It was across the early 20th Century landscape of outback New South Wales and Queensland that a self-taught circus artist of Aboriginal, West Indian and Anglo-Irish descent would discipline himself to become what some consider to be the greatest tightwire artist who ever lived to this day and go on to perform for the likes of Mussolini and Hitler who, if they had known his true heritage, would surely not have treated him so kindly.
Cornelius Sullivan (who was to professionally become Con Colleano) was one of ten children born in Lisbon, NSW to a boxing troupe showman and his wife who, together with their children, started a family circus (which we really wish would happen more often these days). Con was a part of the family show by the age of three performing acts “consisting of tricks upon my father’s feet” and indeed Con’s parents trained all the children from such a young age, one account describing a reflex-training exercise in which a saucer filled with sugar would be placed between Con and his siblings with the goal being for them to catch the flies that the sugar attracted with their hands. Once having outgrown his father’s feet Con would go on to master skills including the flying trapeze, riding bareback, clowning, playing the trombone and tumbling, however it was walking the tightwire that would become his legacy
Early Century Australian audiences weren’t as socially progressed as the current day (not that we’ve reached perfection yet there) so the Sullivan family circus renamed themselves Colleano (pronounced Collino) for a Latin affiliation and had to market themselves to be not of West Indian and Aboriginal heritage, but most commonly Hawaiian!
It was in 1919 that Con Colleano became the first artist to achieve the standing, feet to feet, Forwards somersault on the tightwire, a feat at the time perceived to be impossible, and from there momentum really picked up. Scouted on the Tivoli circuit he was flown to an associate circuit in South Africa and it was here that he took note of his apparent good looks and, encouraged by his new fiance Winnie Trevail, donned the costume of the Spanish toreador to complete his on stage image, an image which, once he then debuted in the New York City Hippodrome in 1924, sold him to the Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey circus, thereby solidifying his future legacy.
Every winter Con would tour with Barnum Bailey and by the late 1930’s he would not only have his own apartment carriage on the classic train but he’d be making $1000USD a week making him the highest paid circus performer in the world at that time. Acknowledging the social standards of the time he kept his heritage secret and to almost everyone overseas he was as he appeared, a beautiful tanned spaniard dancing high above their heads on the death-defying wire. Even one of history’s most prolific racists joined the ranks of his biggest fans, Con’s great niece Lucia Elliot noted:
Con continued travelling and performing across the world till the seasoned age of 60 when he finally packed up his wire for good and he lived on to see himself inducted into the Circus Hall of Fame in ‘66 before dying of a heart attack in 1973. Few circus artists of the current day have gained such prolific fame as Con managed in his time, the 21st Century has seen circus culture join the mainstream and the globalised internet as well as a vastly increased number of circus schools around the world have created a competitive environment of countless highly-skilled graduates trained to protocol but Con did it all in Australia’s outback without a trained coach or as much as a glimpse of what we he was training to become so the question of whether or not we’ll see artistic savants of his like again remains unanswered.
We, however, are certainly tuned in to find out.