Monday, 11 March 2013
The glamorous women in the promotional picture above are The DeLuca Sisters. Elsa and Paula. I don't know which is which.
In an era when strongman juggling acts were fairly common, they were one of the few strong woman acts. Of German/Italian descent, they performed in American variety halls throughout the thirties. They weren't particularly famous, indeed, you'd be hard-pressed to find a juggler these days who's heard of them, and no footage of their act exists, but they performed - as you can see from the pictures - what looks to be a very entertaining spot.
One of the key tricks in a heavyweight jugglers act is the neck catch. A heavy cannonball is catapulted thrown, or juggled high into the air, and then caught, perfectly, on the back of the performers neck.
The dangers of this trick are obvious. A fraction of an inch too low and its landing directly on the most fragile and exposed part of your spine. A touch off to one side and it's dislocating a shoulder. A hair too high and its hitting the base of your skull.
And, during one performance in 1936, that's what happened to poor Paula DeLuca. A slightly misjudged throw sent the cannonball colliding with the back of her head. She collapsed on stage. Three days later she was dead. She was 22 years old.
Perhaps it's my continuing obsession with connecting to the lineage of my artform, or perhaps it's my love of old fashioned showmanship and hucksterism, but either way, I have had a thought.
In the entertainment business it's all too often about the exaggeration, the promise of the impossible, the bait and switch, but sometimes - especially in circus - honesty and genuine risk is where it's at.
At the next London Varieties show, at the Leicester Square Theatre, on March 28th, I shall be attempting the cannonball neck catch. Cannonballs are hard to find these days, but I think I have a suitable replacement. 16lb bowling balls.
This isn't magic. This isn't illusion. This is me literally risking my neck by betting on my hands.
I will be attempting the trick that killed Paula DeLuca.