Song and Dance Man

Sarasota’s Peppi Borza Was a One-of-a-Kind Transatlantic Star

A circus performer who made his name performing with his sister Nita, Borza became a star of stage and screen and was a longtime friend of singer Dusty Springfield.

By Clayton Trutor January 11, 2024

Peppi Borza was one of the most unique performers to come out of Sarasota—and in a town like ours, that's saying something.

Borza was part of the fifth generation of a prominent European circus family that settled permanently in Sarasota—then known as America’s circus town. He and his sister Nita formed one of the world’s most famous acrobatic duos, performing for spectators across North America, both in person and on television. Later, they morphed into a song-and-dance team that toured the world, performing alongside some of the most famous entertainers of the 1950s and 1960s, like Sammy Davis Jr. and Judy Garland.

Borza went on to a career as a recording artist, dancer and actor. He lit up the stages of London and New York and appeared in some of the most high-profile films of the 1970s and 1980s. He was the life of the party in his adopted home of London, where he became one of singer Dusty Springfield’s best friends. Borza died of AIDS in 1990 at just 53 years old, but he left behind an inimitable legacy that is deeply rooted in Sarasota.

“He was heavenly. Sweet, caring. There weren’t many guys like that in those days. He was funny and a pleasure to be around,” says Vicki Wickham, who befriended Borza in London during the 1960s. Wickham was a production assistant on Ready Steady Go!, a British music television series similar to American Bandstand, which Dusty Springfield hosted for a time. In Britain, Borza was simply known as “Peppi” and appeared on Ready Steady Go! as a dancer. Wickham went on to become Springfield’s manager.

“The best part about Peppi was that Dusty adored him," Wickham says. "She was comfortable with him and they did a lot of things together that she would not have done otherwise." His friendship with Springfield went on to become a defining part of Borza's life.

Peppi Borza

Peppi Borza

Giuseppe Mario Charly Borza was born on October 22, 1936, in Portsmouth, England, the son of Antonio “Charly” Borza and Thea Madrigali Borza. His father, who went by Charly, was an acrobat best known for his work on the trampoline. His mother Thea was a skilled bareback horse rider. Borza's parents were of Italian heritage, though his mother was born in Spain, and both traveled across Europe frequently as youngsters while performing with circus troupes.

Borza was the second of the the couple's four children. He had an older sister, Antonia, known as “Nita,” and two younger brothers named Americo and Charly Jr. All four Borza kids learned to speak Italian and Spanish fluently, and all four performed in the circus. But Nita and Peppi were the breakout stars, following their father into the world of acrobatics.

Borza was named after his grandfather Giuseppe, who settled into Sarasota and its circus community during the 1930s. Giuseppe brought Charly and his young family to the United States in 1940, where they filed immigration papers at Ellis Island. Adriana Borza, Charly’s sister, also accompanied the family. A skilled seamstress, Adriana created Nita and Peppi’s costumes into their early adulthoods. All the Borzas resided in Giuseppe’s apartment at 28 N. Osprey Ave., near the corner of Main Street in Sarasota.

As much as anything, 28 N. Osprey Ave. was the Borzas' base of operations. They all toured for much of the year with the Polack Brothers Circus and, later, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. As young children, Borza and Nita performed on high wires and trampolines, contorting themselves in the air. They stood on 40-foot-tall poles and even sat down on chairs, balanced precariously on top of rods no thicker than a dowel.

For much of their childhood, the Borza children bounced from school to school, following the touring schedule of the circuses. Many newspapers across the United States included curiosity stories about the Borzas changing schools or doing their homework alongside members of the Wallenda family while preparing for a show. The first thing Thea Borza would do after pulling into a town was register her children in the local public school. A 1949 story in Texas' San Angelo Evening Standard cites 12-year-old Peppi, then a seventh grader, as attending his 59th school in seven years.

Charitable work was a hallmark of the Borza family, both in their adopted home of Sarasota and on the road. The Borzas often performed in benefits sponsored by Shriner’s Hospitals, and Borza and Nita performed their act for sick children in Florida hospitals, too. For years, the pair hosted monthly birthday parties at Venice Hospital for kids who had to stay overnight while undergoing treatment. In 1955, the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce honored Nita and Peppi for their extensive charity work. Despite the family’s frequent travels, Sarasota was home to the Borzas—a place filled with people who shared their aspirations and experiences.

Borza and Nita both attended Sarasota High School during the early to mid-1950s. They developed a circle of friends that included many other circus family kids, including the Flying Wallendas and the Yongs, a family of acrobats. Borza developed his lifelong reputation as the life of the party in high school, always audacious and up for a prank or mischief. While in high school, he and Nita performed in the Sailor Circus, which began as a Sarasota High School gym class in 1949. (It still exists today, putting on near-professional productions filled with sparkly costumed kids performing fearless feats.) Naturally, the world-class acrobats were the stars of the show.

During his adolescence and young adulthood, Borza put his athleticism to work in the pool. He was an accomplished swimmer and diver, winning numerous AAU diving competitions across the state from the late 1950s through the early 1960s. During his teens and early 20s, he competed at statewide AAU meets for the Sarasota Swim Club. In 1961, he won the state championship in the three-meter diving competition at the Tampa AAU Invitational.

As performers, Borza and Nita evolved during their high school years. They moved from being a purely acrobatic act to a more versatile duo on stage, with an emphasis on their striking dancing skills. Borza developed a sinewy build not dissimilar to a young Jimmy Cagney, giving him the physical wherewithal to do remarkable things with his feet. He and Nita also added mind-reading to their stage repertoire, a parlor trick the siblings had performed at parties for years.

Borza and Nita performed in the road shows of Gene Autry, Judy Garland, and Martin and Lewis. They appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show five times. Their performances combined their acrobatics with song-and-dance routines. The duo toured Europe for the first time in 1957, performing their awe-inspiring acrobatics to crowds in a dozen countries. Initially planned as a four-month tour, additional bookings turned it into a seven-month outing.

In 1958, Borza and Nita performed for eight weeks at Hollywood’s Moulin Rogue alongside the likes of Martin and Lewis and Sammy Davis Jr. Later that year, Borza started performing both as an actor and a dancer. He joined the Manatee Players in Bradenton and performed in a touring version of The Boyfriend, a comedy set in the 1920s. Borza stole the show with his renditions of the Charleston and the Riviera dances.

After a short stint in the Army, Borza returned to performing, both with his sister and on his own. He developed a solo song-and-dance stage routine that incorporated his vocal talents, impressions of contemporary celebrities, one-liners, and an array of dance moves and acrobatic displays.

Professionally, it made sense for him to evolve. Nita married in 1959, settled in Hollywood, California, and started raising a family. She appeared occasionally on stage through the early 1970s before largely retiring to private life. Borza missed his sister dearly. He wrote her frequent long letters and made many long-distance phone calls to southern California from his adopted home in England. That chapter in Borza’s life began during his last full-scale tour with his sister.

In 1960, he and Nita appeared in Sammy Davis Jr.’s traveling show in the United Kingdom. The tour opened up many opportunities for the Borzas. They performed as opening acts for pop stars like the Springfields, the Searchers, and Del Shannon. Working with the Springfields introduced Borza to two people who would become extremely important in his life. Borza, who was openly gay, was for a time the boyfriend of Tom Springfield, the group’s primary songwriter. But he developed a much longer-term relationship with Tom's sister, the group’s lead singer Dusty Springfield. The pair remained the best of friends for the rest of Borza’s life.

After the Springfields disbanded in 1963, Dusty Springfield went on to a tremendously successful career as a solo singer and television personality, hosting the British music show Ready Steady Go! Borza was a partner-in-crime and frequent companion to Springfield, who became one of the most commercially and critically successful artists in the history of popular music. According to Wickham and Penny Valentine, who co-wrote Springfield’s authorized biography, Borza was “delightfully camp, temperamental but caring. He was the only person who could shake Dusty out of a bad mood.”

At the same time, Borza, who went simply by Peppi in the U.K., began to chart a separate path in the entertainment business. He parlayed his singing talents into a recording contract with Decca Records and recorded a series of singles for Decca, including “Pistol Packin' Mama,” which became a top 30 hit in the U.K. The Rolling Stones' manager at the time, Andrew Loog Oldham, produced the track, a novelty song that highlighted Borza’s soulful vocals. (It sounds a bit like the Righteous Brothers’ Bobby Hatfield singing over a Dave Clark Five number.) Mick Jagger raved about the song, too—but it proved to be Borza’s high point on the charts. Decca dropped him from the label in 1966. 

Borza also became one of the U.K.’s great dance connoisseurs during the '60s. He embraced Chubby Checker’s “Twist” like few others, declaring himself the “world’s greatest twister” and “America’s ambassador of the twist” in England. He toured dance halls throughout Great Britain, teaching the twist to thousands of British youth. For a time, he even wrote columns in a pair of British teeny-bopper magazines about the latest dance moves seen in London’s nightclubs.

For much of the 1960s, though, Borza was most famous in the U.K. for being Dusty Springfield’s best friend. British tabloids often featured photographs of the close friends cavorting in public, often being mildly naughty. In 1964, for example, a British newspaper reported that Borza and Springfield unwound on tour in America by going to Woolworth’s, purchasing cups and saucers, and smashing them in alleyways after shows.

“There was one event where Dusty and I were in a taxi, going to Chelsea to pick up Peppi to go to whatever we were going to. As Peppi came out of his house, we both screamed with laughter. He had nothing on except a well-placed twig. The two of us were both giggling ourselves to death—we realized that he couldn’t sit down with that damn twig,” Wickham says. 

“Peppi was very much part of Dusty’s close circle of friends," she continues. “Around them, she didn’t have to be Dusty Springfield, she could be Mary O’Brien [Springfield’s given name].” Springfield brought Borza along to promotional events, he vacationed with members of the Springfield crew in Spain, and he helped form her tight circle in the city of London.

By the early 1970s, Borza was back to parlaying his dancing and acting skills into roles on stage and screen. He appeared in musicals in both London and New York. In 1972, he earned rave reviews for his performance in the musical Applause as the featured dancer alongside star Lauren Bacall. Perhaps his most prominent film role came that same year in the screen version of Man of La Mancha, a musical based on Don Quixote and starring Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren.

Borza spent many months in Rome shooting Man of La Mancha, working closely with O’Toole and Loren. He appears in the film as a muleteer, performing a series of high-flying stunts, including jumping from the top rung of a ladder to the bottom rung. Released in late 1972, the film became one of the top box office hits of 1973.

Borza appeared in several other films during the '70s, including a version of Peter Pan starring Mia Farrow, and Intimate Games, starring George Baker. During the 1980s, he had a short run on British television stalwart Doctor Who. He also continued to appear on Broadway and London’s West End, most notably in the original cast of Evita, in which he held a small role from 1979 through 1983. For a time, he also resided and worked in Paris.

But over the course of the 1980s, Borza's health considerably deteriorated. He contracted the then-new AIDS virus and returned to London to seek out treatment. Springfield stood by him throughout his illness, visiting Borza frequently while he was in the hospital and, later, in hospice. Borza died on July 24, 1990, at Vale Hospital in London's West End. He left part of his estate to Springfield.

Decades after Borza’s death, a window to his life and times remains in downtown Sarasota, in the form of his parents’ old restaurant. In 1958, Charly and Thea Borza retired from the circus. They opened the Main Bar at 1944 Main St., not far from their original home on Osprey Avenue. Sixty-five years later, the business still thrives under the ownership of Chip and Kate Beeman. In addition to its sandwiches, the place has a unique look, with its Tiffany-inspired lights, brown banquettes, and walls covered with signed photographs of celebrities and images of local circus history. Borza's family owned Main Bar between 1958 and 1972, and many of the photos were his doing—souvenirs he brought home from his time with celebrities in the United States and the U.K.

“Some of the pictures are of people Peppi performed with throughout his years in the theater," Chip Beeman says. "The rest of them are pictures of other circus troupes that performed with Charly and Thea and were based in the Sarasota area." When Charly and Thea retired, they took some family photos with them but left the vast majority of images hanging on the wall at Main Bar.

Originally, Main Bar was just that—a drinking establishment frequented by people in the circus business. It evolved for a time into a pizza joint before finding its niche as a sandwich shop. It's known for Thea’s Famous Italian sandwich and her  roast beef, cooked to a perfect rare and still on the menu today. 

“Thea would go home, make roast beefs and bring them to work the next day. It's that rare roast beef that we’re known for,” Beeman says, referring to a practice that has long since fallen by the wayside. “Back in those days, you could do things that you can’t do today.”

The Beemans purchased the business in 2004 from the Saah family, who retained Main Bar's original ambiance for more than 30 years. In addition to praising its sandwiches, hundreds of customers have made a point of telling them to keep the place just the way it is. Signed photos of Emmett Kelly, Karl Wallenda and Jerry Lewis line the walls. The place remains popular among office workers in the area and does a great lunch business.

Beeman says he did have the chance to meet three of the four Borza children: Nita, Charly Jr., and Americo. Thea and Charly Sr. passed away before he took over the business. Beeman says the three Borzas that he met were friendly, gracious, and generous with their memories. Both Nita and Charly Jr. have since died. Americo is a retired attorney who still lives in the Sarasota area.

Beeman adds that a number of years ago, Charly Borza Jr. stopped by and had a Famous Italian. He said was just like his mother used to make it.

“We still have people who come in that look at the wall and say, 'That was my great aunt' or 'That was my grandmother,” Beeman says. Once, a customer came in and said the woman being shot out of a cannon in one of the photos was his mother. Three weeks later, another customer came in and said the woman in that same picture was his ex-wife. 

Few commercial spaces display Sarasota’s past as a circus town as thoroughly as Main Bar. It's a window to the world that Borza and performers like him and his family helped create in Sarasota. And Borza’s contributions to its walls are themselves proof of the way that this most versatile of performers brought a little bit of Sarasota to the rest of the world.

Clayton Trutor holds a Ph.D. in US History and teaches at Norwich University. He is the author of Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta—and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports and the forthcoming Boston Ball: Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun, Gary Williams, and the Forgotten Cradle of Basketball Coaches. He’d love to hear from you on X, formerly known as Twitter: @ClaytonTrutor

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