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The History of 5 Deadly Circus Stunts

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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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The Time That Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis Opened Competing Restaurants on the Sunset Strip
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From 1946 to 1956, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were show business supernovas. With an act that combined singing, slapstick, and spontaneous hijinks, the duo sold out nightclubs coast to coast, then went on to conquer radio, television, and film. Long before Elvis and The Beatles came along, Dean and Jerry  were rock stars of comedy.

Offstage, there was a cordial but cool friendship between the laidback Martin and the more neurotic Lewis. But as the pressures of their success increased, so did the tensions between them. Martin grew tired of playing the bland romantic straight man to Lewis’s manic monkey boy. And when Lewis started to grab more headlines and write himself bigger parts in their movies, Martin decided to quit the act. In an angry moment, he told Lewis that he was “nothing to me but a f**king dollar sign.”

After the split, both men went on with their individual careers, though it took Martin a few years before he regained his footing. One of his ventures during that transitional period was a Hollywood eatery called Dino’s Lodge.

DINO'S LODGE

In the summer of 1958, Martin and his business partner, Maury Samuels, bought a controlling interest in a restaurant called The Alpine Lodge, at 8524 Sunset Boulevard. They hired Dean’s brother Bill to manage the place, and renamed it Dino’s Lodge.

Outside they put up a large neon sign, a likeness of Dean’s face. The sign turned into a national symbol of hip and cool, thanks to appearances on TV shows like Dragnet, The Andy Griffith Show, and most prominently, in the opening credits of 77 Sunset Strip.

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Dino’s Lodge was popular from the get-go, serving home-style Italian food and steaks in an intimate, candlelit, wood-paneled room meant to replicate Martin’s own den. In the first year, Dean himself frequented the place, signing autographs and posing for photos with starstruck diners. He also occasionally brought along famous friends like Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. To promote the idea of the swingin’ lifestyle that Martin often sang about, Dino’s served “an early morning breakfast from 1 to 5 a.m.” The restaurant also had a lounge that featured singers, though only females. Dean apparently didn’t want any male vocalists encroaching on his turf.

But as with many a celebrity venture into the food business, this one soon turned sour. And most of that was due to the jealousy of Jerry Lewis.

JERRY'S

In late 1961, Lewis wooed Martin’s business partner Maury Samuels away, ponied up some $350,000, and opened his own copycat restaurant three blocks down Sunset. It was called Jerry’s. To make it clear he was out for top billing, Lewis had his own likeness rendered in neon, then mounted it on a revolving pole 100 feet above his restaurant. In contrast to Dino’s Italian-based menu, Jerry’s would serve “American and Hebrew viands.” Lewis didn’t stop there. Within a few months, he’d hired away Dino’s top two chefs, his maître d', and half his waitstaff.

Wire Photo, eBay, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

When Lewis was in Los Angeles, he made of point of table-hopping and schmoozing with his guests at his restaurant, and he occasionally brought in a few of his celebrity friends, like Peggy Lee and Steve McQueen.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

By the following year, a disgusted Dean Martin was fed up with the restaurant business and cut ties with Dino’s Lodge. Much to his aggravation, he lost a motion in court to have his likeness and name removed from the sign. So the new owners carried on as Dino’s Lodge, with the big neon head staring down on Sunset for another decade before the place finally went bust.

Jerry’s lost steam long before that, folding in the mid-1960s.

For the rest of the 1960s and the early 1970s, Martin and Lewis avoided each other. “Jerry’s trying hard to be a director,” Dean once told a reporter. “He couldn’t even direct traffic.”

In 1976, Frank Sinatra famously engineered an onstage reunion of the pair during The Jerry Lewis Telethon. While the audience roared their approval, Sinatra said, “I think it’s about time, don’t you?” And to Sinatra, Lewis said under his breath, “You son of a bitch.”

What followed was an awkward few moments of shtick between the former partners. Reportedly, Martin was drunk and Lewis was doped up on painkillers. There was a quick embrace, Martin sang with Sinatra, then blew Lewis a kiss and disappeared from his life for good. Martin died in 1995. Lewis passed away today, at the age of 91.

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15 Fun Facts About Yo Gabba Gabba!
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Since its debut on August 20, 2007 on Nick Jr., Yo Gabba Gabba!—a kids’ show featuring a red cyclops, a magic robot, a pink flower girl, a green-striped guy, a blue cat-dragon, and a host wearing orange spandex and a fluffy hat—became one of the biggest draws for the preschool crowd. But thanks to the show's hipster-friendly musical performances and celebrity guest stars, Yo Gabba Gabba! managed to transcend its kiddie roots to become a hit with fans of all ages. On the 10th anniversary of its debut, let's go behind the scenes of the beloved series.

1. THE CREATOR OF NAPOLEON DYNAMITE HAD A HAND IN GETTING YO GABBA GABBA! ON THE AIR.

Longtime friends Christian Jacobs and Scott Schultz got the idea for Yo Gabba Gabba! when, as two dads in their mid-30s, they were less-than-enthusiastic about the television shows their kids were watching. It wasn't that the other shows were bad; they were just boring and sanitized.

With their experience as musicians and videographers, Jacobs and Schultz thought they could do something different. So they scraped together about $150,000 and began writing, animating, and shooting demo episodes of Yo Gabba Gabba! in their garage. They posted these videos online and Jared Hess, director of Napoleon Dynamite, happened to see them. Impressed, Hess passed the link onto Brown Johnson, an executive at Nickelodeon, who said, “Lordy. Nothing else looks like this on television.” She quickly contacted the duo and, in a risky move that obviously paid off, gave them complete creative control of their own show on Nick Jr.

2. THE TITLE IS MEANT TO BE MIMIC BABY TALK.

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According to Jacobs, the name of the show is a nonsense phrase meant to be reminiscent of the first words spoken by a baby. However, that doesn't mean Jacobs and Schultz aren't happy the name also pays homage to The Ramones, who used the phrase “Gabba Gabba Hey!” in their song “Pinhead.” But that actually makes it an homage of an homage, as The Ramones were paying tribute to the original source of the phrase, the 1932 cult classic film Freaks. In the film, “Gabba Gabba Hey!” is part of a chant uttered by a group of circus freaks as they welcome a new member into the fold.

3. ITS THEME SONG IS REMINISCENT OF PEE-WEE'S PLAYHOUSE.

The show's intro music seems suspiciously like the intro music from another kinetic kids' show, Pee-wee's Playhouse. Pay close attention to when the trees part on Pee-wee's intro and you'll hear a lot of similarities between the two.

4. THE SHOW BECAME A WORLDWIDE PHENOMENON.

Yo Gabba Gabba! became a worldwide phenomenon, and was broadcast all over the world, including in Italy, France, the UK, the Netherlands, Australia, and Canada.

5. DJ LANCE ROCK REALLY IS A DJ.

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DJ Lance Rock is actually Lance Robertson—and he really is a DJ. Robertson grew up in St. Louis, where he started spinning records in the early '90s before moving to Los Angeles at the age of 29. While in L.A., he played with a band, The Ray Makers, who played a few gigs with a group called Majestic, which counted future Yo Gabba Gabba! co-creator Scott Schultz as a member. When the Yo Gabba Gabba! guys were looking for a host, Schultz thought of Robertson. After Robertson signed on, one of the first things he did was suggest they change DJ Lance's look to the now-iconic orange jumpsuit and fuzzy hat. The original costume included a waistcoat similar to the one worn by Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka.

6. MUNO AND BROBEE EXISTED BEFORE YO GABBA GABBA!.

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While the other characters were created exclusively for Yo Gabba Gabba!, Muno and Brobee were already around as part of the live show for Christian Jacobs's kid-friendly ska/punk band, The Aquabats. Since shortly after their founding in 1994, The Aquabats have dressed in matching superhero costumes, fighting evil under aliases like The MC Bat Commander (Jacobs), Crash McLarson, Jimmy the Robot, Ricky Fitness, and Eagle “Bones” Falconhawk. The lineup has changed frequently over the years (Travis Barker of Blink-182 was briefly their drummer under the name “The Baron von Tito”), but the band still performs live and releases the occasional studio album. Naturally, they made a handful of appearances on Yo Gabba Gabba!, as well.

7. THE SHOW HAS A CONNECTION TO DEVO.

While most kids only know him as the kookie art teacher on the show, Mark Mothersbaugh was one of the founding members and lead singer of the New Wave band Devo. Even when he’s not wearing a red terraced “Energy Dome” hat, Mothersbaugh’s career has been prolific as a composer for dozens of TV shows, films, video games, and commercials, including Apple’s famous “I’m a Mac” ads starring Justin Long and John Hodgman.

8. BIZ MARKIE WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO DANCE ON THE SHOW.

Yo Gabba Gabba! fans learned how to beatbox thanks to rapper Biz Markie (born Marcel Theo Hall) and his “Beat of the Day” segment. Biz was initially asked to do a Dancey Dance routine for the show, but he has a bad back, so he offered to teach the kids how to do a beat instead. The producers loved it and it became a staple on the show. Parents knew Biz best from his 1989 hit “Just a Friend,” which featured his unique brand of rapping and “singing.” 

9. SUPER MARTIAN ROBOT GIRL IS THE PRODUCT OF TWO GROUNDBREAKING COMIC BOOK ARTISTS.

The comic book the Gabba gang often reads, Super Martian Robot Girl, is the creation of married underground comic book celebrities Sarah Dyer and Evan Dorkin. Dorkin is the genius behind the small press comic Milk and Cheese about “dairy products gone bad”—a milk carton and a wedge of cheese who love to drink gin and beat people up. Dyer was an influential creator in the '90s zine scene, where she was one of the few people giving female zinesters a voice with her Action Girl Newsletter, which later paved the way for the similarly-themed Action Girl Comics.

10. IT WAS NOMINATED FOR SEVEN EMMYS, BUT NEVER WON.

Yo Gabba Gabba!  received numerous Daytime Emmy nominations for Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction and Costume Design, as well as for Outstanding Pre-School Children's Series, but a win eluded the show. In addition, the series was nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Children’s Programming by the Television Critics Association Awards five times (and won twice). Internationally, the show was awarded a BAFTA in 2008. And DJ Lance received two NAACP Image Award nominations.      

11. THE SHOW GOT ITS OWN LINE OF SNEAKERS.

Ever wanted to see Foofa pop a wheelie? How about Toodee ride a surfboard? In 2011, the Gabba gang shot a series of videos to promote their line of Vans shoe, a brand popular among the extreme sports crowd. The characters shared the screen with some of the biggest names in the X Games, including surfers Alex Knost and Jared Mell, skateboarders Bucky Lasek and Christian Hosoi, BMXers Alistair Whitton and Coco Zurita, and motocross stars Dean Wilson and Ryan Villopoto. You can check out the videos at Yo Gabba Gabba's official YouTube channel.

12. THEY PLAYED COACHELLA.

The gang invaded the Coachella Music Festival in 2010, where they performed, hung out with celebrity fans backstage, and even showed up to dance with the audience at other musical performances.

13. THE SHOW HAD A LOT OF CELEBRITY FANS.

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For Halloween 2009, Brad Pitt donned DJ Lance's orange jumpsuit and fuzzy hat when he took his kids trick-or-treating. Lance was later quoted as saying that Pitt looked “Awesome.”

14. IT FEATURED A LOT OF GUEST STARS.

While most celebrities only come on the show to do a Dancey Dance or Cool Tricks segment, there have been a handful of guests that played a bigger role in an episode. The first was Jack Black, who had an entire episode dedicated to his adventures in Gabbaland after his flying motorbike ran out of gas. He got the gig after his wife emailed the show and practically begged them to let Jack come on because he was such a big fan. Other celebrities who popped in: Angela Kinsey from The Office played a teacher, the Tooth Fairy was played by Amy Sedaris, Mos Def saved the day as Super Mr. Superhero, Anthony Bourdain cameoed as a doctor, Jason Bateman played an evil spy, Lost’s Josh Holloway played a helpful farmer, and Weird Al Yankovic guested as a circus ringmaster.

15. A YO GABBA GABBA! DOLL WILL COST YOU A PRETTY PENNY.

The Gabba action figures that DJ Lance brought to life at the beginning of each episode were produced by Kidrobot, one of the leading names in the vinyl toy movement. The figures are no longer produced, so when one pops up on eBay, it often commands a high price. But if you’re not willing to spend that kind of money on an action figure, there are plenty of other Gabba-themed toys, books, DVDs, comics, smartphone apps, and clothes to keep your kids happy.

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