Danger! Daredevils At Work (May, 1954)

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Danger! Daredevils At Work

There’s a vast difference between these steel-nerved specialists and the ordinary thrill seeker. Stunting for pay is an exact science.

By John N. Makris

DAREDEVIL deviltry may not be the easiest or safest way to make one’s living, but certainly it is the most exciting when you consider that a thrill-seeking American public shells out millions of dollars annually to watch death-defying acts, while all the time the uninvited Grim Reaper is patiently waiting to steal the show.

Such successful stunts as plane crashes, speeding cars plowing through brick walls, head-on collisions, human rockets shot from cannons, backward somersaults from a 120-ft. ladder into a shallow tank surrounded with leaping flames and motorcycles tearing through heavy plate glass —all can backfire because of a tiny uncal-culated slip. Or the two dreaded enemies of the daredevil—the element of fear and a feeling of over-confidence—can often mean another tombstone in a cemetery.

There was Harry F. Young, the Human-Fly, whose idea of a pleasant afternoon’s diversion was to crawl up the front of New York’s Woolworth Building. Young was one of the organizers of the Safety Last Society which aimed to promote good fellowship among daredevils and to make sure the world didn’t miss any details of their bizarre stunts.

Not many days after the society was organized, Young, clad in a white shirt, duck trousers and’ white shoes, attempted to scale the north side of New York’s Hotel Martinique. Over 20,000 people watched as Young climbed up a surface that seemed from the street absolutely sheer, but which here and there had small indentations in which Young was able to cling with finger and toe.

It was after he had reached the fourth floor without incident that he apparently realized he was fated to meet death. People in windows past which he climbed said later they heard him muttering to himself:

“I can’t make it. I can’t make it.”

Those familiar with the mental attitude of daredevils said Young faltered on a stunt he had been doing for years because of over-confidence and then fear that come after mastery of a difficult feat. Exactly why, no one knows. Many performers, at the peak of their careers, recognize the danger signals and quit before it is too late. Others ignore that inner voice, warning them that the Grim Reaper is waiting with open arms. Young, they said, should have called it a day at the fourth floor.

But Young, spurred on by the pride of daredevil accomplishment, kept on. When he reached the 10th floor, it happened. His foot slipped and down he went. He was killed instantly. His wife, who was among the horror-stricken spectators, fainted.

Ironically, the day before his death, Young had signed a movie contract to stage a “Human-Fly” stunt in a new picture.

Yet there are daredevils not plagued by any of the hazards or fears of their profession. Foremost, and in a class all by himself, was Jean Francois Gravelet, better known to his adoring public during the last century as M. Blondin, the aerialist supreme.

Through his amazing feats on a tightrope strung across the treacherous and turbulent Niagara Falls, Blondin, a featured performer in European music halls and circuses, became a national figure, a headline hero and the only man in the almost legendary history of Niagara-mania to garner rich rewards because of his spine-tingling daring.

On his initial trip across the gorge on June 30, 1859, Blondin, carrying a balancing pole, sat down on the swaying rope, lay down for a brief rest with the pole across his chest, and then did a back somersault with 200 feet of space between him and the angry river below.

Blondin had a bagful of stunts, such as sitting on a chair balanced on the three-inch rope, walking across blindfolded, treading the rope backwards, crossing with wooden buckets for shoes, on three-foot stilts in honor of the Prince of Wales watching his performance, and at one time he took a stove with him and cooked an omelet on it. These amazing performances were capped when Blondin took Harry Colcord on his back across the gorge.

Returning to London, Blondin played a long engagement at the Crystal Palace where he created a furore with an act in which he turned somersaults on stilts on a rope 170 feet above the ground. One woman attempted suicide because her husband wouldn’t take her to see Blondin who netted $500 a night and grossed $55,000 in one season but who died in bed a pauper in 1897.

During one of his Niagara performances, Blondin was asked to what he attributed his spectacular success.

“Nerves that know no fear,” he said with a faint smile, “and supreme confidence in myself.”

Blondin actually started a new era of death-defying thrills although today the thrillers of yesterday, with the exception of those staged by Blondin and a few others, seem mild by comparison. They wouldn’t rate a collective yawn in these atomic days.

Result: today’s daredevils have become increasingly daring. They have to do the old-timers one better to draw the crowds that flock to hundreds of outdoor fairs, circuses, carnivals and expositions every year. These crowds want to see jet-action dare-deviltry and human nature being the unpredictable factor that it is, the thrill-seekers look forward to seeing accidents that somehow just fail to happen. Sometimes in outdoing himself to accomplish the impossible, the daredevil meets death or serious injury. But when the act is over with no damage done, the crowd settles back with a “thank-God” sigh of relief.

Of today’s crop of daredevils, a standout performer is Earl M. “Lucky” Teter and his Hell Drivers. Teter was the first man to do the auto roll-over act. He has cracked up hundreds of cars and has been in the hospital a number of times as a result of some of his stunts which include rolling over a car at 60 miles an hour, jumping a car over a truck, crashing into another car, and piloting a car through a flaming fence.

Moreover, along with a group of motorcycle hotshots, Teter and his boys stage head-on collisions at 40 miles per hour, leap their cars and bikes over and through burning buildings and perform other carefully planned stunts designed to please the most avid thrill-seeker.

Teamwork, plus long training and perfect timing with iron nerves to miriimize the terrific shock, are the keynotes in thwarting death while executing these hazardous stunts. But even such precautions do not necessarily guarantee that there will not be some unforseen accident. In making a long jump in a sedan over a truck one season, Teter didn’t land just right. Result was the radiator hose connection tore loose and scalded him with hot water. Teter got into this risky business when he discovered that people were morbidly interested in crackups, which fact in a sense explains where some daredevils get their ideas. Jimmy Lynch, another automobile crackup specialist, saw the light as did Teter and capitalized on this human foible. These boys are always in demand.

Women, generally looked upon as the weaker sex, are right up there when it comes to spectacular feats for ever since the days of Ruth Law’s thrilling changes from speeding cars to equally speeding planes, there have been outstanding feminine daredevils.

Birdie Draper was adept at driving a car through a solid brick wall. May Merkel was an artist at walking upside down on ceilings, an extremely difficult feat in spite of the fact that she wore large rubber suction cups fastened to the soles of her shoes. One of the main difficulties she had to overcome was the blood rushing to her head.

Katherine Stinson, who survived the old barnstorming days with Ruth Law, was the first woman to loop-the-loop in a plane. By this hazardous accomplishment she kept pace with all stunts executed by the men flyers. She simply refused to be outdone even when , Art Smith, another flying daredevil, pulled off some intricate loops at night.

Miss Stinson, from Los Angeles, equipped her plane with magnesium flares and took off to better Smith’s stunt. Touching off the flares, she etched the letters “Cal” in the night sky, looped all kinds of loops with the abandon of a bird, flew upside down and then spun earth-ward to pull out the last second for a feather-light landing.

Daredevil stunts by women are often based on complex reasons. A 38-year-old widow, Mrs. Ann Davidson of Gloucestershire, England, aspired to be the first woman to make a solo journey across the Atlantic. From Plymouth, on May 18,1952, she set sail for Florida in a 2-ton, 23-foot Bermudian-rigged yacht named the Felicity Ann.

“I must be mad,” she said before she took off, “but I can’t help it because I am driven on by what seems to be a challenge and an irrepressible urge. I have to make up for the failure and disaster of my last attempt.”

This was in reference to the fatal trip made with her husband in 1949. They had set sail in a 70-foot ketch for the West Indies but 19 days of gales and heavy storms spelled disaster when her husband was swept overboard and drowned.

On May 22, 1953, after being becalmed for three weeks in mid-Atlantic and making a number of stop-overs, Mrs. Davidson reached Nassau, Bahamas. After resting for a few days, she sailed triumphantly for Florida to complete her trip.

Then there is Florence Chadwick, who, on September 20, 1953, swam the Straights of Gibraltar to Africa in an unofficial five hours and six minutes, breaking all records for the difficult crossing.

Gibraltar is considered a tough test for daredevil swimmers because its currents flow in opposite directions—from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean and back out again. Because of this Miss Chadwick was given little chance of success but after having conquered the English Channel in both directions, she refused to throw in the towel.

She pulled off the stunt and justly earned the title of the “Iron Woman of the Gibraltar.” She said she would do it and she did it and there is no need to mention that the feat, as is the case with all performances staged by professional daredevils, was accomplished without a hitch after preliminary preparation and constant practice.

People often wonder how daredevils get that way and if they are normal human beings or suicidal maniacs. They are as normal as you or I and have no intent of self-destruction. With a yen for accomplishing what to many appears to be the impossible in the way of daring feats, they have entered a bizarre profession where the money is good and they satisfy a public willing to pay for chills and thrills.

Some performers are born into the dare-deviltry business because their fathers and mothers were in it before them. This is particularly true of the European high-wire and trapeze artists whose daring is smooth and polished as compared to the American style of daredeviltry which is often rough and furious.

This isn’t to say, however, that the European style of daredeviltry isn’t often without a climax within a climax. For instance, shortly before World War II broke out, an organization known as the Fereira Circus toured Central Europe. The show’s chief attraction was a tight-rope duel fought with buttoned rapiers between Elias Fanopulous and Manoel Pereira, orphaned nephew of the circus owner. Audiences were thrilled by this daring duel high above them on the rope. It was truly one of the most sensational acts in Big Top history but for this act fate had woven a climax to end all climaxes.

It started one day when Manoel caught Fanopulous trying to make love to his beautiful aunt, Estrella Pereira. Smouldering with fury, Manoel that night substituted real rapiers for the dummy ones and, once on the tight-rope with Fanopulous, he snarled:

“You are fighting for your life, scoundrel. I am going to avenge my aunt’s disgrace.”

They fought a furious and unprecedented duel that ended in Fanopulous’ death. When the authorities heard that the duel hadn’t been a mock one as advertised, they arrested Manoel. When the circumstances were learned, he was sentenced to serve only 14 months in jail.

Bridge-jumping is another outlet for daredevils and one can’t help thinking of the Brooklyn Bridge, made famous as a result of Steve Brodie’s jump on July 23, 1886. Although Brodie lived to brag about this performance, the number killed plunging off this bridge and other such super-structures far exceeds those who survived. . .

Then, again, a so-called bridge-jumper is a horse of a different color from the professional daredevil. This is the specie, whether man or woman, who attempts a dangerous stunt with little training in order to rake in a fast buck. There is no telling them that it takes more than guts or Courage to become a daredevil.

These foolhardy stunters ignore the cardinal reasons for deaths and injuries. They don’t stop to consider what carelessness, no matter how slight, can do even to the most accomplished of professionals.

Ken Butler, the motorcycle crash king, hits plate glass a quarter-of-an-inch thick traveling at a mile-a-minute clip, crashes at 70 miles an hour into a plank barricade and thunders through a tunnel of flame, 15 feet long, steering with one hand.

Butler has dared death for years but what would happen if he didn’t hit the plate glass exactly head-on? Suppose his mind wandered and he hit the glass at a slight angle? You guessed it. He would be cut to pieces and killed by a shower of shattered glass. That split-second of distraction can’t be called anything but carelessness.

The variety of stunts performed by daredevils are as endless as they are thrilling. Consider the unusual feat of Captain Charles W. Oldrieve of Chelsea, Mass. He walked (promenaded) the waters of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers from Cincinnati to New Orleans, a distance of 1,600 miles in 25 days. The trip almost cost him his life on three separate occasions because of treacherous currents and eddies.

How did Captain Oldrieve, who collected $5,000 for this stunt, walk on water? Very simple. He wore water shoes—shoes that weighed 20 pounds each and were 7 feet 6 inches long, 7 inches deep and 6 inches broad. They were made of canvas stretched over a light framework of cedar.

But why pay to watch daredevils perform? If you’ve got a television set in your home, sit back and relax and get your share of thrills and chills watching some of the old adventure movies frequently shown and, of course, the ever-popular westerns. Look closely and you’re liable to see one-time cowboy star Yakima Canutt, now a director, perform his specialty of jumping from a stagecoach on to the two rear animals of a six-horse team, then jump to the middle two, and then up to the first two.

Then Canutt, who usually gets $1,000 for this stunt, mutters a prayer under his breath and drops to the ground. Sure. You’ve seen this stunt a dozen times. Canutt allows the six horses to thunder past him, then, as the wagon goes rumbling past his body, he grabs the rear of the stagecoach and pulls himself up to the top.

No doubt you have seen such air epics as Hell’s Angels, Test Pilot, Only Angels Have Wings, Dive Bomber, Night Flight, Captains of the Clouds, and Devil Dogs of the Air. The daring flying sequences in these pictures were staged by the king of the movie stunt pilots, Frank Clarke, who, before his death in 1948 from a plane accident not connected with any movie daredeviltry, could make a plane do everything except talk and eat out of his hand.

In Devil Dogs of the Air, Clarke, who never hesitated to stage unusual stunts, nosed his plane into a screaming dive and pulled out at the last moment, then climaxed the dive by bouncing over a parked ambulance.

This prewar picture, made with the cooperation of the Devil Dogs at the San Diego Naval Base, was shown to the Japanese Military. The so-so polite Japs tried to match it by jumping to the conclusion that it was a standard Yankee maneuver. The score: 17 Jap fliers killed in the attempt.

Careful planning and precision helped Clarke avoid major accidents but fate in the form of a jammed control finally caught up with him. This formula, plus timing and nerve, applies to all Hollywood stunt men, the many female daredevils who also risk life and limb for the sake of hairbreath action on the screen, and to the daredevil wherever he may be performing.

Daredeviltry, in spite of the mishaps and tragedies which do happen, is a cold science. ‘There’s money in it, too, for new stunt sensations to appease the appetite of a thrill-hungry American public will always be in demand. One requirement: they really must be death-defying.

But, no matter how you look at it, it’s safer to pay and watch than to try to get into the act.

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  1. […] Danger! Daredevils At Work Jun 11, 2007 … Smouldering with fury, Manoel that night substituted … Night Flight, Captains of the Clouds, and Devil Dogs of … In Devil Dogs of the Air, Clarke, who never hesitated … Antique Magazine Emporium · J&J Collectibles … […]

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