He was dubbed the Australian Wizard of the Wire, a swashbuckling circus performer with matinee idol looks who rose from a poor, rural childhood to become an international star lauded as the greatest tightwire artist who ever lived.
Con (Cornelius) Colleano was the first person to perfect the forward somersault on the tight wire.
As a Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus star in the 20s and 30s, he was earning $US1000 a week, making him the highest paid circus performer at the time. Colleano’s home movies are brought to life in SBS documentary series Australia In Colour, offering a unique insight into his globe-trotting life.
Australia would eventually feature his face on a stamp. So where did this global star come from?
The third of 10 children, Colleano was born in Lismore, NSW on December 26, 1899.
Entertainment ran in the family. His father, Cornelius Sullivan, was a boxer, showman and owner of the Colleano’s All-star Circus, a popular touring act in the early 1900s. His mother, Vittorine Julia, née Robinson, was of mixed West Indian and Aboriginal ancestry.
In 1919, after years of practice, he mastered a then almost impossible feet-to-feet forward somersault on the tightwire
By age three, the nimble young performer was already showing a natural aptitude for circus arts, doing tricks as part of the family act. The large clan settled in the outback mining town of Lightning Ridge in 1907, and here, the young Colleano and his siblings continued to master their circus skills.
Practising up to seven hours a day, he would eventually master everything from bareback riding and flying trapeze to tumbling, the trampoline and the trombone – feats that dazzled rural crowds who flocked to the family circus.
But it was one trick that would end up his ticket to international stardom: in 1919, after years of practice, he mastered a then almost impossible feet-to-feet forward somersault on the tightwire.
Armed with this feat, Con went abroad with his then fiancee, Winifred Stanley, a vaudeville performer, in the 1920s. The first stop was South Africa, where Colleano, realising the appeal of his swarthy good looks, adopted the spangled Spanish toreador outfit that would become his trademark.
After an electrifying debut at the New York Hippodrome in September 1924, Ringling Bros came calling, and the rest is history. He became a huge star, touring the US and Europe.
Racial barriers at the time didn’t affect him; Colleano’s Indigenous heritage was unknown to many of his fans – which included one of history’s most infamous racists.
Colleano’s Indigenous heritage was unknown to his fans – which included one of history’s most infamous racists
As his great-niece Lucia Elliot would later write on her blog, “Few people are aware of the fact that in the 1930’s, Adolf Hitler issued an Aboriginal Australian tightrope walker with a German passport so he could come and go as he pleased.
The fact that Colleano managed to dupe Hitler when it came to his Indigenous heritage, “will never stop delighting me,” Elliot wrote. “He was able to pass himself off as an exotic Spaniard and Winnie’s WASPish looks would no doubt have helped act as a decoy to his Indigenous roots.…the fact Con was feted by Hitler as a righteous example of Spanish Aryan supremacy is quite the [subversive] achievement.”
The US became the couple’s home base, despite a short-lived return to Australia in 1956. The Great Colleano gave his final performance in Hawaii his 60s in 1960; in 1966, he was inducted into the International Circus Hall of Fame.
It was a timely recognition.
A few years later, in 1973, the boy from the outback was finally at peace, dying of a heart attack, age 73, in Florida.
Experience Australia’s story brought vividly to life when the 4-part series Australia in Colour premieres at 8.30pm on Wednesday 6 March on SBS. Available anytime, anywhere on your favourite device after broadcast on SBS On Demand.