Wall of death (carnival sideshow)

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The audience looks on as the stunt rider passes nearby

The Wall of Death, motordrome, silodrome[1] or Well of Death (aka "Maut ka Kuaa", India) is a carnival sideshow featuring a silo- or barrel-shaped wooden cylinder, ranging from 20 to 36 feet (6.1 to 11.0 m) in diameter, inside of which motorcyclists, or the drivers of miniature automobiles, travel along the vertical wall and perform stunts, held in place by centripetal force.

Overview[edit]

Hazel Watkins, who performed with Hager's Wall of Death in the 1920s

Derived directly from United States motorcycle boardtrack (motordrome) racing in the early 1900s, the very first carnival motordrome appeared at Coney Island amusement park (New York) in 1911. The following year portable tracks began to appear on travelling carnivals, and in 1915 the first "silodromes" with vertical walls appeared and were soon dubbed the "Wall of Death." The carnival attraction became a staple in the United States outdoor entertainment industry with the phenomenon reaching its zenith in the 1930s, with more than 100 motordromes on travelling shows and in amusement parks.

The audience views from the top of the drum, looking down. The riders start at the bottom of the drum, in the centre, and ascend an initial ramped section until they gain enough speed to drive horizontally to the floor, usually in a counter-clockwise direction (the physical explanation behind this act is found at Banked turn and The turning car.) This act is famous in the United Kingdom, and often is seen at fairs. In the 2000s, there remain only few touring Walls of Death. "The Demon Drome",[2] "Messhams Wall of Death" and the "Ken Fox Troupe".[3] These acts feature original American Indian motorcycles which have been in use since the 1920s. In the United States the premier Show is the American Motordrome Company, which uses several Vintage Indian Scout Motorcycles from the 20s to give the audience a view of how these Shows were done in their Heyday. The Demon Drome uses the oldest wall of death still travelling and were the first to put an Austin 7 car on the wall of death since the 1950s.

A similar act called the "Globe of Death" has the riders looping inside a wire mesh sphere rather than a drum. This form of motorcycle entertainment had a separate and distinct evolution from carnival motordromes and derived from bicycle acts or "cycle whirls" in the early 1900s.

The Ives Brothers were some of the youngest Globe of Death riders in the US. Cody and Kyle Ives were 9 & 8 years old respectively. They applied the skills from the Globe of Death and applied them to the Wall of Death in 2011 at the ages of 17 & 18 years old. You can find the Ives Brothers traveling around the US performing the Wall of Death, and the Globe of Death at popular bike rallies. Ie. Full Throttle Saloon, Sturgis, SD

India[edit]

A Maruti 800 performing inside the Well of Death. It is able to sustain its grip on the wall by virtue of centrifugal force

In India, the show is also known as the Well of Death (Hindi: मौत का कुआँ, Punjabi: ਮੌਤ ਦਾ ਖੂਹ) and can be seen in the various melas (fairs) held across the country.[4] Apart from motorcycles, the act may also feature other vehicles such as automobiles, as performed regularly in Adilabad in India since 2005.[5]

The show involves a temporary cylindrical structure about 25 feet high and 30 feet in diameter, or wider when cars are to be involved, built of hardwood planks. The audience stands upon the platform built around the circumference of the structure and gaze down into the well where the motorcyclists or cars drive.[6][7][8]

United Kingdom[edit]

The first Wall of Death in the British Isles appeared in Southend during June 1929 at the Kursaal Amusement Park, one of the world's first amusement parks, and featured motorcycles on a 20 ft wooden wall. In the UK, Kursaal and George 'Tornado' Smith became synonymous with the sideshow. By the mid-1930s, there were 50 such shows touring the counties and stunts included riding sidecars with animals on board including a lioness but WWII put a temporary end to of the shows. A few were restarted after the war and the Todd Family Wall of Death was featured at the Festival of Britain in 1951, with Frank Senior, George, Jack, Bob and Frank Junior riding. Women riders often performed with them, and continue to do so until this day.[9][10]

In popular culture[edit]

A specially adapted 'Wall of Death' Indian motorcycle

Wall of Death performances have appeared in various films including My House in Umbria (2003), Spare a Copper (1941), Roustabout (1964), Eat the Peach (1986), There Is Another Sun (1951; titled The Wall of Death in the US) and Scotland Yard: The Wall of Death (1956).

A short-length Greek documentary film on the practice in Greece, "Ο γύρος του θανάτου" ("The Spin of Death"), released in 2004, made the rounds of various film festivals in the country.[11]

An earlier full-length feature Greek film of the same name, produced in 1983, features a protagonist who does the Wall of Death at the local carnival grounds; the film became a cult classic.[12]

The song, "Wall of Death", by Richard and Linda Thompson, can be found on their album Shoot Out the Lights and is sometimes sung by Richard Thompson in his live performances. The song lyrics are about the singer's desire to "ride on the Wall of Death one more time," saying not to waste time on the other (carnival) rides, because the Wall of Death "is the nearest to being alive."[13]

The Irish-American band Gaelic Storm references the Wall of Death in their song "Cyclone McLusky" from the 2010 album Cabbage.

In The Simpsons Movie, Homer makes use of the same scientific principles as the wall of death when riding a motorbike around the dome encasing Springfield.

The British band Django Django's music video for their song WOR was filmed at a Well of Death show at the Maha Kumbh Mela Grounds in Allahabad and features interviews with some of the drivers.

References[edit]

  1. ^ The Harley-Davidson Reader. Jean Davidson, Hunter S. Thompson, Sonny Barger. MotorBooks International, 15 Aug 2006
  2. ^ The Demon Drome's website
  3. ^ Website of Ken Marshall Troupe
  4. ^ Neena Sharma, Well of Death faces extinction, The Tribune, Chandigarh, India - Dehradun Plus
  5. ^ S. Harpal Singh (Dec 15, 2005). "Defying death in `maut ka kuan'". The Hindu. 
  6. ^ 'Well of Death' carnival show in India at PoeTV.com
  7. ^ ਸਾਂਝਾ ਪੰਜਾਬ ਕਿਸ਼ਤ-26, Punjabi Newspaper Ajit
  8. ^ India's 'well of death', Reuters
  9. ^ The Kursaal Flyers, Nick Corble, Essex Life, February 2007
  10. ^ Ken Fox Hellriders: a Journey With the Wall of Death Gary Margerum, The History Press April 1, 2012. ISBN 0752465732
  11. ^ ecofilms web site [1], Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival web site [2]
  12. ^ Cinemainfo web site
  13. ^ Richard Thompson's website

Further reading[edit]

  • Ford, Allan, and Corble, Nick, Riding the Wall of Death, 2006, Tempus Publishing (ISBN 0-7524-3791-7)
  • Ford, Allan, and Corble, Nick You Can't Wear Out An Indian Scout - Indians and the Wall of Death, 2009, Amberley Publishing (ISBN 978-1848680944)
  • Gaylin, David, The Harley-Davidson Reader, Motorbooks (ISBN 978-0-7603-2591-9)