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.


Friday, June 29, 2012

When Props Go Wrong—A Bad Day at the Globe


Folks who have been involved in theater, amateur or professional, love to swap yarns about various disasters in front of live audiences.  Ask me sometime about when the set fell on my head in the middle of a Jules Feiffer one act play at Shimer College. 

But even the most grizzled theatrical veteran would have a hard time topping what happened to the cast of Henry VIII on June 29, 1613.  During a performance a cannon set off during the performance sparked a fire in the Globe Theater’s thatched roof, burning the structure to the ground.  Fortunately no one was seriously injured, although one actor was said to have suffered an indignity to his pants. 

The Globe, of course, was the famous London theater where William Shakespeare had most of his plays produced and where he appeared in many of them as an actor.  Henry VIII is today one of The Bard’s less produced plays, both because of the liberties taken with the well known historical facts of Henry’s reign and because of suspicion that it was either co-authored or heavily tinkered with by another Globe playwright, John Fletcher.   

The Globe was constructed from timbers of an earlier venue known simply as The Theater in 1599.  That building was built on leased land and when the lease was up, the landlord claimed the building, which was owned by an association of actors.  To retrieve their property the actors hired a carpenter, Peter Street and joined him in disassembling the building in December of 1598 while the landlord was celebrating Christmas in the country.  The material was hidden until the next summer when it was floated across the Themes and the new theater constructed on marshy ground south of Maiden Lane. 

The new building evidently substantially re-created the original, although it may have been enlarged.  The Globe was owned originally by six actors who were shareholders in the theatrical troupe The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  One of the six was a minority share holder, Will Shakespeare himself.  The building was an open air amphitheater about 100 feet in diameter contained in a building three stories high.  Although described as The Wooden O and portrayed in the only contemporary sketch, by Wenceslas Hollar, archeological evidence now suggests that it may have been a twenty-sided structure. 

Three levels of stadium stile boxes protected under and over-hanging thatched roof were built on the interior walls.  Surrounding an apron stage about 43 by 27 feet and raised five feet, was a large open area where groundlings paid a penny to stand and watch performances while their betters lounged in the boxes.  As many as 3000 people could be jammed into the theater, which was one of London’s most popular places of amusement. 

The design of the theater was believed to mimic the inn courtyards where traveling theatrical troupes performed in earlier days. 

Shakespeare himself at age about 50 seems to have retired from active involvement in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men about the time of the fire, and perhaps because of it.  When a second Globe was erected on the foundation of the first in 1614 he seems to be gone, although his plays continued to be revived as the source of most of the troupe’s material.  He died in his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1616. 

The new Globe continued on until something even more deadly than fire befell it—Puritans.  It was closed by order of the Cromwell government in 1642 and probably razed two years later to make way for tenements. 

In 1997 Shakespeare’s Globe, a modern reproduction of the first theater, opened a few yards from the original site and regularly produces plays from the Shakespeare cannon.  Three years ago during a cycle of all of the Bard’s history plays Henry III received a rare revival there.  This time the cannon fired safely.  Everyone was relieved.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Bloody Birth of a New World—Assassination in Sarajevo


Note: Revised and corrected from a 2010 post.

A good case can be made for abandoning the current B.C./A.D.—or B.C.E/C.E.—division of historic time in favor of B.S./A.S.Before Sarajevo/After Sarajevo.  Certainly the world changed utterly on June 28, 1914 when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, Duchess Sophie of Hohenberg were assassinated in the capital of provincial Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

The whole brutal avalanche of modern history turns on the death of a comic-opera princeling at the hands of a fanatic teenage nationalist.  Franz Ferdinand was the nephew of the elderly Austro Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph and was his designated heir.  He had assumed more and more public ceremonial duties from his uncle. 

The Dual Monarchy of Austria and Hungary ruled a multi-ethnic empire in central Europe.  In the late 19th Century it had expanded southward, absorbing some of the former Slavic provinces of the fading Ottoman Empire.  Bosnia and Herzegovina first came under Austrian sway by treaty in 1878 when it occupied and undertook administration of the provinces which remained officially under Ottoman sovereignty. 

In 1903 pretense was dropped and the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed the lands, which were peopled by a volatile mix of ethnic groups and divided by religion—Catholic Croatians, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosnians among others.  All resented rule from Vienna almost as much as they feared and distrusted each other. 

Meanwhile modern Serbia had arisen as an independent kingdom in 1882 and quickly became aggressive and expansionist seeking to unite Orthodox ethnic Serbs in several surrounding states into a Greater Serbia.  It had claims on Bosnia and nearly came to war when the Empire annexed it. 

In the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars with its neighbors, Serbia seized Macedonia from the Ottomans and Kosovo from Bulgaria.  Its reckless aggressiveness was made possible by a close alliance with the Orthodox Russian Empire which saw an opportunity to advance its sphere of influence deep into Europe. 

The Serbs sought to destabilize the Slavic provinces with secret terrorist societies like the Black Hand and by subsidizing local nationalists groups, like the Young Bosnia movement made up of teenage romantics.

For his part, Franz Ferdinand supported a break from the unyielding rule of his uncle when he would come to power.  He proposed making the Slavic south as a Third Crown in the Empire theoretically brining them into equality with Germanic Austria, and Magyar Hungary.  Under the scheme the provinces would be granted significant self rule and a policy of reconciliation with  Serbia would be pursued. 

This equally alarmed the Serbs, who felt that such reforms would derail their plans for eventual annexation, the local nationalists, and the Russians whose ambitions would have been checked by their traditional rival empire. 

There had been sporadic assassination attempts against various officials, including Emperor Franz Joseph himself in 1910.  Tensions in the region were running high.  The provision of arms and explosives to local groups was managed by the Serbian intelligence services, but may have been carried out either without the knowledge and consent of the King and Prime Minister, or with veneer of separation allowing for “plausible deniability.” 

When the Emperor announced he was sending Franz Ferdinand to observe military maneuvers in Bosnia on a date fraught with historical significance to Serb nationalists, Serb diplomats in Vienna evidently did warn officials of the possibility of an attack, but this was written off by the Austrians as a bluff. 

Serbian intelligence agents meanwhile smuggled hand guns, grenades, money, and suicide pills to a small group of young nationalists in Sarajevo Gavrilo Princip, Trifun Grabež, and Nedeljko Čabrinović and sent others recruited from Belgrade, including Bosnian Muslim Mehmed Mehmedbašić, Vaso Čubrilović, and Cvjetko Popović, to undertake the assassination attempt. 

On June 28 the assassins were posted at various points along the announced route of a motorcade carrying the Archduke and his wife.  Two conspirators lost nerve as the motorcade passed but the third, Čabrinović, lobbed a bomb at the Archduke’s car which scratched Sophie’s cheek and landed on the pavement on the far side of the car.  Its timed detonator went off under the following car injuring 20 people. 

The Archduke dismissed the attempt as the work of a “lunatic” and ordered that the day’s activities be continued, although the caravan sped its way to the next scheduled stop, the Town Hall.  On its way the car passed three other conspirators too quickly for them to act.  It looked like the mission was a failure. 

Discouraged one of the men 19 year old, Prinicp, went to a delicatessen for something to eat.  When he emerged he saw Franz Ferdinand’s open car reversing after having taken a wrong turn as it drove past. 

The Archduke had decided to visit the wounded from the earlier attack after making a speech at the Town Hall instead of immediately driving out of the city.  He was guarded only by Lieutenant Colonel Count Franz von Harrach standing on the running board of the car. 

The car stalled as the driver tried to reverse.  Prinicp was able to get within feet of the car and squeezed off two rounds from his automatic pistol.  The first round passed through the car and caromed into Sophie’s abdomen.  The second struck the Archduke in the neck severing his jugular vein.  Sophie spoke then pitched forward between her husband’s legs.  Franz Ferdinand reportedly said, “Sophie, Sophie! Don't die! Live for our children.”  As the car sped to a hospital he repeated weekly several times, “It is nothing,” before blood filled his throat.  Sophie was dead in the car.  The Archduke died  upon reaching the hospital. 

Passers by and police quickly seized Prinicp.  Čabrinović had been captured earlier after a failed suicide attempt.  The other conspirators were quickly rounded up as anti-Serb rioting swept the capital.  Eventually all but Mehmedbašić, who managed to escape to Montenegro and then to Serbia, were caught and tried along with others who aided them.  Those over twenty were condemned to death and were either hanged or died in prison.

Princip and others under the age of 20 received the maximum term of 20 years.  Held under harsh conditions, he developed tuberculosis, lost an arm to an infection, and was malnourished.  He died in prison at the age of 23 in April 1918. 

In 1917, as a result of negotiations to reach a separate peace between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, the leaders of the Intelligence services that had authorized the assassination were tried and three of them including the chief, Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, known by the cover name Apis were convicted of various crimes and executed by firing squad. 

But the assassination itself, was soon overshadowed the enormous consequences which seemed to fall mechanically into place.  Within weeks Austria-Hungary issued an ultimatum to Serbia.  Serbia agreed to most of the terms but refused to arrest plotters on the territory or allow the Empire to participate in an investigation.  They began mobilizing their forces with full assurance from Russia that it would honor their treaty of mutual defense. 

After a skirmish between boats carrying Serb troops and the Austrians on the Danube, the border between the powers, Austria Hungary mobilized on July 28.  Under the Secret Treaty of 1892 Russia and France were obliged to mobilize their armies if any of the Triple Alliance (Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Italy) mobilized.  By the first of August all major powers except the Italians were mobilized. 

On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia and France.  The British declared war on the Germans after they refused to refrain from attacking France through neutral Belgium.  By September much of the world was at war. 

The Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of the Central Powers.  Italy eventually turned its back on its former partners and joined the Allies in 1915.  The United States entered the war in 1917. 

The conflict saw carnage on an industrial scale never before imagined.  The introduction of the machine gun, modern high explosives, long range artillery, poison gas, and aerial warfare made the battle field a lethal killing zone in which the maneuvers, charges and counter charges of the 19th Century became impossible.  Massive offensives failed at anything but piling up the dead. 

The British alone suffered 57,470 casualties including 19,240 dead on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Stalemated trench warfare became the norm.  At the end of the war the Allies had total casualties (killed, wounded, missing) of 22,477,500 of which 5,525,000 were dead.  The losing Central Powers had casualties of 16,403,000 of which 4,386,000 were dead.  These figures do not include millions of civilians on both sides who died of starvation, disease, or military action or the millions more made homeless and displaced. 

At war’s end the empires of Austria Hungary, Russia, the Ottomans, and Germany were destroyed.  Russia had withdrawn from the war in 1917 following the ouster of the Tsar, but was soon mired in bloody civil war from which the Bolsheviks would emerge as the masters of a new nation, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). 

With old Europe bled dry and financially ruined by the long war, the late arriving upstart the United States emerged as the dominant power in the world. 

The League of Nations was founded to avoid future conflicts, but the U.S. despite the pleas of Woodrow Wilson, who conceived the organization, refused to join and it proved itself incapable of managing real international conflict.  Disarmament was tried and failed. 

Resentments and humiliations arising from the war would fester, particularly in Germany, leading to another conflagration within a generation.  

The Balkans, the powder keg of the war, remains divided by ethnic and religious hostilities and is perpetually on the verge of erupting into more senseless conflict.

Lines drawn on maps dividing the spoils of colonies would have continuing consequences reaching down to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the war in the cobbled together state of Iraq. 

Nearly a hundred years later we still live in the shadow of those shootings.


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Compassion for Campers—Join in a Weekly Cook-out With the Homeless


Lisa Jacobsen of the Social Justice Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation now in McHenry  is coordinating the Compassion for Campers program to provide needed supplies to homeless PADS clients who must camp out from May through September when church shelters are closed.  She reports on an exciting new opportunity to do even more.

This summer season has seen the numbers of homeless people needing assistance rise, while the services [and staff] at PADS have taken some drastic cuts. I know many of you participated in the late Joe Blanco’s Community Ministry Suppers over the summer season in years past. While our congregation lost our space to host the Suppers over this summer season, our desire to provide a home-cooked meal once a week hasn’t disappeared! Providing a good, balanced meal for folks living on packaged- and fast-food was particularly poignant as we heard over and over again on Monday when we delivered supplies how many of our PADS guests are dealing with diabetes and other food-related illnesses.

Compassion for Campers had its first cook-out at the PADS office, 14411 Kishwaukee Valley Road in rural Woodstock on Monday morning ... it was GREAT! Bob Tirk and Dave Dreyer cooked up a mess of brats and dogs. Sue Renkenthaler, Pam SourelisTony and Marilyn Hlinak, Judy ChinnEric RyanElizabeth Dimond and Bella added to the feast. There were lots of salad and fresh fruit leftovers to bag up and leave for later.

The radio was playing rock and roll, lawn chairs were out, kids were playing on the grass, people were telling jokes and sharing stories, the sun was shining, and the food was smokin’ on the grill! Nobody was homeless ... or hungry ... or scared ... or lonely ... or frightened about the future. We were all just a group of people sharing a picnic together for two hours.
We would like to do this EVERY MONDAY between now and the end of September. Need something meaningful to do with your kids over the summer ... help us provide lunch?! Had a big party over the weekend and overbought on supplies? ... we’ll take ‘em! Nobody has to take on the whole thing, but “it takes a village to feed a village!” Bake a pan of brownies; cut up a watermelon; toss up a pasta salad; plate-up two bags of cookies; buy 3 lbs of potato salad; try out that new rice salad recipe; come flip some burgers.

There are ONLY 13 MEALS between now and the end of the summer season. Lisa Jacobsen, ourlocalgurl@gmail.com or 815-337-0075 has a schedule for the remaining weeks. There are many ways you can contribute to this ongoing effort: you can bring food, stay to hang out and help serve/set up/clean up, or donate money or supplies for the ongoing program. I realize that Monday at 11:00 am isn't convenient for many people. I’m, personally, more than happy to pick up food/supplies on Sundays or whenever is convenient for your schedule. Just let me know how we can make this easy for you, and something for our PADS guests to look forward to during the “off season.”

--Lisa Jacobsen