Con Colleano

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Con Colleano
Con Colleano on a slack-wire, circa 1920.jpg
Cornelius Sullivan

(1899-12-26)26 December 1899
Died13 November 1973(1973-11-13) (aged 73)
Other namesCornelius Sullivan
OccupationTightrope walker
Spouse(s)Winifred (Winnie) Trevail

Con Colleano (born Cornelius Sullivan; 26 December 1899 – 13 November 1973) was an Australian tightrope walker. He was the first person to successfully attempt a forward somersault on a tightrope and became one of the most celebrated and highly paid circus performers of his time. He was known as "The Wizard of the Wire" or "The Toreador of the Wire".

Early life[edit]

He was born Cornelius Sullivan in Lismore, New South Wales, the son of an Irish man and a woman of indigenous descent whose father was of African heritage from St Thomas in the West Indies. Colleano was the third of 10 children. His father (reportedly a freed convict) made a precarious living from sideshow "take-on-all-comers" boxing and gambling. Around 1907, when Colleano was seven years old, the family settled in Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, then a newly established opal mining field and a fertile ground for the father's talents. Here Colleano received a rudimentary education and learned circus skills from the sideshows present in the town.


By 1910 those of the family of sufficient age had formed a small circus troupe, calling themselves the "Collinos" (apparently as an Italian-sounding name befitting the "sable" complexion of the children, in order to cover the "native blood" in their veins). They traveled through New South Wales and supplemented their income by working for the major traveling circuses of the time. By 1918 the now "Colleano's All-Star Circus" (with more of Con's siblings) was sufficiently established to travel through Queensland on their own hired train. The children became known as "The Royal Hawaiian Troupe" (again to cover for their dark complexions).

In 1919 Con managed to achieve the foot-to-foot forward somersault he had been attempting for some time and which was destined to secure his subsequent career. In 1922 he was engaged by the popular Tivoli circuit, the major outlet for vaudeville in Australia, on a salary of £60 a week. His siblings also appeared at The Tiv' as "Eight Akbar Arabs".


Having learnt dance moves from his fiancée, soubrette Winnie Trevail (Winifred Constance Stanley Trevail)[1] which he translated to the wire, Con was ready to move overseas to further his career.

At his first performances in South Africa he was billed as Australian, but in April 1924 he adopted the Spanish toreador persona he was to employ for the greatest part of his subsequent career. In September 1924 he appeared at the New York Hippodrome Theatre and was soon noticed and engaged by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the largest in the country. His act now involved well-executed bullfighting movements in the ring, Spanish dance moves on the wire, and in conclusion, the dangerous forward somersault.

Thenceforth, through the 1930s until the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Con was the principal star of Ringling Bros. with a salary of US$1000 per week. At this time the Big Tent could seat up to 16,000 people. In the winter he performed on the vaudeville circuit in Europe to great acclaim, among his greatest admirers being Adolf Hitler.

In 1937 he returned to Sydney, Australia for a series of performances at the Tivoli ("the Tiv").

Into the 1940s Colleano continued performing in the U.S. and appeared on television on the Texaco Star Theater in 1952. His farm in Pennsylvania became a retreat for his siblings and their offspring between performances and, so established, he adopted United States citizenship together with now wife Winnie in 1950.

Personal life[edit]

In 1956 Con and Winnie returned to Australia where they purchased the Albion Hotel at Forbes, New South Wales. When the venture failed, they returned to America and he resumed his career on the wire to no great acclaim, ending at Honolulu in 1960.

Con and Winnie had no children; Con was the uncle of American actor Bonar Colleano and the great-uncle of American actor Jack Stehlin.


He died at his home in Miami in 1973 survived by Winnie who later returned to Australia. Winifred died in 1986 in Sydney.[1]


Colleano's father was white; his mother the daughter of a West Indian father and part-aboriginal mother. From Federation Australia aspired to a white society, legislated by the White Australian Policy (1901) concerning immigration, and the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 (under which Indigenous people from Australia, Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands, with the exception of Māori were denied voting rights). School attendance was compulsory and enforced, but "voluntary" for aboriginals.

While unskilled labour was almost the sole employment option for those of mixed race, the circus provided an opportunity.

In South Africa Colleano first used his Spanish toreador act (to identify as an Australian or being of African descent would likely have proven unhelpful at the box office). Thenceforth he retained his assumed identity being generally perceived as Spanish. Despite the tenor of Skipping on Stars and other recent reportage no evidence suggests that, within the non-discriminatory milieu of the circus, he denied, or was greatly concerned by his heritage.


In 1997 he, (together with May Wirth), was honoured by Australia Post on a postage stamp depicting a contemporary poster entitled The Wizard of the Wire.


Con Colleano was inducted into the International Circus Hall of Fame in 1966 and Winifred Colleano in 1975.[2] Colleano's name had been included in the Circus Hall of Fame, Sarasota, Florida, in 1966.[1]

He was also celebrated in The Flying Fruit Fly Circus show Skipping on Stars, which was a tribute to his life to sold out crowds.

Jack Wilson and Joe Keppel met in Colleano's Circus after the First World War; they later formed the act Wilson, Keppel and Betty.


  1. ^ a b c Mark Valentine St Leon biography article, "Colleano, Con (Cornelius) (1899–1973)", [1] This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993
  2. ^ "International Circus Hall of Fame Inductees". International Circus Hall of Fame. 14 April 2007. Retrieved 22 September 2007.

Further reading[edit]

  • Mark St Leon, The Wizard of the Wire : the Story of Con Colleano, Canberra : Aboriginal Studies Press, 1993 ISBN 0-85575-246-7

External links[edit]