Paula Dell, whose acrobatic feats made her a Muscle Beach star in Santa Monica, Calif., and a pioneering and fearless Hollywood stuntwoman — for one film, she was shot out of a cannon — died on Jan. 9, 2017 at her home in Santa Monica. She was 90.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, her son, Randy Boelsems, said.
Muscle Beach was already a physical fitness haven for weight lifters, stuntmen and gymnasts when Ms. Dell, at age 7, moved to Los Angeles from Colorado with her parents and her older sister, Rosalie, in the early 1930s. That first sight of Muscle Beach enchanted her.
“It was this magical place that changed my life and set my life forever,” she said when interviewed for a City of Santa Monica oral history project in 2010. “And here were all these fellas doing flyaways off the rings and tumbling, and it was a very unusual place.”
Early on, a gymnastics coach there did a trick that she already knew. She asked if he would do it with her.
“And so he said, ‘Sure,’ ” she recalled. “And he said: ‘If you can do that trick, you can do this one. If you can do this one, you can do that one!’ And he kept going, and I was never the same.”
She became known for flying off one side of a teeterboard after a man jumped onto the other side, and for being tossed into the air and caught, by muscular men, in a trick called the adagio.
“She was ‘the flyer of Muscle Beach,’ ” Steve Ford, the curator of the MuscleBeach.net website, said in an interview. “She was a pioneer of what was very new and nuanced in the ’40s and ’50s,” performing feats then that he said are now “common in Cirque du Soleil.”
Ms. Dell performed at the DeWayne Brothers Circus, along with Russell M. Saunders, another Muscle Beach star and stuntman, who became her acrobatics partner.
“She’d do the teeterboard, the trampoline, pyramids, the Spanish Web and the Flying Ladder,” Mr. Boelsems said. “The circus was a little one-ring thing, with a clown, an acrobat and a horse.”
Her acrobatics were a natural fit for stunt work, but few women were doing it in the early 1960s. Most often, men dressed as women performed stunts for actresses.
“Even when a woman was hired, someone on the set would think or pretend the stunt was too hard for her, and they ought to get a man in there,” Mollie Gregory, author of “Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story,” said.
Ms. Dell found stunt work in films like the 1963 Disney comedy “Son of Flubber,” with Fred MacMurray, and in Otto Preminger’s 1965 war epic “In Harm’s Way.”
Her cannon feat came as Carol Channing’s stunt double in the 1967 film musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
In the scene, Ms. Dell is shown emerging from the cannon (no gun powder was used) just before the camera cuts quickly to Ms. Channing, playing the nightclub singer Muzzy Van Hossmere, “flying” onto a stage full of acrobats.