7 Groundbreaking Specialty Acts
Imagine that you had one very specific talent -something unusual, that people would normally never encounter in their everyday lives. Could you make a living doing it? Maybe, if you were willing to put the necessary time, effort, and imagination into your act. After all, if Joseph Pujol could make a living by farting, anything is possible! Here are a few entertainers who hustled an unusual idea or ability into a full-fledged career.
1. The Wingwalker
Soon after the airplane was invented, they became a vehicle for stunts and entertainment. Barnstormers put on shows in which they performed aerial stunts for crowds on the ground. One of the more impressive stunts was to get up from the pilot's seat and climb out on the wing of the plane. Ormer Locklear is the first known wingwalker. He was a pilot and mechanic for the the U.S. Army Air Service, and thought nothing of getting out and walking around the plane to check for problem while airborne. His commanding officer was concerned, but encouraged the stunt to boost morale in other pilots. When Locklear left the service in 1919, he began performing professionally with barnstorming shows and became "King of the Wing Walkers." His stunts included swinging from a bar underneath the plane, handstands, and even a walking transfer from one plane to another. His fame only lasted a year and a half, and he died when he crashed his plane while filming a stunt for the movie The Skywayman in 1920. Too many wingwalkers died performing; the stunt was outlawed for low altitudes in 1936. Image from the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution.
2. The Automaton
Radiana was a "robot" or "automaton" employed by the magician Professor John Popjie, who toured in the 1920s and '30s. Radiana could do some amazing things, like co-pilot a plane, drive a car, bake a cake, and even shave a brave member of the audience. However, Radiana was no robot. In a version of the Golem illusion, there was a real person inside the automaton. The magician's assistant was a small woman who used real hands to perform the feats while the audience was focused on Radiana's face or Professor Popjie.
3. The Whip Cracker
Indiana Jones is a fictional character, but Adam Winrich is the real thing. He holds seven Guinness World Records for whip-cracking stunts. But can you make a living cracking a whip? Yes, when you combine a series of amazing stunts with an interesting presentation on the history of the whip and throw in some humorous patter and audience participation. Winrich also sells an instructional DVD in case you want to learn this skill. But you have to give Indiana Jones a little of the credit: he was the inspiration behind Winrich's career.
4. The Flagpole Sitter
Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly was a Hollywood stuntman and self-described survivor of the Titanic (which is where his nickname came from). In 1924, Kelly climbed to the top of a flagpole in Los Angeles and stayed there for thirteen days. The story was circulated that the stunt was a dare from a friend, but it was actually a paid gig to promote a movie. He repeated the stunt at various places around America for sponsorship money for years, at one time earning $100 a day. A 1927 article describes how he did it. His greatest triumph came in 1930 when Kelly spent 49 days on a flagpole in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Kelly inspired others to try flagpole sitting, which became a fad for a short time. But it is one of those stunts that people are only impressed with only once, and Kelly's sponsors dropped off in the 1930s.
5. The Body Builder
For many years, crowds would gather to marvel at a man performing amazing feats of strength. The strongman exhibition was a type of traveling show popular before movies and television. One strongman, however, impressed people more for his looks than for his feats. Eugen Sandow, born in 1867 in Prussia, began performing strongman stunts at age 19. Before long, he switched gears to capitalize on his appearance as the first professional bodybuilder. With the encouragement of showman Flo Ziegfield, Sandow originated "muscle display performances," which became the classic poses still used in bodybuilding competitions today. Sandow toured Europe and appeared at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. He also wrote books on bodybuilding, invented home training equipment, opened a training spa, and organized a competition for bodybuilders. Sandow practically invented the sport, and will forever be known as "The Father of Bodybuilding." His performance still exists on video.
6. The Strongwoman
Muscle Beach in Santa Monica has been an athletic facility (and a showcase) for gymnasts, weightlifters, bodybuilders, and Hollywood stuntpersons since the 1930s. Workouts became performances, and Abbye Stockton stood out as one the rare female weightlifters and bodybuilders. She was known as Pudgy Stockton, a nickname from her teenage years. Stockton's boyfriend and eventual husband, Les Stockton, inspired her to workout with him at the beach. Pudgy got fit and impressed crowds with her strength and muscles, yet she kept a very feminine appearance, which made her a star. Pudgy and Les went on the road with a strongman show, but Pudgy's fame eclipsed Les's while he was serving in World War II. She opened America's first women's gym and promoted female fitness and bodybuilding. Stockton is known as "The First Lady of Iron."
7. Hélène Dutrieu
One woman stands out as not only unusual for her time, but also because of her relentless overachievment. Hélène Dutrieu was born in 1877 in Belgium, and by age 20 she was a professional stunt cyclist and champion racer on both automobiles and motorcycles. But that wasn't enough- Dutrieu also learned to fly in 1908 and became one of the first female professional pilots, breaking records and performing in air shows. To put her accomplishment in perspective, she caused a bit of a scandal when it became known that she did not wear a corset while flying. But that still wasn't enough. During World War I, Dutrieu drove an ambulance and worked her way up to director of a military hospital. After the war, she went into journalism and worked to promote the role of women in aviation. Image from the Library of Congress Flickr stream.
See also: Odd Acts of the Vaudeville Era, Coney Island Freaks of Yesterday and Today, Getting Rich by Singing Badly, and Stars of the Wild West Show.