February 17, 2017
There are some circus skills that have to be seen to be believed. Many of us now know about the documentary Man on Wire, in which a Philippe Petit walked between the Twin Towers in the 1970s. But you might not be quite so familiar with another Frenchman who achieved a similar feat over a century earlier – Charles Blondin. What he achieved is something truly remarkable!
Born on 28 February 1824 in Pas-de-Calais, Jean-François Gravelet quickly took up a life in the circus. Changing his name to Charles Blondin, he was sent to a gymnastic school in Lyon aged just five years old and after six months training to be an acrobat, he was already performing for grounds under the moniker, ‘The Boy Wonder’.
His grace, skill and the originality of his act (which we’ll cover in a subsequent paragraph) led to him being one of the most popular circus performers in France. Sensing an opportunity to make more money in the USA, he headed to America in 1855, where he performed for the Ravel troupe in New York City. But this was not enough for Blondin! Coming up with a way to truly engage the media in the circus and his ability, he announced his intention to scale the Niagara Gorge on the Canadian-US border. Using just 1,100 feet of rope, 8 cm wide, he’d walk from one side to the other, 160 feet in the air. A fall from that height would cause certain death and the audiences of the time lapped up the entertainment!
If you visit Niagara Falls in the present day, you might be familiar with Rainbow Bridge and this was roughly where Blondin made his attempt. On 30 June 1859, he walked across the tightrope for the very first time. Numerous newspapers covered the spectacle and needless to say, Blondin survived the attempt. In fact it went so well that he did it again and again in various forms over the next couple of years, always with one of his theatrical variation thrown in – blindfolded, in a sack, pushing a wheelbarrow, on stilts and carrying someone on his back (his manager, who certainly had a stronger stomach than we do).
How else could you improve such a performance? Blondin went further again. In one of his crossings, he sat down midway and cooked himself an omelette, which he promptly ate. He also stood on a chair in the centre of the rope, with just one leg balanced on the twine. Rather him than us. A number of images and posters from Blondin's numerous crossings can be seen in the video below.
Blondin performed multiple times in the US and Britain for the next forty years until his death from diabetes on 22nd February 1897. As a result of his success, the name Blondin was synonymous with tightrope walking during his lifetime, with various performers all over the world being described as ‘the Australian Blondin’ or ‘the female Blondin’. Such was the popularity of the circus during this time, people would complain to Sydney’s main newspaper about the numerous performers dotted about the city. No such complaints were received in London however and he actually has two roads named after him in Ealing – Blondin Avenue and Niagara Avenue. He is buried in Kensal Green cemetery.
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By Henry Fosdike