The Aboriginal tightrope walker who duped Hitler & Mussolini

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.

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Seven years to perfect a stunt (mustn’t have been much on tv!)

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.

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Con and Winnie: Look into my eyes, look into my eyes ….

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!).

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The ups and downs of being the Wizard of the Wire

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.

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Still from the movie, Flesh & Fantasy (not to be confused with the Billy Idol song)

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.

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I’m thinking of taking a leaf out of Great Aunt Winnie’s book

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.

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Patent pretending #1: The Blade Runner Walker

Spellbound as I was by Ridley Scott’s epic, it was the film’s smaller details that enchanted me as much as its expansive dystopian theme.

In particular, the LED illuminated umbrella which featured heavily in the perennially drizzling market underworld. How I yearned for one of those umbrellas for decades.

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Harrison fords every stream

Turns out they’ve been on offer for a while for just $20 at thinkgeek.com.

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Appealing against the light

Which got me thinking, as well as ultimately vacillating.

Once the fanciful figment of Philip K. Dick and Ridley Scott’s imaginations became readily accessible, it rather lost its appeal for me.

Worse still, I started to think about its practical application, or rather lack thereof. An illuminated umbrella shaft would be of no use during daylight of course, and in the case of nightfall, in fact a pretty bloody stupid idea.

Because while the LED umbrella might look terrific from the viewer’s perspective, illuminating yourself rather than your surroundings under a canopy in pitch black while it’s pelting with rain has all the hallmarks of an OH&S disaster in the making.

But all is not lost when you transfer the principle with greater pragmatism.

May I introduce then, my personal f/light of fancy, the Blade Walker. Illuminate your gait and never put a foot wrong again with this lamp for the seriously cool limp.

Extra long version also available for the man about town, the Limited Edition Philip K. Swinging Dick Stick.

Either way, you can be your very own Android’s Beam of Electric Chic.

So you tell me … is this a replican’t or a replican do?

Weng Weng: The secret agent who punched above his weight

The gob-smacking thrill that was my first experience of Weng Weng, the diminutive Filipino actor who starred as Agent 00 in a series of spy-spoof hits in the 70’s, delivered a sensory overload of pulsating extravagance. Or as Weng Weng devotee and documenter Andrew Leavold would call it, ‘a cranial haemorrhage you can never recover from’.

ImageAnd what’s not to go thoroughly berserk over? Weng Weng was 2ft 9 inches …. impersonated James Bond … toted a machine gun … travelled in a jetpack … and kicked martial art butt on sets as wobbly as the heaving breasts he buried himself in.

But how easy it would have been to compartmentalise Weng Weng as a cheap curio and momentary hit of kitsch as disposable as a Krispy Kreme wrapper.

From the moment I first clapped eyes on Weng Weng it was a certain sadness beneath the surface of his smiles that struck me just as hard, and I suspected there was more to Ernesto de la Cruz’s story than ‘Weirdo of the Week’ status.

Weng Weng was born with primordial dwarfism, the youngest of five, but remained defiantly ‘mischievous and cheerful’, so much so that he took an interest in martial arts as a young boy and by the early 70’s was being shopped around to film producers, culminating in his first starring role in 1978’s ‘Chopsuey Meets Bigtime Papa’ opposite the Bruce Lee of the Philippines, Ramon Zamora.

While Weng Weng went on to become a box office favourite in his country, climaxing in a special citation award from Imelda Marcos, by 34 he was dead from a heart attack, most likely the result of a serious drinking problem that escalated once the roles dried up and he was spat out by the system.

So it’s heartening to know that I’m not alone in finding the Weng Weng story a richly intriguing one worth retelling, if only posthumously.

Australian Andrew Leavold is a man on a mission and one who also wears his (he)art on his sleeve as evidenced by the impressive Weng Weng tattoo he sports.

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Wedded to Weng Weng: Andrew Leavold

Beyond unfurling the mystery of Weng Weng’s back story through intensive research and the accumulation of some serious air miles, Leavold has been deeply affected by the ‘humanity of his saga, which touched me more acutely than I could ever have imagined’.

Well on its way to realisation, his Kickstarter-funded ‘In Search of Weng Weng’ documentary will see its world premiere in Melbourne late November. There is also his book of the same name, based on his PhD thesis, which will be released after the film.

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The documentary’s release is slated for November 2013.

That Weng Weng is being recognised two decades after his death with the respect and admiration that appears to have been largely missing from his brief life, would no doubt have brought a sincere smile to Ernesto’s otherwise wistful face.

View an action montage of Weng Weng here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1EiHxQ8RhcQ

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The author gets her first dose of Weng Weng.