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Gymnastics crosses sports barrier into world of slick entertainment

Chances are most of you have never heard of the United States Professional Gymnastics Classic. But you will, and if some network television variety hour doesn't grab part of this show, I'll be surprised.

Professionally choreographed, costumed and directed, the US Pro Gymnastics Classic has, in spectacular fashion, crossed the sports barrier into the world of sophisticated entertainment. And that's not bad.

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This is a collection of world-class male and female gymnasts, many of them former Olympians or Olympic hopefuls, whose inaugural tour throughout the United States a year ago took them to 39 cities, and who will make 44 stops on this one. Basically it is a show that cascades like a sparkling stream alongside some of the muddy waters that pass for family entertainment these days.

The group features such outstanding personalities as three-time world champion Kurt Thomas; four-time All America Ron Galimore; plus numerous other young men and women whose talents we declare to be self-evident. In addition there is laughter with a capital L from Paul Hunt, who must be the world's premier gymnastic comedian.

If you don't know what a pommel-horse is - well, you find out in a hurry from Thomas, who can make his body fly in so many directions that Mr. Newton might be tempted to repeal his law of gravity.

Galimore, whose father, Willie, once starred in the backfield of the Chicago Bears, goes Superman one better by being able to somersault (vault) tall buildings with a single bound. Meanwhile Hunt, who steals the comedy side of the show with routines that suggest his body is made of Silly Putty, has no trouble playing Little Red Riding Hood, even with a moustache.

Although none of these performers could do what they do without having first mastered the art of gymnastics, their show routines have about as much relation to sports as Ice Follies does to the National Hockey League. That is, except for some straight gymnastics competition at what would normally be intermission time. At this point eight gymnasts, four men and four women, compete against each other for extra money.

However, this feature is not necessary to the success of the show. Rather, this time seems to have been deliberately set aside to pacify serious members of gymnastic clubs who come primarily to watch their heroes perform Olympic routines.

Once the show begins, things move so quickly from the parallel bars to the balance beam to the sky rings, which hang approximately 10 feet above the floor, that the audience never gets a chance to catch its breath. Even the production numbers, of which there are several, are first class. And the show has been tailored to run on Broadway show tune tracks that are instantly recognizable.

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Basically you don't have to know anything about gymnastics to realize that you are seeing something special. But it helps in getting a feel for the action if, as a kid, you ever tried to hang by your hands for any length of time from the branch of a tree.

The driving force behind Professional Gymnastics is producer Rick Appleman, who has worked closely with the United States Gymnastics Federation for the past nine years. Appleman seems to have developed a flair for what the sports and/or entertainment fan will buy next, and how to package it.

Rick certainly anticipated the public's appetite correctly several years ago when he arranged an American tour for Olga Korbut and the Soviet Union's women's team. Later he did the same for Romania's Nadia Comaneci.

Of course the star is still the thing and Thomas, who retired from amateur competition after the United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, is easily this country's biggest name in gymnastics. Some of the others too, like Galimore and Hunt, are well known by followers of the sport if not exactly household names to the general public.

When you meet these people after the performance, only then do you begin to realize that all of them seem to be made from flexible steel, look younger than their years, and are practically all the same height - about 5 ft. 5 in.

''Most short people have a more natural center of gravity for gymnastics than those who are taller,'' Thomas explained. ''But what we are doing still requires the ultimate in talent, agility, and strength to body weight.

''Once you've learned how, the toughest part of gymnastics is the tremendous amount of friction that it creates on your hands,'' Kurt continued. ''Wearing gloves does not help for two reasons - they roll up and they also take away the natural feel you need for this sport. Mostly you just learn to tough it out.''

Believe me, this show is gymnastics as shown from the penthouse. In fact the night I saw Pro Gymnastics at the Los Angeles Forum, it got a standing ovation.

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