Saturday, June 30, 2012

Daredevil Acrobat Was America’s First Celebrity Super Star

The Great Blondin on the rope high above the gorge below Niagara Falls.


Just a half a month ago, on June 15, the young scion of a legendary circus family, Nik Wallenda, strolled above  Niagara Falls on a high wire.  The act was promoted by the local tourist industry which has been hurting.  Evidently pilgrimages to gawk at the Falls are not as popular as they used to be and newlyweds who can afford a honeymoon now seem to prefer localities with sandy beaches and palm trees.  ABC Television broadcast the event, to tepid ratings.


Still, it was quite an accomplishment and Wallenda was the first to cross directly above the great cascades rather than over the gorge below the Falls.  ABC also demanded that the acrobat remain tethered to the wire so that in event of a slip he would not fall into the water.


But on June 30, 1859 French born acrobat Charles Blondin took a stroll across the gorge bellow Niagara Falls on a rope 1100 feet long, 3¼ inches in diameter, 160 feet above the swirling water. 


Over the next few months he crossed 17 more times in front of ever larger, more astounded crowds, each time with a new twist.  He crossed blind folded, hopping in a sack, pushing a wheelbarrow, on stilts and carrying his manager on his back. He balanced a chair on the rope and then stood on it.  He stopped to take pictures of the crowd with a bulky glass-plate negative camera. Once he carried a small stove, stopped in the middle of the wire to cook and eat an omelet.


His picture graced the cover of popular magazines and newspapers were filled with his exploits.  He became one of the first popular entertainment celebrities in American history, known and admired even by those who would never see him perform. 


Born Jean-Francois Gravelet in St. Omer, France, on February 28, 1824 his gymnast father encouraged his early interest in circus acrobatics.  He tried to duplicate a high wire act that he saw in a traveling circus at age 5 by stringing a rope between to chairs.  He showed such remarkable agility and great balance that his father enrolled him in the Ecole de Gymase in Lyon. After six months of training was good enough to start performing successfully as The Little Wonder. 


His father died leaving him an orphan and on his own at age 9, but he had no trouble finding work in circuses and in other venues.  By 1851 he was so well known in Europe that the American theatrical impresario William Niblo recruited him to come to New York City to perform with the Ravel Troupe of acrobats at his famous Niblo Gardens. 


The popular act toured the country for several years.  Gravelet adopted the stage name Blondin or the Great Blondin because of his blonde hair.  Blondin and the Ravel Troupe performed with an early incarnation of P.T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth and later he became part owner of his own circus. 


Blondin married his first wife Charlotte in New York.  The couple had three children, two of them born while on the road.  In 1858 the troupe performed near Niagara and Blondin became obsessed with crossing the gorge on a tightrope.  It took more than a year to secure the necessary permissions and make arrangements. 


The Niagara stunts made him in demand everywhere.  He abandoned his long association with the Ravel Troupe and with the able assistance of manager Harry Colcord parlayed his fame into riches.  He demanded a $500 minimum for a performance and at the height of his career made the astonishing sum of half a million dollars a year. 


In 1861 he built a stately mansion named, aptly, Niagara Villa in Ealing, a village near London. 
Intending to retire, he found himself still in demand. 


The Prince of Wales, who had witnessed one of the Niagara crossings, arranged for him to appear at the Crystal Palace where he duplicated many of his Niagara stunts in front of a painted backdrop of the falls.  The renewed celebrity led to extensive tours of England and the continent. 


His stunts only gained in audacity, including pushing a lion across the wire in a wheel barrow.  He frequently performed before as many as 10,000 paying customers.  During another stint at the Crystal Palace Charles Dickens may have explained his popularity, “Half of London is here eager for some dreadful accident.” 


Blondin continued to perform for three more decades adding new twists to his act, including using a bicycle.  Other tightrope walkers complained that we was ruining their careers and risking their lives—audiences would accept nothing else but Blondin’s sensational stunts.  He made occasional trips back to the United States in addition to shows in Britain and Ireland. 


In his long career Blondin had occasional accidents, mostly due to equipment failure, but escaped serious injury.  The worst accident occurred in Dublin in 1861, not long after he resumed performing.  While performing 50 above ground his rope broke.  Blondin was able to grab a hand hold, but the supporting scaffolding collapsed killing two workers.  The acrobat was held harmless in an investigation but a judge said that the manufacture of the 2 inch diameter rope, “had a lot to account for.” 


At a Liverpool  performance around the same time  a guy wire snapped while he was pushing the lion in the wheelbarrow entangling the wheelbarrow.  Blondin extracted both himself and the cat from the mishap. Such displays of aplomb only won him a more devoted audience. 


He made his final performance at Belfast, Ireland in 1896.  He died the following year at his beloved Ealing home of complications of diabetes.  He was mourned the world over, but nowhere more the Ealing, where he had become a beloved resident.  He was buried next to his first wife and the mother of his children, Charlotte, who had died in 1888.  His second wife, Katherine  would be buried with them when she died in 1901. 


A statue to Blondin was erected in Birmingham, the site of one of his most famous and daring shows, the 1873 crossing of Edgbaston Reservoir.  In Ealing his memory is honored by two roads, Blondin and Niagara Avenues, and in 1997 the Blondin Community Orchard was planted to make the centennial of the acrobat’s death.


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