Tag Archive for Con Colleano

Circus: The Australian Story

Circus – The Australian Story by Mark St Leon
Released 20th May, 2011

Circus: The Australian Story - book by Mark St LeonIn Circus: The Australian Story, author Mark St Leon presents a comprehensive, entertaining and visually stunning history of circus in Australia. His interest was sparked by his insatiable curiosity about his own family’s celebrated past in the Australian circus.

You will read how a colonial circus industry developed out of its Old World roots; how the saga of circus is woven into the historical fabric of modern Australia; how circus in Australia absorbed influences from as far afield as America, Japan and Europe; how Australia has been visited by some of the world’s major circus companies; and how Australia’s circus people have coped with unrelenting social, cultural, technological and economic change.

You will also read how Australia has been a significant developer and exporter of circus talent. The ‘worlds greatest bareback rider’ May Wirth and the Indigenous wirewalker Con Colleano although forgotten in Australia are regarded, internationally, as among the finest circus artists of modern times.

The author shows how circus in Australia today, in both its traditional and contemporary generes, is the outcome of a continuum that extends, not only over some 175 years of modern Australia’s history, but back to it London, medieval and ancient roots.

Published by: Melbourne Books
Author: Mark St Leon
288 Pages
ISBN: 9781877096501
Released: May 2011




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