Con Colleano 1899 – 1973
- Con Colleano 1899 – 1973
Con Colleano 1899 – 1973
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.
In 1950 Con Colleano became an American citizen. He made a few appearances in Australia the following year, including a stint with the Hopalong Cassidy touring show, but his circus career was waning. He returned to Australia in 1955 and ran the Albion Hotel in Forbes, New South Wales. This ended in financial disaster, and, again, hoped-for circus or variety bookings never came.
Con Colleano gave his final performance in Honolulu in 1960; by then he was no longer the headline centre ring attraction, and the presence on the bill of the once celebrated Wizard of the Wire went virtually unnoticed.
Con and Winnie (they had married in 1925) retired to Miami, Florida. There Cornelius Sullivan – ‘Con Colleano’ – died on 14 November 1973. His wife survived him, as did his elder sister, also named Winifred; she had achieved international renown as a trapeze artist. She, Con and May Wirth are the only Australians represented in the Circus Hall of Fame. Con’s younger brother, Maurice, worked as an acrobatic comedian mainly in British variety, though he toured Australia for the Tivoli in 1949-51 and 1958. A nephew, Bonar, had a notable career as a film actor, paving the way for his son, Mark, who works mostly in television.
In 2004 the Albury-based Flying Fruit Fly Circus marked its 25th anniversary with Skipping on Stars, a celebration of Con Colleano’s life and art devised by artistic director Kim Walker. The young performers were joined by veteran Aboriginal actor Noel Tovey, who portrayed an older Colleano, looking back on his ground-breaking life.
Tovey had seen Colleano perform many years before, and recalled him as a powerful presence in his bullfighter’s cape and leggings. ‘The thing I remember most about him was when he walked on stage, it was like charisma overflowing,’ Tovey told an interviewer. ‘He had a bearing, a presence. That is something I’ve tried to copy for the rest of my life, that same ability to command the space that you’re in – he could do that.’
Frank Van Straten, 2007
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