Archive for Circus Performers

Con Colleano – The Wizard of the Wire

Near the end of the 19th century, the Sullivan family—the family was later to adopt the professional name of Colleano—were obscure boxing show and carnival people who wandered the eastern states of Australia, turning up at every kind of country show or race meeting. Old Cornelius Sullivan was known as “Con” Sullivan. A boxing troupe showman by profession, he hired aspiring young fighters in the cities and took them away to the bush to stand on his line-up boards to take on all and any challengers.

Con Sullivan and Vittorine Julie Robinson [sic] were married at Narrabri, New South Wales, on October 31, 1894. Vittorine Julia was born at Narrabri on October 23, 1878, the daughter of William Robertson [sic], a shearer, aged thirty-four years, and a native of the island of St Thomas in the West Indies (now one of the Virgin Islands), and Julia Robertson, née Saunders, aged thirty-three years, a half-caste Aboriginal woman native of Wee Waa, New South Wales.

Enter Cornelius Sullivan

Sullivan and his wife were to have a family of ten children. On December 26, 1899 at Lismore, New South Wales, the Sullivans’ third and most fame-destined child was born; he was named Cornelius after his father but would be known, like his father, simply as “Con.” It is to this rich ethnic mixture—Australian Aboriginal, West Indian and Anglo-Irish—that the man who would be known as the world’s greatest tight wire artist, Con “Colleano” (1899-1973), owed what was once described as his own “almost Italian darkness of face and hair.”

The growing Sullivan family wandered the Australian outback. But there is not much to signpost the family’s activities in those years, apart from the odd scrap of handed down information. Young Con himself wrote later in life, in a short biographical note, that: “I gained my first experience in my father’s circus touring Australia and did my first act at the age of three, an act consisting of tricks upon my father’s feet. This work is called ‘Rizzerley’ [Risley] named after the man who originated it.”

About 1907, the family settled for a time at Lightning Ridge, an opal mining community in far-northern New South Wales, so that the eldest of the children could receive some schooling. This settled period also allowed old Con Sullivan to teach his children some circus skills. Old Con seems to have made up his mind to get his family started in the circus business, a hard life—but a lucrative one if a family of performers could succeed.

Quick reactions were essential in this sort of show business, so the Sullivan parents used to place a saucer full of sugar on the table and the children sharpened their reflexes by trying to catch the flies that strayed near it. Eventually the family resumed their travels through the backblocks.

It was not uncommon for Australian circus people to adopt professional pseudonyms, often inspired by the names of artists famous in the Old World. The Sullivan family settled on the name of “Colleano” (or, as it originally appears to have been spelt, and is pronounced, “Collino”).

In vaudeville, in England and in the United States around the turn of the century, there was a troupe of acrobats called The Kellino Family. The Kellinos appeared as a Risley act in New York, according to an item in The New York Clipper of September 19, 1908. This same troupe had visited Australia in 1897. It seems highly probable that this was the inspiration for the “Colleano” pseudonym used by the Australian circus family.

The Sullivans may have adopted the name for deeper reasons than merely show business ostentation, however. This Latin sounding name allowed them to not only capitalise on the dark, swarthy appearance of their children, but to mask their Aboriginal identity, not a positive marketing point in the parochialism of the Australian outback. And when they did get their circus going, the Colleano family passed themselves off, not as Spaniards, but as Hawaiians!

Extract from Circopedia – Read more here


May Wirth

One of the greatest female acrobats on horseback of all times, May Emmeline Wirth (1894-1978) was born on June 6, 1894 at Bundaberg, Queensland, in Australia, the daughter of John Edward Zinga, a circus artist from MMay Wirthauritius (an island nation off the southwest coast of Africa) whose original name was Despoges, and his Australian-born wife Dezeppo Marie. In 1901, after her parents separated, May was adopted by Marizles (“Rill”) Martin (1868-1948), an equestrienne and a sister of the Wirth brothers, proprietors of one of Australia’s largest circuses.

Having already been taught by her father to turn “flip-flaps,” May soon featured in Wirth Bros. Circus in balancing and tumbling acts, and as a tight wire performer and contortionist. From the Wirths, May also learned equestrian skills. At the age of ten, she was a “real trick rider.” In Melbourne in 1906, aged twelve, she was billed as “May Ringling,” the “American fearless hurricane hurdle rider.” Like the most adroit of circus performers, bareback riders in particular, May was short but strong. She grew to be only 150 centimetres tall (about five feet).

Contortion work and tumbling, the earliest and most basic performing skills she acquired, were the basis of the technical precision and artistry she brought to her career as a bareback rider. By 1910, May’s work on horseback was clearly the most outstanding of her versatile accomplishments. But for all her skill as an equestrienne by that time, she did not rank highly on the Wirth program.

In 1911 the remarkable flying trapeze troupe, The Flying Jordans, and the wild animal acts claimed most of the attention of Australian audiences who came to see Wirth’s circus that year—and in Sydney, at the annual opening of the Circus, May was simply “a remarkably pretty girl who rode and drove eight ponies and turned somersaults on a cantering grey.”

Read more of the May Wirth Story on Circopedia or for an indepth view of the life of May Wirth copies of the limited edition book – Volume Thirteen – Circus in Australia: May Wirth, The Bareback Queen