Thursday, June 26, 2008

Funambulists - I: The Great Blondin

Funambulist - [n] - a tightrope walker. From the Latin funambulus; same meaning.

The first true "stunters" at Niagara were tightrope walkers. The first of these made himself so famous by his high-wire efforts that his name is synonymous with such stunts (Arthus Conan Doyle worked a reference to him into a Sherlock Holmes story). Even today, someone who performs a feat in the air is sometimes called a "Blondin". But who was he? And why did he come to Niagara?

Jean Francois Gravelet was born in 1824, in St. Omer, France. Legend has it he saw his first tightrope walker at the age of five. Soon afterwards, he was sent to the Ecole de Gymnase in Lyon. After just six months of formal training, he began public performances as "The Little Wonder". Natural grace and skill combined with the originality of his act made him a sensation.

Like most entertainers, Blondin was always on the lookout for new, more sensational ways to present his act. He became convinced that his tightrope act, presented against the backdrop of Niagara Falls, would be a sensation.

At that time, because of new railroad lines across the eastern end of North America, Niagara Falls was becoming a popular tourist destination. Large crowds would give Blondin the chance to recoup some of his expenses, by "passing the hat" [it was obvious that he could not close off the area and sell tickets]. Besides, Blondin was probably moved as much by the chance to accomplish a new feat as by any money he might have made.

On June 30, 1859, in front of huge crowds that were alerted of his intention, Blondin climbed onto an 1100-foot long rope, 160 feet above the gorge below the Falls. He moved with his usual grace and skill, making only one mistake - he had made the feat look too easy! Blondin repeated his journey several times that summer, increasing the challenge factor by crossing:

- on stilts

- blindfolded

- tied up in a sack

- pushing a wheelbarrow

- stopping midway to sit, cook, and then eat an omelet, and

- carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, across on his back [This was the only stunt Blondin was not to repeat. One trip was enough for Colcord].

History does not record how much money Blondin took in that summer, but it must have been enough for him to return the following year, for another season of funambulism.

After the two summers in Niagara Falls, Blondin went on to continue his spectacular career. In 1861 and 1862, he walked high above the crowds at London's Crystal Palace, as well as other stunts in England and across Europe. In 1872, he successfully crossed Edgbaston Reservoir, in Birmingham, England. He retired for a few years, then resumed his stunting around 1880. He performed his final tightrope routine at the age of 71, the year before he died, in 1897, of diabetes, in his quiet home outside London [a persistent rumor says that Blondin didn't die at that time, but, having tired of fame once and for all, disappeared into obscurity under the name of Julio DeMasi!].

A final note; during one of those 1860 performances, Blondin was watched by a man from nearby Lockport, NY, named William Leonard Hunt. Like Blondin, he was to change his name, and his life, by challenging Niagara Falls. His story is the subject of the next posting at this site.

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