Con Colleano 1899-1973

Con Colleano

Con Colleano

The world’s greatest tightwire artist was born at Lismore, New South Wales, on 26 December 1899.

Practising up to seven hours a day, Con mastered the feet-to-feet somersault on the tightwire – a feat previously considered impossible, as the performer cannot see his feet as they land on the wire.

After a sensational debut at the New York Hippodrome in September 1924, he was soon starring for the great Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Combined Circus.

 

The Wizard of the Wire

‘Con Colleano was supposed to be Spanish,’ said veteran comedian Ron Shand, remembering
a meeting in the bar of the smart Australia Hotel in Sydney. ‘He was dark, always beautifully dressed and he spoke impeccably, consequently people didn’t know what he really was. As we just stood at the bar there, our drinks in our hands, I looked around and I thought to myself, if people knew that Con was an Aboriginal he could have been thrown out of the bar. That’s how it was in those days.’

The world’s greatest tightwire artist was born at Lismore, New South Wales, on 26 December 1899, the third of the ten children of an itinerant showman and boxer, Cornelius Sullivan and his wife, Vittorine, the grand-daughter of an Aboriginal. Con was about eight when the family settled at Lightning Ridge, where the children learnt circus skills. By 1910 they were on the road, sometimes presenting their own show and sometimes working with other circuses.

Perhaps inspired by the English Kellino acrobatic troupe, the family adopted the name ‘Colleano’, and by 1918 ‘Colleano’s All-Star Circus’ was touring Queensland. Capitalising on their dark skin colour, but masking their part-Aboriginal origins, the children were billed as ‘The Royal Hawaiian Troupe’, and Con appeared as ‘Zeneto, Prince of Wirewalkers’.

Practising up to seven hours a day, Con mastered the feet-to-feet somersault on the tightwire – a feat previously considered impossible, as the performer cannot see his feet as they land on the wire. By 1922 Con was sufficiently adept to score an engagement on the Tivoli Circuit. The following year he toured for Fuller’s, who billed other members of the family as ‘The Eight Akabar Arabs’.

In 1924 Con and his fiancée, soubrette Winifred Trevail, set off to conquer the world. In Johannesburg, Colleano adopted the spangled Spanish costume that became his trademark. After a sensational debut at the New York Hippodrome in September 1924, he was soon starring for the great Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Combined Circus. ‘The Australian Wizard of the Wire’ drew a weekly salary of $US1000 and remained its principal attraction for many seasons. He also played in circus and variety in Britain and Europe. In Germany his artistry charmed Hitler who, like everyone else, assumed he was an acceptably Aryan Spaniard.

Colleano returned to Australia in 1937, headlining in the Tivoli Circuit’s Coronation Year revue, Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue. After the tour he ‘went bush’ for two months, half-expecting a booking with Wirths’ Circus; it never came and he returned to the United States. In 1943 he made his only film appearance – as an uncredited stunt double for Charles Boyer, who played a circus aerialist in Flesh and Fantasy.

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Circus Poster

Biographical references

Mark St Leon: The Wizard of the Wire, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1993
Mark St Leon: ‘Con Colleano’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 13. Melbourne University Press
Mark St Leon: ‘Con Colleano’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia,Currency Press, 1995