Thursday, February 23, 2023

Tightrope Tales from Brum and Beyond....

In 1992 the statue of a famous character was erected on the busy Ladywood ring road in Birmingham, England. Having passed by this figure many times, I just assumed it was a quirky but obscure reference to Cervantes’ Don Quixote but never quite understood what the eccentric Spaniard, complete with lance but minus his side-kick, Sancho Panza had to do with Brum.
Well, following a recent walk around the nearby Edgbaston Reservoir I finally discovered that Don Quixote had never actually tilted at windmills in the Midlands at all, and therefore the odd figure balanced between the lines of relentless rush-hour traffic is someone entirely different, albeit unique in his own way too.
It is Charles Blondin, the infamous tightrope artist, who tiptoes above the traffic at Ladywood, to mark a momentous crossing he had made across the reservoir waters in 1873, 150 years past. Little did I know this, however, as I stepped along the Reservoir’s grassy expanses surrounding the water in search of snowdrops and crocuses!
Almost two hundred years ago in February 1824, a certain Jean-François Gravelet was born into a family of acrobats in the Pas de Calais region of Northern France with performance skills in his very blood. By the time he was orphaned at the age of 10, he had already earned the stage names Le Petit Prodige and La Petite Merveille, having been enrolled in the Ecole de Gymnase in Lyon at 6 years old.
Needing to support himself, he commenced work as a performer – an aerialist acrobat, specializing in the tight rope skills - and made his way around provincial France. Travelling to the New World, he hoped to find new opportunities in mid-century America and at one point he even performed in New York City as part of Phineas Taylor Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth. He went on to tour the States with the Ravel acrobat troupe, shortly after adopting his stage name ‘Charles Blondin’, partially due to his golden hair.
During one tour in 1858, he was stunned by the natural wonder of Niagara Falls and so was born his obsession to cross this vast abyss as a hitherto-never-performed stunt. Despite opposition from officials, duly concerned by the safety practicalities (non-existant), Blondin performed his legendary walk the following year. Although it had taken 5 months to prepare the rope and guy lines, Blondin made his way across the treacherous falls in less than 20 minutes and then retraced his light-footed steps back in under 10! Thousands of spectators watched on in disbelief and with bated breath as the diminutive Blondin became a living legend.
Eager to prove that he was no one-trick pony, he then upped his public display by incorporating other stunts into his performance, wherever he went and relished the opportunity to do so. Thus, he would walk blindfolded, on stilts, pushing a wheelbarrow, taking photographs, cooking an omelette mid-course, generally having transported the cumbersome equipment on his back… and of course carrying his manager likewise!
The Great Blondin had naturally gained international acclaim overnight as The Daredevel Wire Walker yet often the tightrope used was made of Manila hemp, hence giving him another rather exotic title as the Prince of Manila. Due to the vast earnings garnered by his unparalleled feats, Blondin set up home near London in an Ealing home fittingly named Niagara Villa.
For all his financial ease, Blondin manifestly thrived on dares and adrenalin and continued to perform across England. The Prince of Wales requested that he carry out a dramatic stunt at the Crystal Palace in 1861 and Blondin duly obeyed, adding to his already breath-taking act by pushing his young daughter along the highwire in a wheelbarrow as she dropped rose petals on the mesmerized crowds below. Such was the shock and outrage caused that Blondin had to desist using this particular touch on order from the Home secretary.
Charles Dickens rightly and wrily observed that "Half of London is here eager for some dreadful accident." On another occasion in Liverpool, the audience almost got what they most dreaded and desired in equal measure when a wheelbarrow transporting a lion (live, needless to say), entangled itself in a guy rope. Incredibly, the beast and Blondin survived this exploit and he went on to perform many others – such as high-wire somersaults and a bicycle ride stunt. Even with age, it seems that little deterred this old dog from learning new tricks, leading him to deliver acts well into his sixties. He died of a diabetes-related illness in February 1897, with his last performance at 72, the previous year…

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