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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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15 Surprising Facts About Hill Street Blues
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Until the impressive record was surpassed by The West Wing in 2000, Hill Street Blues held the title of most Emmy-awarded freshman series, with eight trophies for its debut season alone (despite its basement-level ratings). The drama that chronicled the lives of the men and women working the Hill Street police station beat has been credited with changing television ever since its debut in 1981.

Among Hill Street Blues's innovations are the use of handheld cameras, a large ensemble cast, multi-episode story arcs, and a mix of high drama and comedy—elements which still permeate the small screen today. Here are 15 facts about the groundbreaking series.

1. STEVEN BOCHCO AND MICHAEL KOZOLL CREATED IT, DESPITE NOT WANTING TO DO ANOTHER COP SHOW.

MTM Enterprises was specifically hired by NBC to create a cop show, so Steven Bochco (who later co-created L.A. Law and NYPD Blue) and Michael Kozoll (co-writer of First Blood) agreed to do it—as long as the network left them “completely alone to do whatever we want,” according to Bochco. NBC agreed, and the two wrote the pilot script in 10 days.

2. IT WAS INFLUENCED BY A 1977 DOCUMENTARY.

The show's creators looked to The Police Tapes, a 1977 documentary that chronicled a South Bronx police precinct during a particularly hostile time in New York City's history, for inspiration. NBC's then-president Fred Silverman was inspired to create a cop show in the first place after seeing Fort Apache, the Bronx (1981), which stars Paul Newman as a veteran cop in a South Bronx police district.

3. BRUCE WEITZ HAD AN AGGRESSIVE AUDITION.

Bruce Weitz landed the role of undercover officer Mick Belker by playing the part. "I went to the audition dressed as how I thought the character should dress—and loud and pushy," Weitz recalled. "When I got into the room, I jumped up on [MTM co-founder] Grant Tinker's desk and went after his nose. I heard he said afterwards, 'There's no way I can't offer him the job.'"

4. JOE SPANO THOUGHT HE WAS MISCAST.

Joe Spano in 'Hill Street Blues'
NBC

Joe Spano auditioned for the role of Officer Andrew Renko, but ended up playing Lieutenant Henry Goldblume. “I was always disappointed that I didn’t end up playing Renko,” Spano told Playboy in 1983. Spano also wasn't a fan of his character's penchant for bow ties, which he claimed was Michael Kozoll's idea. "I fought it all the way," he said. "I thought it was a stereotypical thing to do. But it actually turned out to be right. You don’t play into the bow tie—you fight against it."

5. BARBARA BOSSON WAS BOCHCO’S WIFE, BUT WASN’T PLANNING ON BEING A SERIES REGULAR.

Barbara Bosson played Fay, Captain Frank Furillo’s ex-wife, who was only supposed to appear in the first episode in order to “contextualize” the captain, according to Bochco. But when Silverman watched the episode, he asked, “She’s going to be a regular, right?”

6. IT TOOK MIKE POST TWO HOURS TO WRITE THE ICONIC THEME SONG.

The composer—who also wrote the themes for The Greatest American Hero, Magnum, P.I., The A-Team, NYPD Blue, and Law & Order—was instructed by Bochco to write something “antithetical” to the visuals. Post wanted to add more orchestration to the piano piece; Bochco disagreed.

Post also spent four to five hours writing five minutes of new music for each episode of Hill Street Blues.

7. THE PILOT TESTED POORLY.

According to a network memo, among the many problems test audiences noted were that "the main characters were perceived as being not capable and having flawed personalities ... Audiences found the ending unsatisfying. There are too many loose ends ... 'Hill Street' did not come off as a real police station ... There was too much chaos in the station house, again reflecting that the police were incapable of maintaining control even on their home ground." NBC picked it up anyway.

8. RENKO WAS SUPPOSED TO DIE IN THE FIRST EPISODE, AND COFFEY WAS SUPPOSED TO DIE AT THE END OF THE FIRST SEASON.

Charles Haid had other projects lined up, so he agreed to take the part of Renko, a man destined to die almost immediately. But another series Haid was relying on didn’t get picked up, and NBC claimed Renko tested too well for him to meet an early end. Ed Marinaro's Coffey was meant to be shot and killed in “Jungle Madness,” the final episode of the first season. The ending was changed to make it a cliffhanger, and Marinaro’s character survived.

9. THEY HAD HISTORICALLY BAD SEASON ONE RATINGS.

A 'Hill Street Blues' cast photo
NBC Television/Getty Images

In its first season, Hill Street Blues show finished 87th out of 96 shows, making it the lowest-rated drama in television history to get a second season. Bochco credited the show’s renewal to two things: NBC being a last place network at the time, and the NBC sales department noticing that high-end advertisers were buying commercial time during the show.

10. THEY NEVER SPECIFIED WHERE THE SHOW WAS LOCATED, BUT IT’S PROBABLY CHICAGO.

The exterior of the Maxwell Street police station in Chicago filled in for the fictitious Hill Street precinct for the opening credits and background footage. It was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1996 and is currently the University of Illinois at Chicago police department headquarters.

11. PLENTY OF FUTURE STARS MADE EARLY APPEARANCES.

Don Cheadle, James Cromwell, Laurence Fishburne, Tim Robbins, Andy Garcia, Cuba Gooding Jr., Danny Glover, Frances McDormand, and Michael Richards all found early work on the series.

12. SAMMY DAVIS JR. WANTED ON THE SHOW.

Sammy Davis Jr.
Michael Fresco, Evening Standard, Getty Images

Unfortunately, it never happened. Sometime after Bochco wrote in a reference to the singer, Davis Jr.and Bochco ran into each other. Davis Jr. said he loved it and started jumping up and down.

13. BOCHCO HAD A WAR WITH THE CENSORS.

Loving to use puns for titles, Bochco wanted to title an episode “Moon Over Uranus,” after Cape Canaveral was just in the news. Standards and Practices said no. Bochco eventually got his way, and proceeded to name the next two season three episodes “Moon Over Uranus: The Sequel” and “Moon Over Uranus: The Final Legacy.”

14. DAVID MILCH AND DICK WOLF’S CAREERS WERE LAUNCHED FROM IT.

David Milch (co-creator of NYPD Blue and creator of Deadwood) went from Yale writing teacher to a TV script writer through his former Yale roommate, Jeff Lewis. His first script for the show was season three's “Trial by Fury” episode, which won an Emmy, a WGA Award, and a Humanitas Prize. He later became an executive producer on the show. The first TV script credited to Dick Wolf (creator of the Law & Order franchise) was the season six episode, "Somewhere Over the Rambow." His first sole credit, for “What Are Friends For?,” earned Wolf an Emmy nomination in 1986.

It’s also worth noting that journalist and author Bob Woodward received a writing credit for season seven's “Der Roachenkavalier” and David Mamet penned the same season's “A Wasted Weekend” for his first television credit.

15. DENNIS FRANZ’S CHARACTER HAD A BRIEF, COMEDIC SPIN-OFF.

Dennis Franz (later Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue) first played corrupt cop Sal Benedetto in five episodes, before reappearing for the final two seasons as Lt. Norman Buntz. After Hill Street Blues ended its seven-season run, Franz reprised the latter character in Beverly Hills Buntz, which ran for one season beginning in 1987. In the 30-minute dramedy, Buntz was a private investigator after quitting the police force. Only nine episodes were broadcast by NBC.

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Watch 18 Minutes of Julia Louis-Dreyfus Seinfeld Bloopers
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Sometimes you just need to settle in and watch professional actors cracking up, over and over. That's what we have for you today.

In the two videos below, we get a total of 18 minutes of Seinfeld bloopers, specifically focused on Julia Louis-Dreyfus. When Louis-Dreyfus cracks up, Seinfeld can't help but make it worse, goading her. It's delightful.

Sample quote (during an extended break):

Seinfeld: "We won an Emmy, you know."

Louis-Dreyfus: "Yeah, but I didn't."

Her individual Seinfeld Emmy arrived in 1996; the show started winning in 1992. But in September 2017, Louis-Dreyfus—who turns 57 years old today—set a couple of Emmy records when she won her sixth award for playing Selina Meyer on Veep.

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