Daredevil who walked line forgotten stunt; A bizarre statue commemorates a Birmingham feat by the world's greatest tightrope walker. Mike Lockley tells his story.
IN the heart of Birmingham there is a statue that seems at odds with its surroundings.
A landmark in Ladywood Middleway, it depicts a tightrope walker sporting a plumed hat. The monument, with no explanatory plinth, baffles many.
But it is in fact a tribute to one act of daring that gripped the city over 150 years ago.
On September 6, 1873, the greatest tightrope walker of all time, Charles Blondin, crossed the Edgbaston Reservoir. Carrying a balancing beam, he completed the walk, 40 feet off the ground, faultlessly.
But that's hardly surprising. For Blondin, the feat was very small beer.
He'd previously conquered Niagara Falls - walking the 1,100 foot length of rope... while cooking and eating an omelette.
He also crossed the famed falls on a bicycle and while pushing a wheelbarrow.
He even defied death by traversing the landmark on stilts.
To mark the Edgbaston stunt, a statue was erected in 1992 though his Niagara crossings are not commemorated anhywhere.
The local landmark celebrates the West Midlands' links to one of the greatest showmen of all time. Quite simply, Charles Blondin was an aerial Harry Houdini, a man who attracted thousands to his stunts.
And he was paid a fortune for those death-defying acts.
He was born Jean Francois Gravelet on February 28, 1824, in Pas-de-Calais, France, and displayed athletic prowess from a very early age. At just five he was sent to Lyon's Ecole de Gymnase and after six months training as an acrobat made his showbiz debut.
Back then he went by the stage name The Boy Wonder.
His skill as a funambulist - the technical term for a tightrope walker - came later in his illustrious career.
Blondin became a global star because he was prepared to take more risks than his rivals.
He also understood "the appeal of the morbid to the masses" and encouraged gamblers to take bets on whether he plunged to his death.
He would crank up the excitement by feigning slips as the crowds below gasped - and the odds on his demise shortened.
In the winter of 1858, the 34-yearold made his initial trip to Niagara Falls, pledging to be the first person to cross the "boiling cataract".
Without a safety net and in icy conditions, the daredevil easily made the walk - and was eager for more.
He returned to Niagara Falls on June 30, 1859, and this time a 25,000-strong crowd was ferried by trains and steamers to witness his death.
A newspaper report stated: "There were hundreds of people examining the rope and, with scarcely an exception, they all declared the inability of M. Blondin to perform the feat, the incapacity of the rope to sustain him, and that he deserved to be dashed to atoms for his desperate fool-hardiness."
Dressed in spangled pink tights, Blondin began his "rope dance" at 5pm, the press report stating: "His gait was very like the walk of some barnyard cock."
Halfway across, the showman shocked the crowd by sitting on the rope and casting a line down to a tourist boat moored below.
The crew attached a bottle of wine to it, which Blondin hauled up and drank.
Following the refreshment, Blondin continued his walk and even ran the last few yards to Canada while a band played Home Sweet Home.
Not everyone was won over by Blondin's daring. The New York Times condemned "such reckless and aimless exposure of life and the thoughtless people who enjoy looking at a fellow creature in deadly peril".
Mark Twain dubbed the great man "an adventurous ass".
When it came to PR, Blondin was well ahead of the game however. He realised the more the press panned his act, the more people came in the hope of seeing it go terribly wrong.
Criticism only made him push the boundaries even further.
On July 15, 1859, Blondin returned to Niagara Falls, this time walking backwards along the rope to Canada. For the return trek, he pushed a wheelbarrow.
Only weeks later, he carried out the same stunt with an assistant on his back, warning the terrified volunteer: "Until I clear this place be a part of me, mind, body, and soul. If I sway, sway with me.
"Do not attempt to do any balancing yourself. If you do we will both go to our death."
He crossed at night, he crossed in shackles, he crossed carrying a table and chair, he crossed blindfold, he ate cake and sipped champagne on the rope.
In his most famous exploit, Blondin strapped an oven to his back, removed it halfway across and whipped-up an omelette.
Constantly putting his life on the line proved lucrative for Blondin. After conquering The Falls, he commanded a staggering fee of $500 for each performance. During the height of his fame, Blondin, described as "likeable and charismatic", made half-a-million dollars a year. That was a mind-boggling fortune.
But Blondin's daring was not confined to the tightrope.
He even performed heroics during the voyage from his native France to America.
With a violent storm raging and the ship listing, a nobleman fell overboard. Blondin immediately leapt into the churning sea, grabbed the drowning man and pulled him to the side of the vessel.
The two men were dragged back on board by ropes.
For any other individual, this would be an act of unbelievable bravery. For Charles Blondin it was merely another day at the office.
In 1861, Blondin, by now the biggest name in showbiz, decided it was time to conquer Europe.
He staged a series of shows at the Crystal Palace, which earned him PS1,200, then the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh.
The Scottish engagement drew a crowd of 10,000.
Again he was dogged by controversy.
Those present at the Crystal Palace shows were shocked by one routine that involved Blondin's five-year-old daughter, Adele, being pushed along the rope in a wheelbarrow.
The plug was pulled on that act by the home secretary.
Charles Dickens wrote of the UK tour: "Half of London is here eager for some dreadful accident."
But not all his performances were seamless and well oiled. His appearance at The Royal Portobello Gardens, Dublin, ended in tragedy. One end of the rope was 30 feet off the ground, the other 50. Blondin intended to rope-walk uphill, but the cord, weighed down by heavy rain, snapped, causing the scaffolding it was threaded between to collapse. Miraculously Blondin escaped injury, but two workers on the scaffolding fell to their deaths.
An Irish newspaper reported: "Blondin appeared upon the top of the ladder and began to walk along steadily. The blue fire which was lighted when he set out threw a bright lurid glare by which he could be distinctly perceived cautiously treading the rope, steadying himself with the aid of a balancing pole when a sudden crash was heard.
"The last two poles came down, and he was seen to fall to the ground. The crowd at once rushed to where he fell, not exactly understanding what had occurred, but believing that he was killed. He, however, quickly got up, and stated that he had escaped uninjured."
A warrant for the arrest of Blondin and his manager was issued, but never executed - and just 12 months later the showman was performing the same stunt at the same venue. This time, however, the rope was 100 feet off the ground.
Blondin made England his home, purchasing a palatial home in Ealing, dubbed "Niagara Villa". He was wealthy, but continued to perform into his 70s and was still athletic enough to ride a pushbike along the rope.
Despite a lifetime staring death in the face, Blondin died of diabetes at his London home on February 19, 1897. He was 75. His grave is in Kensal Green Cemetery.
His appeal is best summed up by one spectator who was moved to write: "We have seen enough to set our pulses thumping painfully, to send a cold sickening terror crawling along our veins, to make us very glad to look anywhere but on the rope, when the fascination which riveted our gaze upon it had a little died away.
"When this happened and we looked around, we beheld a more curious spectacle than Blondin will ever present, reflected in the sea of up-turned faces that were watching him."
That "sickening terror" briefly gripped the people of Birmingham - and was later celebrated by a bizarre piece of street art.
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|Publication:||The Birmingham Post (England)|
|Date:||Aug 31, 2017|
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