Few people are aware of the fact that in the 1930’s, Adolf Hitler issued an Aboriginal Australian tightrope walker with a German passport so he could come and go as he pleased. Moreover Mussolini awarded the same man a medal for his death-defying performances, declaring him to be ‘a beautiful stud of a man’.
How do I know? Because the man in question was my great uncle.
Con Colleano started life as Cornelius Sullivan in Lismore in rural Australia in 1899, one of ten born to an Irishman and his Aboriginal wife. The circus was in their blood and it soon became apparent that Con displayed a rare talent on the high wire with his confounding dexterity and balance.
The teenage Con spent seven years perfecting what was considered worldwide to be an impossible feat on a tightrope – a forward somersault, the act of which deprived the walker from being able to sight the wire on landing.
He became a sensation at Sydney’s Tivoli theatre, where he met my great aunt Winnie, who performed as one of its coquettish soubrettes. While Con was a handsome man with matinee idol looks he was somewhat of a rough diamond, so Winnie played an integral part in teaching Con to dance, swirl a Spanish cape and add panache to his routine and in doing so transformed his act from one focused on mechanical landings to charismatic entertainment that incorporated daring flourishes with the sublime grace and speed of a ballet dancer. Con was then able to pass himself off as an exotic Spaniard and Winnie’s WASPish looks would no doubt have helped act as a decoy to his indigenous roots.
Con made his mark on the world stage in the most extraordinary fashion at New York’s Hippodrome in 1923. Unaccustomed to a venue of its size and blinding stage lights, he missed the first of his forward somersault attempts, being heavily sliced across the chest by the wire on his way down. The next attempt knocked him unconscious as he fell ten metres with a thud to the floor. Undeterred he mounted the wire a third time by which point the audience was crying out for him to stop as blood saturated his costume. It was only when the managers turned out the stage lights in an effort to break up the crowd that he took his final opportunity, battered and bruised, to mount the wire one more time, and in doing so sighted and landed the forward somersault. A ten minute standing ovation ensued followed by several days recovering in hospital.
The legend of Con Colleano was born and he and Winnie went on to travel the world performing for British royalty, the Fuhrer and Il Duce amongst others, earning the jaw-dropping amount of $1,000 US a week from Barnum and Bailey and Ringling Brothers in the 1920’s (alas, we never saw a penny of it!).
Apart from his forward somersault, perhaps Con’s most impressive and theatrical feat was removing his matador pants on the wire mid-bounce, and because Con was by that time a rich man he was able to invest in a kick-arse camera and develop his skills as a cinematographer. Fortunately some of his home movie footage now lives on Youtube, including the infamous pants-removing routine.
View more on Con: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vAupEIwcYjI
While Con was unquestionably charismatic in a circus environment and was screen-tested as a possible replacement for Valentino in Hollywood, he was a quiet and unassuming man and the closest he got to celluloid fame was as an uncredited stunt double for Charles Boyer in the 1943 film, Flesh and Fantasy.
Sadly Con and Winnie ultimately lost all their money indulging in a luxurious lifestyle, giving it away to friends and making a disastrous investment in a pub in outback Australia in the 1950s (what were they thinking?).
Returning cap in hand to the US hoping for some circus openings which never happened, Con and Winnie lived out the rest of their union in Miami until his death in 1973, after which Winnie returned to our family home in Sydney, by which point she had a grating American accent capable of breaking glass and drifted around our house with the air of Blanche Dubois crossed with Carol Channing. I thought her somewhat of a dolt and I am ashamed of that now particularly knowing how much she saw of the world and the historical figures she rubbed shoulders with.
However one aspect of this story will never stop delighting me.
The humiliation of Hitler’s Ayrian racial superiority at the hands of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics is of course etched in history. The fact that on a much smaller scale some years prior, our very own Con Colleano was feted by Hitler as a righteous example of Spanish Ayrian supremacy is quite the achievement, and one of which Lismore, if not all of Australia can be suitably chuffed, for its impressively subversive qualities if nothing else.
Maximum respect, Uncle Con.