Inducted into the Ring of Fame: 1992
Circus Profession: Wire Walker
Died : 1973
Con Colleano (born Cornelius Sullivan; 26 December 1899 – 13 November 1973) was an Australian tightrope walker. He was the first person to successfully attempt a forward somersault on a tightrope and became one of the most celebrated and highly paid circus performers of his time. He was known as “The Wizard of the Wire” or “The Toreador of the Wire”.
He was born Cornelius Sullivan in Lismore, New South Wales, the son of an Irishman and a woman of indigenous descent whose father was of African heritage from St Thomas in the West Indies. Colleano was the third of 10 children. His father (reportedly a freed convict) made a precarious living from sideshow “take-on-all-comers” boxing and gambling. Around 1907, when Colleano was seven years old, the family settled in Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, then a newly established opal mining field and a fertile ground for the father’s talents. Here Colleano received a rudimentary education and learned circus skills from the sideshows present in the town.
By 1910 those of the family of sufficient age had formed a small circus troupe, calling themselves the “Collinos” (apparently as an Italian-sounding name befitting the “sable” complexion of the children, in order to cover the “native blood” in their veins). They traveled through New South Wales and supplemented their income by working for the major traveling circuses of the time. By 1918 the now “Colleano’s All-Star Circus” (with more of Con’s siblings) was sufficiently established to travel through Queensland on their own hired train. The children became known as “The Royal Hawaiian Troupe” (again to cover for their dark complexions).
In 1919 Con managed to achieve the foot-to-foot forward somersault he had been attempting for some time and which was destined to secure his subsequent career. In 1922 he was engaged by the popular Tivoli circuit, the major outlet for vaudevillein Australia, on a salary of £60 a week. His siblings also appeared at The Tiv’ as “Eight Akbar Arabs”.
At his first performances in South Africa he was billed as Australian, but in April 1924 he adopted the Spanish toreadorpersona he was to employ for the greatest part of his subsequent career. In September 1924 he appeared at the New York Hippodrome Theatre and was soon noticed and engaged by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the largest in the country. His act now involved well-executed bullfighting movements in the ring, Spanish dance moves on the wire, and in conclusion, the dangerous forward somersault.
Thenceforth, through the 1930s until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Con was the principal star of Ringling Bros. with a salary of US$1000 per week. At this time the Big Tent could seat up to 16,000 people. In the winter he performed on the vaudeville circuit in Europe to great acclaim, among his greatest admirers being Adolf Hitler.
In 1937 he returned to Sydney, Australia for a series of performances at the Tivoli (“the Tiv”).
Into the 1940s Colleano continued performing in the U.S. and appeared on television on the Texaco Star Theater in 1952. His farm in Pennsylvania became a retreat for his siblings and their offspring between performances and, so established, he adopted United States citizenship together with now wife Winnie in 1950.
In 1956 Con and Winnie returned to Australia where they purchased the Albion Hotel at Forbes, New South Wales. When the venture failed, they returned to America and he resumed his career on the wire to no great acclaim, ending at Honolulu in 1960.
He died at his home in Miami in 1973 survived by Winnie who later returned to Australia. Winifred died in 1986 in Sydney.
Video History Summary
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