French daredevil acrobat Charles Blondin (1824–1897) gained fame as the first person to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. The amazing feat gained Blondin international recognition and helped make him a wealthy entertainer.
Using the stage name Charles Blondin, Jean-Francois Gravelet rightly earned the reputation as the greatest "funambulist" of his time. Upon first glance that term would seem to imply fun, but in fact it indicates activities involving great personal risk. Literally translated into English, funambulist means tightrope walker, and Gravelet took that popular performance art form to previously unachieved heights.
The future famed tightrope walker and acrobat was born in St. Omer, France, on February 28, 1824. At various times throughout his storied career, Gravelet was billed as "The Great Blondin," "The Daredevel Wire Walker," and "The Prince of Manila," names that are as evocative of a highly specialized skill as they are of an era.
Inspired by Circus Performer
Gravelet became interested in high wire acrobatics at a very early age. In 1829, when he was five years old, a circus troupe performed near his home, and Gravelet became enthralled by the tightrope walker. It was the first time he had ever seen anyone attempting such stunts. He was so impressed that he felt compelled to try and accomplish the same kind of feats. Almost immediately after he returned home from the circus, Gravelet erected a makeshift tightrope in his back yard, using two chairs as supporting structures, and tried to master the skill of rope walking.
Instead of discouraging this rather risky pursuit, which may have been an understandable reaction, Gravelet's father, who was a gymnast, supported his son's ambitions. That same year he enrolled his son in the Ecole de Gymase, a school focused on physical education that was located in Lyon, France. Gravelet proved to be quite adept, and after only six months of training he made his amateur performance debut. Billed as "The Little Wonder," the future Blondin became a popular attraction, as his performances demonstrated surprising skill and originality.
Unfortunately, his early life was marked by tragedy. When Gravelet was only nine years old, his father passed away. Now an orphan, Gravelet was forced to fend for himself. As such, he turned professional to earn a living. Already exhibiting the sensibilities of a true showman with his precociously dramatic style, the resourceful youngster embarked on a career that would bring him great fame and fortune.
In 1851 he was recruited by an agent for William Niblo, the famed theatrical promoter, to perform with the Ravel Troupe of family acrobats in the United States at Niblo's Garden. Gravelet then toured America with the troupe that, at one point, performed in New York City, working for P. T. Barnum as part of the world-famous circus impresario's "Greatest Show on Earth." During this period, Gravelet assumed his stage name, Charles Blondin, which he selected, in part, because of his blond hair.
During his early years in America, Blondin married his first wife, Charlotte, whom he met in New York. The couple had three children, who were all born while the couple were on tour. Their first child, Adele, was born in New York. Son Edward was born in Louisiana, while their second daughter, Isis, was born in Ohio.
Walked Across Niagara Falls
Blondin toured with the Ravel Troupe for several years. In 1858 the itinerary took him to Niagara Falls, located near the United States/Canadian border in upstate New York. Seeing this enormous natural wonder for the first time, he became obsessed with the idea of crossing the gorge on a tightrope. He finally achieved that ambition in 1859, when he became the first person ever to walk a rope across Niagara Falls. It would prove to be the greatest feat of his career, and it garnered him international renown.
At first, official roadblocks thwarted his goal. Blondin originally wanted to string his rope to Goat Island, a small island situated in the middle of Niagara Falls in the Niagara River, but he was denied permission. The surrounding community felt that the stunt would somehow demean the Falls' magnificent splendor and reduce the natural attraction to a stage for lowbrow entertainment. In addition, local officials feared the attempt would result in a horrifying accident. But Blondin was eventually granted permission to string his rope about a mile further downriver from the island, and on June 30, 1859, a crowd of 100,000 people witnessed Blondin's historic feat. For this first attempt, Blondin used a single three-inch hemp cord that was 1,100 feet long and rigged 160 feet above the Falls at one side and 270 feet at the other.
After this first successful crossing, Blondin performed the stunt many times throughout the next year. Each time the crowds grew larger, and he employed different and much more dangerous variations. Once he crossed the Falls while blindfolded. On another occasion, he pushed a wheelbarrow across the rope. On August 17, 1859, he crossed the Falls while carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back. On September 14, 1860, he traversed the tightrope while walking on stilts. During other performances he stopped in mid-crossing to do tricks. Once he carried a small stove on his back, stopped at the middle of the rope and prepared himself an omelet, which he then ate as his amazed audience watched. Another time he balanced a chair on the rope and stood on it. Sometimes he stopped in mid-course to take photographs of the crowd down below. In September of 1860, the Prince of Wales was one of the many witnesses who observed Blondin carrying his assistant, Romain Mouton, on his back. When the Prince was asked if he would like to be carried on Blondin's back for the return journey, he understandably refused. Further, the Prince implored Blondin never to perform such a dangerous stunt again. Blondin, of course, never complied with the request.
When making the crossings, Blondin used ropes that measured either 900 or 1,200 feet in length, depending on where the line was situated. During this period of his career, he became known as "the Prince of Manila," because the rope he used was made of Manila hemp. In all, Blondin walked across Niagara Falls 17 times. In between crossings, Blondin bought a house in the town of Niagara, where he moved with his family.
Achieved Fame and Fortune
Because of his Niagara Falls crossings, Blondin garnered great fame across the world and became known as "The Great Blondin." A true showman with a flair for the dramatic, and described as likeable and charismatic, he remained a popular performer for his entire life and was fondly remembered after his death. Unsurprisingly, he had a large ego, but that quality only endeared him to others.
Because of his feats, he often received personal honors and gifts. His skills also made him a rich man. Following his American high wire triumphs, Blondin became a highly paid attraction and a huge draw. It has been reported that his fee was $500 for a performance, and that during the height of his career he earned nearly half a million dollars a year. Those figures were quite substantial ones for the time.
Toured England and Europe
Not long after his Niagara Falls accomplishments, Blondin retired to Ealing, England, located near London. Now a rich man, he moved his family into a large home that he christened "Niagara Villa." But he did not remain inactive for long. In 1861 Blondin honored the request of the Prince of Wales and performed in London at the famous Crystal Palace, where he recreated his various Niagara Falls stunts (e.g., somersaults, walking on stilts) against a painted backdrop of the North American landmark. Throughout that year and the next, he made numerous noteworthy international appearances as he toured the United Kingdom and Europe. He always drew enormous crowds whenever he appeared.
Notable engagements included his performances in Scotland, where Blondin stretched the limits of his audacity. During a two-performance stint in Edinburgh in September of 1861, held at the Royal Botanic Garden (then known as the Experimental Gardens), more than 5,000 paying customers nervously watched as Blondin was blindfolded and placed in a canvas sack that reached only to his knees, leaving him free to walk across the tightrope. With his characteristic dramatic style, Blondin faked a few slips as he started out across the rope, which produced collective gasps from the audience far below. When he reached the other side, the relieved audience applauded long and loud. In the second performance he carried a man on his back. In Glasgow, Blondin made two outdoor appearances, performing on a tightrope stretched across two 70-foot-high masts that were positioned 300 feet apart. The performances drew crowds estimated at 10,000. The United Kingdom tour was also notable for a Liverpool performance that nearly ended in tragedy. Blondin had strapped a lion into a wheelbarrow and had begun pushing it across the tightrope when a guy rope, a supporting structural device, became ensnared around the wheelbarrow. Fortunately the performer and his four-legged assistant were unharmed.
In 1862 Blondin returned to the Crystal Palace for 12 performances that netted him a total of 1,200 pounds, a huge sum of money at that time. During this extended engagement, he walked on a tightrope rigged across the center transept at a height of 180 feet above the facility's concrete floor. To make the feat even more dramatic, he pushed his five-year-old daughter Adele in a wheelbarrow, as she dropped rose petals down into the large audience. The press and the public reacted in horror at this risk to the child's well being. As a result, Britain's home secretary ordered him to refrain from placing her in such danger. Blondin complied, and during subsequent performances he executed his regular repertoire of feats such as cooking an omelet on the high wire, turning somersaults and walking on stilts, all of which were sufficiently dangerous and breathtaking to satisfy the enormous crowds. His appearances caused famed English writer Charles Dickens to comment, "Half of London is here eager for some dreadful accident."
Blondin kept performing into his seventies, and became a living legend on an international scale. Demonstrating that an old performer can indeed learn new tricks, he developed a cycling act on the tightrope. Though he was comfortably settled in his Ealing home, he could still be persuaded to make occasional trips to the United States and Europe. In 1882 he responded to a request to perform in the United States in a series of exhibitions in Staten Island, New York. He made his final appearance in 1896, the year before he died, in Belfast, Ireland.
Despite placing himself at great danger throughout his career, Blondin died peacefully in his bed at his Ealing home on February 19, 1897. He was 75 years old. The cause of death was listed as diabetes. He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London next to his first wife, Charlotte, who died in 1888, and where his second wife, Katherine, who died in 1901, would also be buried.
Honored in Art
Besides the accolades and adulation that he received during his career, Blondin was paid tribute by other artistic efforts both during his life and after his death. In the late nineteenth century, German musician and theater manager Rudolf Bial composed the "The Blondin March" in his honor.
In 1992 a statue of Blondin was erected on the Lady-wood Middleway ring road in England, near the Edgbaston Reservoir in Birmingham, where Blondin performed a famous tightrope crossing in 1873. In 1997 the Blondin Community Orchard was planted by the London Borough of Ealing to commemorate the centenary of his death.
In the twentieth century, Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegria wrote "Crossing Niagara," based on Blondin's life. The play was staged in several countries before making its U.S. premiere in New York City at the Folger Theater on February 19, 1981.
New York Times , February 19, 1981.
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