The History of 5 Deadly Circus Stunts

The circus has always been about performers reaching the pinnacle of courage, strength, and skill, all for the intangible payback of the roar of the crowd. No other acts define this better than those who truly put their lives on the line for your entertainment. Here are the stories behind five of the most dangerous stunts ever seen under the big top.

1. Knife Thrower

Knife throwers and their "impalement arts" cousins—bullwhip crackers, archery experts, and firearm sharpshooters—became popular in the late-1800s as part of circuses and Wild West shows. The knife throwing acts generally consisted of a few standard stunts, like popping balloons, pinning playing cards, slicing through flower stems, as well as the famous "Profile," in which the thrower embeds 12" knives along the body of his assistant, known as a "target girl."


By far the most famous stunt, though, is "The Wheel of Death," in which the target girl is strapped to a large wooden wheel and then spun around. It's unknown exactly how old the Wheel stunt is, but it's widely believed that The Gibsons, a husband and wife act, are responsible for bringing it to America in 1938 as part of the Ringling Brothers Circus. The Gibsons also introduced the most death-defying stunt known, the Veiled Wheel of Death, in which a large sheet of paper hides the wheel from the thrower. The stunt has been performed only by a handful of acts—The Gibsons, The Zeros in the 1940s, The Brumbachs (performed only once in 1978), and the current Guinness Record Holder for Fastest Knife Throwing, David "The Great Throwdini" Adamovich. The Great Throwdini has even taken the stunt one step further by adding a second target girl:

The Great Throwdini performs the Veiled Double Wheel of Death.

2. Lion Tamer

In 1819, Germany's Henri Martin stood inside a cage with a tiger for four minutes and lived to tell the tale. It was the culmination of many weeks' worth of acclimation, gaining the beast's trust by first rubbing the tiger through the bars, and then putting his head and shoulders inside before finally walking into the cage. After forming a friendly bond, Martin soon taught the tiger to do simple canine-like tricks, such as sitting up and lying down on command, thus becoming the first-known wild animal trainer.

Although Martin's methods were humane, not all trainers have been so kind. Pioneering American trainer Isaac Van Amburgh was the first person to (intentionally) put his head inside a lion's mouth. Unfortunately, he gained this type of control by savagely beating the animals into submission with a crowbar. Van Amburgh justified his cruelty by citing Genesis, which proclaims man's dominion over the animals. Even at the time, his methods were controversial, but it didn't prevent him from performing his show across Europe and America to huge crowds in the 1830s and '40s.



This "Man vs. Beast" philosophy was also the basis for trainer Clyde Beatty's act (above), which ran from the 1920s until the early 1960s. Inside the ring, Beatty used a bullwhip and chair to distract the big cats, and he kept a loaded pistol strapped to his side, becoming the epitome of the lion tamer persona that we all know today.

Clyde Beatty performing with his cats.

Sadly, cruelty to circus animals continues even today. Recently, the famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was hit with a $270,000 fine for 27 alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act, stretching back to 2007.

3. Human Cannonball

Despite the big bang and puff of smoke, human cannonballs are not really shot out of the cannon with gunpowder. In fact, the original design for the catapulting system, created by tightrope walker William Leonard Hunt, used rubber springs for propulsion. The first dedicated human cannonball act was a 14-year-old girl going by the stage name "Zazel," whose inaugural blastoff occurred on April 2, 1877, in London. Sadly, her career ended a few years later the same way as so many other human cannonballs—she missed the net. Thankfully, though, she only broke her back.



The cannon's design was upgraded in 1922 by Italy's Zacchini Brothers, who replaced the rubber springs with compressed air. Originally, they suggested the Italian Army use the cannon to send troops equipped with parachutes behind enemy lines, but when the Army said no, they adopted it for the circus instead. Over the course of 70 years and multiple generations, the Zacchinis became the long-standing holders of the world record for distance, and helped popularize the now-common stunt of launching over obstacles, such as buildings or carnival rides.

The modern reigning family of human cannonballs is the Smiths, made up of patriarch David, son David Jr., and one of the few female cannonballers, daughter Jennifer. Over the years, the Smiths have been fired up and over everything from the American-Mexican border to a baseball stadium wall, the first human home run. They also have quite a few world records to their credit. The first was in 1995, when David Sr. broke the Zacchini's distance record by launching himself 180'. David Jr. upstaged his old man in March 2011, though, when he went 193'. But David Sr. still holds the record for the highest launch at 200'4", which he set by flying over two Ferris Wheels in 2002.

David Smith, Jr., being fired out of a cannon.

4. Flying Trapeze

In 1859, acrobat Jules Leotard (left) hung trapeze bars over the swimming pool in his father's gymnasium. He then swung and launched himself from one to the next without fear because, if he missed, he simply landed safely in the water below. A few weeks later, Leotard introduced his 12-minute "flying trapeze" routine at Cirque Napoleon, where he was soon performing to sold-out crowds. Sadly, his reign as king of swing was cut short—he died in 1870 of either typhoid or cholera. However, his legacy lives on as the namesake of the skin-tight leggings he wore for his act, as well as the inspiration for the 1867 song, "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze."

While single and double somersaults are pretty standard tricks on the flying trapeze, a triple is so dangerous that Italian fliers once called it solto mortale, "The Deadly Leap." The danger lies in the fact that the feat must be accomplished at such high speed that the brain loses track of its place in space, making it difficult for the flier to regain their sense and know it's time to reach out to the catcher. Missing the catcher means dropping into the net (if there is one), which is notorious for breaking the necks of even seasoned fliers if they're not in the right position. However, this Holy Grail of stunts was performed in 1897 by Lena Jordan, a 4'10" 18-year-old woman who weighed in at a whopping 94 pounds. After Jordan proved it could be done, more fliers tried it, and soon the triple became the high-water mark of a truly exceptional act.

Of course if the triple was possible, it seemed logical that a quadruple was, too. Many tried, but the quadruple eluded even the most skilled fliers until July 10, 1982, when Miguel Vazquez of Ringling Brothers, spinning at more than 80mph, landed the first in Tucson, Arizona, in front of a crowd of 7,000 spectators. Since Vazquez, the stunt has only been completed by a handful of fliers, most recently in January 2010 by Ivo Silva, Jr., of The Flying Caceres.

Miguel Vazquez performing a quadruple somersault.

5. Tightrope Walker

For hundreds of years, acrobats and jugglers have upped the ante by performing their routines suspended high above the ground on a thin wire. As if the very act of walking on a wire 5/8" thick at 40' in the air (minimum) without a net wasn't dangerous enough, these "funambulists" have continually developed routines that truly defy reason. Perhaps the most famous of these is the human pyramid, wherein two walkers follow each other onto the rope with a balance bar stretched between them on their shoulders. A third walker will then climb onto the bar and the group will make its way across.

But a three-person pyramid simply wasn't exciting enough for Karl Wallenda. In 1928, his Great Wallendas performed a four-person, three-level pyramid consisting of two men on bicycles, with Karl sitting on a chair on the bar between them, and his wife Helen standing on his shoulders. They performed this act for years under their original name; however, that changed during a performance in Akron, Ohio, when the group lost their balance and fell. They caught themselves on the wire and were unharmed, but a reporter in the crowd said they fell so gracefully that it appeared they were flying. From then on, they became known as The Flying Wallendas.



The family pushed the act to the limit, performing a three-layer, seven-person pyramid: two pairs of men with shoulder beams at the bottom, two more men with a shoulder beam on the next level up, and a woman on a chair like a cherry on top. They performed this stunt (above) without incident from 1948 until January 30, 1962, when, tragically, the performers fell during a show in Detroit. Of the seven, two died on impact and another was paralyzed from the waist down. The rest dangled from the wire, but made it down safely. Convinced that the show must go on, the pyramid was dropped from the routine, but the Wallendas performed again the very next night.

A group practicing the Wallenda 7 act for a production at the Goodman Theatre of Chicago.

The fall in Detroit led some members of the act to retire shortly thereafter. The tragedy had the opposite effect on Karl, though. He practically became a one-man act, performing ever more daring tightrope walks from ever increasing heights and distances. He became famous throughout the 1970s for walking 1,000' across Tallulah Gorge in Georgia, across the roofs of stadiums like the Astrodome, and between two landmark hotels in Miami Beach. It was during a 1978 daredevil performance in San Juan, Puerto Rico, that the 73-year-old tightrope walker fell 120' to the concrete parking lot below, live on camera. (Yes, it is on YouTube.) For a man who risked his life for the thrill of the crowd, he probably wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

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Shout! Factory
10 Surprising Facts About Mr. Mom
Shout! Factory
Shout! Factory

John Hughes penned the script for 1983's Mr. Mom, a comedy about a family man named Jack Butler (Micheal Keaton) who loses his job. To ensure their three kids are taken care of, his wife, Caroline (Teri Garr), goes back to work—leaving Jack to fight off a vacuum cleaner and learn why it's never a good idea to feed chili to a baby.

In 1982, Keaton turned in a star-making role in Ron Howard’s Night Shift, but Mr. Mom marked the first time he headlined a movie, and it launched his career. Hughes had written National Lampoon's Vacation, which—oddly enough—was released in theaters the weekend after Mr. Mom. But Hughes himself was still a relative unknown, as it would be another year before he entered the teen flick phase of his career, which would make him iconic.

In the meantime, Mr. Mom hit home for a lot of viewers, as the economy was on the downturn and more and more women were entering (or reentering) the workforce. But some people think that the movie's ending—which sees the couple revert to traditional gender roles—sidelined the movie's message. Still, on the 35th anniversary of its release, Mr. Mom remains an ahead-of-its-time comedy classic.

1. IT'S BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

Mr. Mom producer Lauren Shuler Donner came across a funny article John Hughes had written for National Lampoon. Based on that, she contacted him and the two became friends. “One day, he was telling me that his wife had gone down to Arizona and he was in charge of the two boys and he didn’t know what he was doing,” Donner told IGN. “It was hilarious! I was on the floor laughing. He said, ‘Do you think this would make a good movie?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, this is really funny.’ So he said, ‘Well, I have about 80 pages in a drawer. Would you look at it?’ So I looked at it and I said, ‘This is great! Let’s do it!’ We kind of developed it ourselves.” In the book Movie Moguls Speak, Donner mentioned how Hughes “had never been to a grocery store, he had never operated a vacuum cleaner. John was so ignorant, that in his ignorance, he was hilarious.”

The players involved with the movie told Donner and Hughes they thought it should be a TV movie. Hughes had a TV deal with Aaron Spelling, who came aboard to executive produce. “Then the players involved were upset because John was writing out of Chicago instead of L.A.,” Donner said in Movie Moguls Speak. “They fired John and brought in a group of TV writers. In the end, John and I were muscled out. It was a good movie, but if you ever read John’s original script for Mr. Mom, it’s far better.”

2. JOHN HUGHES REJECTED THE IDEA OF DIRECTING MR. MOM.

Stan Dragoti ended up directing the film, but only after Hughes turned it down, because he preferred to make his movies in Chicago, not Hollywood. “I don’t like being around the people in the movie business,” Hughes told Roger Ebert. “In Hollywood, you spend all of your time having lunch and making deals. Everybody is trying to shoot you down. I like to get my actors out here where we can make our movies in privacy.” Hughes remained in Chicago and filmed his directorial debut, Sixteen Candles, there.

3. MICHAEL KEATON GOT THE ROLE BECAUSE OF NIGHT SHIFT.

In 1982’s Night Shift, Keaton’s character works at a morgue and starts a prostitution ring with co-worker Henry Winkler. Donner had an agent friend, Laurie Perlman, who represented the not-yet-famous actor. She contacted Donner and pitched Keaton to her. “’Look, I represent this guy who is really funny. Would you meet with him?’" Donner recalled of the conversation. "So I met with him. Usually I don’t like to do this unless we’re casting, but I met with him because she was my friend. And then she said, ‘You have to see this movie Night Shift that he’s in.’ So I went to see Night Shift, and midway through I couldn’t wait to get out of that theater to give Mr. Mom to Michael Keaton. Fortunately, he liked it."

Keaton told Grantland that he turned down one of the main roles in Splash to play Jack Butler. “I just remember at the time thinking I wanted to get away from what I’d just done on Night Shift,” he said. “I thought if I do it again, I might get myself stuck. So then Mr. Mom came along. So I said no [to Splash] so I could set up this framework right away where I could do different things.”

4. THE FILM BROKE NEW GROUND.

Teri Garr, Michael Keaton, Taliesin Jaffe, Frederick Koehler, and Martin Mull in Mr. Mom (1983)
Shout! Factory

In 1983, more women stayed at home than worked, so it was a novelty for a man to be a stay-at-home dad. Today, an estimated 1.4 million men are stay-at-home dads, and 7 million men are their children's primary caregiver. “Mr. Mom became part of the vernacular,” Donner told Newsweek. “Mr. Mom represented a segment of men who were at home dealing with the kids who, up until then, really hadn’t been heard from. That’s what really told me about the power of film, because it spoke for a lot of men. It also helped women, because I think that women sometimes, if you’re a housewife, you’re not really appreciated for what you do. This sort of made women feel better about what they did because they knew that men were understanding it.”

5. TODAY, “MR. MOM” IS CONSIDERED A PEJORATIVE TERM.

More than 30 years after the film’s release, stay-at-home dads feel the term “Mr. Mom” should die. The National At-Home Dad Network launched a campaign to terminate the phrase and instead have people refer to men as “Dad.” In 2014 Lake Superior State University voted to banish “Mr. Mom” from the lexicon.

“At least, the pop-culture image of the inept dad who wouldn’t know a diaper genie from a garbage disposal has begun to fade,” wrote The Wall Street Journal, after declaring “Mr. Mom is dead.”

6. TERI GARR DIDN’T KNOW IT WAS A MESSAGE MOVIE.

The movie redefined gender roles, but when the producers pitched the premise to Garr, they hid the plot reversal. “They just told me it was about a guy who does the work that a woman does, because it’s so easy,” she told The A.V. Club. “And I went, ‘Oh, yeah. Ha ha.’ It’s so easy. All the women I know who stay home and take care of their kids, they go, ‘Oh yeah, this is easy.’ Hmm.”

7. MARTIN MULL IMPROVISED THE “220, 221” LINE.

The quote everyone remembers from the movie comes from Jack, holding a chainsaw, standing next to Ron Richardson (Martin Mull) and discussing what kind of wiring Jack will use in renovating the house: “220, 221, whatever it takes,” Jack says.

“We’re doing the scene and it was okay,” Keaton told Esquire. “And I remember saying to the prop guy, ‘Go find me a chainsaw.’ When he comes back with it, he says, ‘You wanna wear these?’ And he holds up some goggles. I go, ‘Yeah.’ You know, they make me look crazy. And when Martin shows up, I know I should look under control, I’m not sweating it. I’m a dude. So we’re standing there, Martin pulls me aside and says, ‘You know what you ought to say? When I ask about the wiring, you oughta just deadpan: ‘220, 221.’ I died. It was perfect. I may have added ‘whatever it takes.’ But it was his.”

“That was a little ad-lib that we just threw in, but every carpenter or construction person I’ve ever worked with, they’re always quoting that line from Mr. Mom,” Mull told The A.V. Club.

8. MR. MOM OUTGROSSED HUGHES’S OTHER 1983 SUMMER MOVIE—VACATION.

Mr. Mom only opened on 126 screens on July 22, 1983, but managed to gross $947,197 during its opening weekend. Once the film went wide a month later to 1235 screens, it hit number one at the box office and spent five weeks at the top. By the end of its run, the film had grossed just shy of $65 million, making it the ninth highest-grossing film of 1983 (just between Staying Alive and Risky Business). National Lampoon’s Vacation, Hughes’s other film that summer, came out July 29 and ended its theatrical run with $61,399,552 (at its height, it showed on 1248 screens). Vacation finished the year in 11th place.

9. THE MOVIE LED TO HUGHES BEING CALLED “A PURVEYOR OF HORNY SEX COMEDIES.”

During a 1986 interview with Seventeen magazine, Molly Ringwald asked the writer-director why he never showed teen sex in Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club. “In Sixteen Candles, I figured it would only be gratuitous to show Samantha and Jake in anything more than a kiss,” he said. “The kiss is the most beautiful moment. I was really amused when someone once called me a ‘purveyor of horny sex comedies.’ He listed The Breakfast Club and Mr. Mom in parentheses. I thought, ‘What kind of sex?’ Yes, in Mr. Mom there’s a baby in a bathtub and you see its bare butt.”

10. MR. MOM WAS MADE INTO A TV MOVIE AFTER ALL.

In the beginning, producers wanted Mr. Mom to be a TV movie, not a feature film. But a year after the film came out in theaters, ABC produced a TV movie called Mr. Mom, with the same characters and premise. Barry Van Dyke played Jack and Rebecca York played Caroline. A People magazine review of the movie stated: “They and their three kids are immediately likable … But it goes downhill from there as the script lobotomizes all its characters. Here’s a textbook case in how TV takes a cute idea—and a script that does have some good lines—and leeches the wit out of it.”

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Star Trek Theme Song Has Lyrics
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Star Trek theme song is familiar to pretty much anyone who lived in the free world (and probably elsewhere, too) in the late 20th century. The tune is played during the show's opening credits; a slightly longer version is played, accompanied by stills from various episodes, during the closing credits. The opening song is preceded by William Shatner (as Captain Kirk) doing his now-legendary monologue recitation, which begins: "Space, the final frontier ..."

The show's familiar melody was written by respected film and TV composer Alexander Courage, who said the Star Trek theme's main inspiration was the Richard Whiting song "Beyond the Blue Horizon." In Courage's contract it was stipulated that, as the composer, he would receive royalties every time the show was aired and the theme song played. If, somehow, Star Trek made it into syndication—which, of course, it ultimately did—Courage stood to make a lot of money. And so did the person who wrote the lyrics.

WAIT... THERE WERE LYRICS?

Gene Roddenberry, the show's creator, wrote lyrics to the theme song.

"Beyond the rim of the star-light,
my love is wand'ring in star-flight!"

Why would Roddenberry even bother?

The lyrics were never even meant to be heard on the show, but not because the network (NBC) nixed them. Roddenberry nixed them himself. Roddenberry wanted a piece of the composing profits, so he wrote the hokey lyrics solely to receive a "co-writer" credit.

"I know he'll find in star-clustered reaches
Love, strange love a star woman teaches."

As one of the composers, Roddenberry received 50 percent of the royalties ... cutting Alexander Courage's share in half. Not surprisingly, Courage was furious about the deal. Though it was legal, he admitted, it was unethical because Roddenberry had contributed nothing to why the music was successful.

Roddenberry was unapologetic. According to Snopes, he once declared, "I have to get some money somewhere. I'm sure not gonna get it out of the profits of Star Trek."

In 1969, after Star Trek officially got the ax, no one (Courage and Roddenberry included) could possibly have imagined the show's great popularity and staying power.

Courage, who only worked on two shows in Star Trek's opening season because he was busy working on the 1967 Dr. Doolittle movie, vowed he would never return to Star Trek.

He never did.

THE WORDS

If you're looking for an offbeat karaoke number, here are Roddenberry's lyrics, as provided by Snopes:

Beyond
The rim of the star-light
My love
Is wand'ring in star-flight
I know
He'll find in star-clustered reaches
Love,
Strange love a star woman teaches.
I know
His journey ends never
His star trek
Will go on forever.
But tell him
While he wanders his starry sea
Remember, remember me.

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