By Mark St Leon, PhD
Near the end of the 19th century, the Sullivan family—the family was later to adopt the professional name of Colleano—were obscure boxing show and carnival people who wandered the eastern states of Australia, turning up at every kind of country show or race meeting. Old Cornelius Sullivan was known as "Con" Sullivan. A boxing troupe showman by profession, he hired aspiring young fighters in the cities and took them away to the bush to stand on his line-up boards to take on all and any challengers.
Con Sullivan and Vittorine Julie Robinson [sic] were married at Narrabri, New South Wales, on October 31, 1894. Vittorine Julia was born at Narrabri on October 23, 1878, the daughter of William Robertson [sic], a shearer, aged thirty-four years, and a native of the island of St Thomas in the West Indies (now one of the Virgin Islands), and Julia Robertson, née Saunders, aged thirty-three years, a half-caste Aboriginal woman native of Wee Waa, New South Wales.
Enter Cornelius Sullivan
Sullivan and his wife were to have a family of ten children. On December 26, 1899 at Lismore, New South Wales, the Sullivans’ third and most fame-destined child was born; he was named Cornelius after his father but would be known, like his father, simply as "Con." It is to this rich ethnic mixture—Australian Aboriginal, West Indian and Anglo-Irish—that the man who would be known as the world’s greatest artist, Con "Colleano" (1899-1973), owed what was once described as his own "almost Italian darkness of face and hair."
The growing Sullivan family wandered the Australian outback. But there is not much to signpost the family’s activities in those years, apart from the odd scrap of handed down information. Young Con himself wrote later in life, in a short biographical note, that: "I gained my first experience in my father’s circus touring Australia and did my first act at the age of three, an act consisting of upon my father’s feet. This work is called ‘Rizzerley’ [Risley] named after the man who originated it."
About 1907, the family settled for a time at Lightning Ridge, an opal mining community in far-northern New South Wales, so that the eldest of the children could receive some schooling. This settled period also allowed old Con Sullivan to teach his children some circus skills. Old Con seems to have made up his mind to get his family started in the circus business, a hard life—but a lucrative one if a family of performers could succeed.
Quick reactions were essential in this sort of show business, so the Sullivan parents used to place a saucer full of sugar on the table and the children sharpened their reflexes by trying to catch the flies that strayed near it. Eventually the family resumed their travels through the backblocks.
It was not uncommon for Australian circus people to adopt professional pseudonyms, often inspired by the names of artists famous in the Old World. The Sullivan family settled on the name of "Colleano" (or, as it originally appears to have been spelt, and is pronounced, "Collino").
In vaudeville, in England and in the United States around the turn of the century, there was a troupe of acrobats called The Kellino Family. The Kellinos appeared as a The New York Clipper of September 19, 1908. This same troupe had visited Australia in 1897. It seems highly probable that this was the inspiration for the "Colleano" pseudonym used by the Australian circus family. in New York, according to an item in
The Sullivans may have adopted the name for deeper reasons than merely show business ostentation, however. This Latin sounding name allowed them to not only capitalise on the dark, swarthy appearance of their children, but to mask their Aboriginal identity, not a positive marketing point in the parochialism of the Australian outback. And when they did get their circus going, the Colleano family passed themselves off, not as Spaniards, but as Hawaiians!
Colleano’s All-Star Circus
The first definite reference we have to the Colleano circus in its own right is the small advertisement that appeared in the Warialda Standard of November 28, 1910. This said simply that "Collino [sic] Bros. Circus will play Warialda on Race Nights", Wednesday and Thursday, November 30 and December 1. A hiatus of nearly two years then ensues, wherein the family’s movements and show business activities again drift into obscurity.
By 1912, however, the family was working for Rowan Bros. Circus and featured the Special Engagement of the Collino Family. Of Con and his older brother Bonar, the Hillston Spectator remarked: "The Collino Brothers perform one of the most dangerous feats ever performed on the elastic rope, single and double back somersaults, landing on the rope as they first started."
The Colleano children learnt a number of circus skills: young Con, for example, learned to ride bareback, to do the , to play the trombone, to , to tumble as well as walk the wire. Eventually, Con decided to specialise in the .
"The Colleanos got to Sydney and joined the King Carnival. They went north with the King Carnival, struggling all the way, but they did get good business in Rockhampton. They went further into Queensland but finally got stranded at Winton. The Colleanos started from Winton in wagons ... and never looked back."
By early 1917, the circus was well and truly advertised as Colleano’s All-Star Circus. Con worked under the pseudonym of "Zeneto" early in his wirewalking career. In those days Con, his brothers and sisters donned special names for the circus bills, an expedient that was commonly used by a small family circus to inflate the real size of its programme and company.
The Roma newspaper, The Western Star, of February 10, 1917 reported: "Of its kind, the show is one of the best witnessed in Roma for many years ... The ladder balancing performance by the Royal Hawaiian Troupe was very clever and skilful, and some splendid items were given by the Colleano family of acrobats ... The proprietors are to be congratulated on the excellent programme they presented to their patrons."
Colleano’s All-Star Circus had reached Condobolin, in mid-western New South Wales, by the winter of 1917, where it played opposition to the Gus St Leon Great United Circus during the local show week. The local newspaper, The Lachlander of July 25, 1917, remarked that: "Another clever act is performed by Zeneto, the wire walker and tight rope artist, who in addition to numerous and clever feats, turns a complete somersault and lands with his feet on the wire."
Con’s "complete somersault" at this stage was the backward somersault. Although he was undoubtedly already experimenting with the forward somersault then, it would be some time before he perfected this more difficult .
A year later, Colleano’s All-Star Circus was sufficiently prosperous to travel the immense state of Queensland by its own special train. The only other circus in Australia to travel regularly by rail at that stage was the country’s largest, Wirth’s.
Reported Australian Variety of October 11, 1918: "[Colleano’s Circus] now travels Queensland by special train. This combination is not the biggest in Australia but for its size, it is easily one of the most consistently successful. It is said that nature gives us the right to dream; whether you turn that dream to good sometimes lies with oneself. The Colleano family have worked laboriously to achieve fame, and now their dream of ambition is being fulfilled. They have a band of 14 performers, a programme of 27 artists and a fine lot of animals. The '' is a picture of liveliness and has a fine electric lighting system installed."
Zeneto, "The Wizzard of the Wire"
Young Con practiced on the wire up to seven hours a day. He had no other wirewalker to model himself upon and so continued to teach himself in what was perhaps the hardest way possible, on a bounding and without the aid of any balancing device. Not only does this wire sway back and forth but it is also capable of seriously injuring an inexperienced performer if he is too stiff legged.
It took Con about five years to perfect the feet-to-feet forward somersault on the wire, a feat that was thought impossible at the time because, in turning, the performer loses sight of the wire. The performer’s feet have to find the wire without the aid of the eyes, whereas in the backward somersault the performer’s eyes sight the wire a split second before alighting on it.
Con just went on practising until, finally, one summer afternoon in Sydney in 1919, he brought off the fabulous somersault, probably the first time it had ever been achieved on a wire (as distinct from a rope). Con still missed the wire in two out of three attempts. Each time this happened the bounding wire, stretched to a resistance of almost one tonne, was liable to lash out and break every bone in his body.
Sometimes the wire caught him under the arm and paralysed it for days. Other times, if he hit the wire with his heels, he would be catapulted into the air again and falls to the ground like a sack of potatoes. Eventually, long experience, aided by a sixth perceptory sense that he developed, taught his feet to find the wire nearly every time.
The nevertheless remained a highly dangerous one, too dangerous to be attempted in the tense atmosphere of a public audience, and for a long time it was the backward somersault that still remained the climax of his act. But even this was enough to stir the hearts of his audiences and bring them to the edge of their seats, and not all of them were simple country folk either.
In Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, in 1921 it was observed that: "The Governor [of South Australia] and his wife visited the [Colleano] show on Friday evening and after witnessing Zeneto do his back somersault feat on the wire rose from their seats and went over and personally congratulated him."
The evidence suggests that Con had perfected the feet-to-feet forward somersault for public performance on the vaudeville circuits before departing Australia in the early 1920s to seek fame and fortune overseas. It was then that the realisation came upon him that he had originated a style on the wire that had never been seen before.
During those years that Con spent travelling the backblocks with the family circus, he repeatedly turned down offers from the theatre circuits of the big cities until he could offer something that would surpass anything that could be imported from overseas. Only in 1922 did Con accept an invitation from Jack Musgrove, of the Tivoli theatre circuit, to come down to Sydney for an audition.
Con Colleano's Early Vaudeville Career
As well as his forward somersault on the wire, Con showed them a number of other acts on the wire including one that featured him removing an outer layer of costume as he turned a crutch-to-crutch somersault. The Tivoli immediately engaged Con at a salary of £60 a week. The public went mad about his act. When he finished his contract with the Tivoli circuit he was snapped up by the rival Fuller circuit.
The magazine The Theatre recorded the following observation of Con’s act at Fuller’s Sydney theatre in May 1923: "Colleano’s dancing on the slackwire at Fuller’s Theatre is the prettiest thing to watch. His small feet twinkle gracefully in and entrechat alighting always on the wire with an effortless sureness that disguises the difficulty of the act ... Colleano’s dressing is admirable. His slim figure and almost Italian darkness of face and hair are fittingly set off by the white satin suite ... His forward somersault is his star act. He explains that the danger lies in the fact that his feet coming over his head usually obscure his view of the wire and he has to land in mid-air without seeing his objective."
Eventually Con made arrangements with the Tivoli management to engage the rest of the Colleano family for the circuit. They closed up the circus and came into vaudeville with their acrobatic act. In those days, to add a touch of exoticism, vaudeville acrobats were often presented in Arab costume and the Colleano family, to its displeasure, was to be no exception. The Tivoli management presented the eight Colleano children as The Akabah Arabs.
In spite of the Colleano family’s disenchantment with its Arab garb, its act was well received and the troupe subsequently accepted bookings for South Africa, England and America after the Tivoli engagement. At the time, old Con Colleano explained that the family expected to be away only three years. In fact, once the family settled in the United States it remained there.
Colleano’s Spanish Style
Con met his future wife, Winnie Trevail, a vaudeville soubrette, in Melbourne in 1922 while he was still working in the family circus. They were soon engaged. Con’s early costume was merely top hat and tails but he came to adopt a Spanish style of dress, evidently with the encouragement of his fiancée.
Winnie taught Con the elements of dancing and eventually took a part in his act. The couple presented a rich contrast on stage, Con with his handsome, dark features, and Winnie with her blonde hair—the proverbial English rose. As products of different social environments the two could not have been more mismatched. It wasn’t long before the couple were engaged however. Within the Colleano family, Con’s fiancée became known as Big Winnie to avoid confusion with Con’s trapeze artist sister, who became known as Little Winnie.
A few months after the Akabah Arabs left Australia, Con and his fiancée followed. Everyone’s of April 30, 1924 mentioned that Con had appeared at the Tivoli Theatre in Cape Town during the week commencing March 10, 1924. It has been recorded in some international histories of the circus that Con first performed his famous forward somersault on the wire before a public audience in Johannesburg.
However, it is clearly established that he had given performances in vaudeville of the in Australia before leaving. What seems more certain is that, while he performed in Johannesburg, Con adopted the Spanish costume—toreador style—which was to be the trademark of his wire-walking act for the remainder of his career. The incorporation of his famous cape dance was still to come.
Con Colleano In America
In New York, in September 1924, Con Colleano made his American debut with a week’s engagement at the gigantic Hippodrome, under the management of the all-powerful firm, Keith-Albee, which practically controlled the vaudeville business in the United States. As the saying goes, he "made good" in America. John Ringling’s agent, Carl Hathaway, saw the act and engaged Con for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus the following season. Thus Con began a long association with the great Ringling circus as its center-ring . His salary with Ringling went up each season, so that by the late 1930s, he was earning $1,000 per week with all expenses paid and the exceptional privilege of a private compartment on the circus train.
Each winter, Con played the vaudeville theatres of America or toured the music-halls and circus buildings of Europe. One of Con’s first European engagements was with the circus of the English impresario, Bertram Mills. Con performed before Hitler and Mussolini, and received a complimentary passport and a medal from each dictator, respectively, for his efforts.
Several times during his career, Con and his wife came back to Australia. The first time, and perhaps the most memorable, was an engagement for the Tivoli circuit in 1937 for the patriotic revue show, Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue. Con’s act, although essentially the same as when he had left Australia with it early in 1924, had been refined and polished with the years of international exposure in the great circuses and music-halls of Europe and North America.
By this time of course, the clouds of war were beginning to gather over Europe. Con and Winnie returned to the United States and, as was their custom, toured Europe in-between engagements. Their last visit to Europe took place in the summer of 1939, beginning with a four-week engagement at Berlin’s famous variety theatre, the Scala.
Con’s professional activities during World War II have not been fully documented but he is known to have appeared in Rio De Janeiro in 1940 and 1941, with the Holland Classical and Cole Bros. Circuses during 1942; with Shrine Circuses during 1943 and with Cole Bros. Circus during 1944 and 1945. He appeared on Cole for several seasons in the post-war period.
The Final Years
At the end of their 1955 engagement with the Ringling Circus, Con and his wife returned to Australia but their attempt to settle down was futile. By late 1957 Mr. and Mrs. Con Colleano were back in the United States, Con once again performing on the wire. The year 1959 was spent with Cristiani Bros. Circus.
In his sixtieth year, Con Colleano eventually retired from his illustrious career as a wirewalker. Failing eyesight, due to the onset of cataract, was as much a reason for his decision as anything else. He gave his last performance in Honolulu in 1960, in the E. K. Fernandez circus, hardly noticed, as he was now an outer-ring in this three-ring circus.
After his retirement, Con and his wife settled in Florida. In 1966, Con received the supreme honour of the American circus world: election to the Circus Hall of Fame. Con Colleano died of a heart attack on Tuesday, November 12, 1973 at his home at 8282 124th Street SW, South Miami, Florida. He was 73 years of age. His widow, Winnie, died at a private hospital in Sydney, New South Wales, on January 5, 1986.
In everything that Con performed on the wire, there was an integrity and style found only amongst the greatest performers. He brought a new excitement and aesthetic satisfaction to circus.
© Copyright Reserved: Mark St Leon 2010
- Mark St. Leon, The Wizard of the Wire: The Story of Con Colleano (Canberra, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1993) — ISBN 0-85575-246-7
- Mark St Leon, Colleano, Con [Cornelius] (1899-1973) in J. Ritchie (gen. ed.), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13: 1940-1980, pp.467-68 (Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1993)
- Video: Con Colleano, , rehearsal in his home (c.1939)