against his biggest bellyflop competitor ever in Skanna the Orca whale.

"Tom talked them into it and I was the first person to swim in the pool. In those days the trainers never even went in the pool,"says Butts. "I was kind of naive but when you're young, you do things that are kind of crazy."

A couple of thousand people were watching and with bands playing and the whales in the holding tanks, Butts did his first of three scheduled bellyflops. "I did my first dive and got out with no problem,"he remembers. The second jump Butts hits the water and Hyak the younger whale gets interested. "I look behind me and see this big dorsal fin knifing through the water right at me,"he says.

"I don't think anyone ever saw me move so quickly in all my life." Laughing it off, Butts heads up the platform to do his third dive but it wasn't to be. What the television cameras did not show was Skanna right below the platform with his mouth wide open "The place just broke up in laughter. It was hilarious but I didn't go in the water,"says Butts.

"I thought let him do his bellyflop now." But Skanna was not up to the challenge, putting on a series of dolphin breaches but not a bellyflop. "I think he figured he was above the bellyflop nonsense and wouldn't lower himself to the human level,"laughs Butts.

But the promotion worked wonders for the sixth annual World Cannonball and Bellyflop Diving Championships. With all the television exposure, Tom had worked his magic again. The sixth show featured a number of pyrotechnic dives and one near disastrous incident. "That's the one where I did the burns, the fancy dives and the final dive off a 30 foot platform,"says Butts. "That's also the one where I blew up the hotel room."

Wired up with pyrotechnics in the room, Butts made one last check. "I went into the bathroom to brush my hair and I pushed the button by mistake,"he says. "I looked at the mirror and behind me, the shower curtain just melted. "I come out of the bathroom screaming, in a ball of flames. "Tom Fisher and John Thomas grab the blanket off the bed and wrap me up and douse the flames. "I'm on the floor in pain but I've got to do my final dive." The room was completely filled with smoke and Thomas and Fisher had to get a battery pack, wire Butts up and do it all over again in darkness. The fire delayed the competition by 20 minutes and did $1,500 damage to the room.

"These guys are professionals but they still didn't know if it was going to work,"says Butts. "You couldn't see a thing and we didn't want to open a window and attract attention." But being the professional he is, Butts made it out and up a lift to the top of the platform. "It was my last year so there was no sense in doing a dive off a one metre board,"he says. "I've already done that so I wanted to go out with something spectacular. I was more afraid of falling off the platform than diving in the water."

But it worked even though he was in pain for a week after that. "It's show business. You shake off the pain,"he says. But it was retirement after that for Butts and he and Tom decided the event has run its course in Vancouver.

"It got too big and we had to take it to the States,"he says. Hawaii was the next step with the event being held there for two years. Then it was off to Australia where it was franchised. "We also did Tallahassee, Florida.,"says Butts.

"But after 10 years it reached its peak and towns put their own bellyflop shows on. "I think it came to a point where we exhausted the whole thing. But we had a good run and they still have bellyflop contests today."

Could you bring it back to it's popularity of old? Everything seems to come around again and again,"says Butts. "If someone wanted to, you might, but I don't think it would be as big as it was. "But it's all about timing and whether there's a new generation of people out there willing to do crazy things."