Forgotten Acrobats of the Arena ...

By: Burns M. Kattenberg of "Muscle Power Magazine"
Summer 1963
"The Circus Review" - The Only All-Circus Newspaper published in America


During these trying times it is not amis to revive the old saw that contortionists are the only ones who can make both ends meet. But what has become of the "benders" as they are called in the profession? There aren't many of these performers around any more. Since vaudeville passed on to glory there hasn't been much opportunity for the contortionist to show his act. I'll bet Dad remembers the man in green tights who imitated a frog atop a pedestal, or the acrobat who "sat on his head"! Nevertheless, contortionists remain one of the most facinating subjects in the performing world.

Recently in George Bothener's Gym in New York I watched a man of small stature limbeer up and go through his contortion routine. This was The Great Johnson (as he is billed), a headliner in the two-a-day. It was thrilling to observe the coordination of mind and muscle as he hung from a trapeze and swung into a full butterfly with both legs locked behind his neck. His timing and control are amazing. Other acts paused in their workouts to watch. Johnson, although well past fifty years of age, is still performing. His physique would not compare with that of Mr. America but he has a body of muscle and iron.

The contortionist, along with other colleagues such as the pantomimist, the dancer, the juggler and the acrobat, fall into the category of performers usually referred to as "dumb acts". This term is not a reflection upon their ability or mentality but means that their act transcends all boundaries and makes them apperciated in any field of theatrical endeavor.

In all ancient civilizations the art of the bender was present in some degree of completeness. The contortionist was a familiar figure of pictorial and sculptured representations in Egypt, Greece, Eturia, and Rome. This gives evidence that the art was practiced from the very beginnings of civilization. Contortion has come down through the days of the Roman circus to the modern arena and stage. It has also played an important part in dance, art and literature. In recent times many European artists have chosen contortionists for models, and Mr. R. Tait McKenzie, noted portrayer of athletic sculpture, used the same type of model for several of his bronzes.

Contortion is also found in the Hindu system of religion and health known as Yoga. In the course of daily meditations the Hindu ascetics assume various contortion poses each of which is supposed to induce not only specific bodily benefit but a certain spiritual excellence also. The author does not wish to discuss the merits of this practice but does desire to point out that the practitioners of this religion assume difficult contortive postures and hold them for a considerable lenght of time! Hindu religion assigned various names to these postures that are still in common use. Both front and back bending, as well as dislocation, are integral parts of Yoga.

I have often heard the remark: "Contortionists don't live long". This statement is untrue as I can name innumerable performers who reached a ripe old age because of the fine phisiques developed through their work. Ferry, "The Frog Man", was still going strong at the age of seventy-two! And Dad Whitlark lived to attain Ripley's Believe It Or Not column as the oldest living gymnast. At the age of seventy-six, Whitlark was still doing the contortions he had done sixty years before. It was Whitlark who taught Harry James of the orchestra world to do a bending act when a child. Clean living, constant practice and sensible diet kept Whitlark in trim through the years. He died at the age of eighty.

Other fallacies persist in regard to contortionists. Among these die-hard statements are: "contortionists are born and not made", and "such people are double-jointed". Heredity does play a part in making a good contortionist, but anyone who has a tendency towards the work can become a bender. As to the latter statement, there is no such thing as being "double-jointed". It is merely that constant limbering and stretching permit muscles and ligaments to accomplish feats that an untrained person could not hope to emulate.

Performers are bodily perfect and they also possess the stamina to endure a rugged life of constant travel and daily exhibitions. Careers are not easy nor remuneration always adaquate. Many of the old timers have left records of achievements that are indeed worthy of inclusion in any history of physical culture.

Paul Brachard, Sr., was considered the most graceful backbender before the public. Brachard was the father of the "Family Beautiful" act. His "Teeth Balance" was one of the most outstanding tricks ever performed and he was featured with Ringling Brothers' Circus for years. Brachard would do a handstand in front of a "teeth bit", grasp the bit in his mouth and slowly do a backbend until he was sitting on his head. Then, he would gradually lift his hands and bear the entire weight of his body while holding this position! It took complete muscular control and life-long perseverance to do this trick. More recently, Ben Dova was presenting this stunt atop of a lamp post.

It is not unusual to find the members of a family doing entirely different types of bending, yet presenting their talents in one compact act. Bone structure and ligaments are apparently the same, yet each individual is found to differ. An example of this is The Spurgat Troupe, who have played to audiences all over the world. Leo Spurgat developed the closest badk bend I have ever witnessed. Walter was front bender and understander, and the two worked in perfect harmony. For indoor dates, the Spurgats covered their beautiful bodies with a luminous green paint. Before a background representing an undersea garden, they performed graceful twistings in slow motion. This made them look more like mermen than human beings. The Four Karreys, another brother act, also presented a turn of unusual merit, and each was a highly specialized bender.

I was interested in the professional point of view regarding contortion and visited Harry DeMarlo, one of the big stars of the white tops. DeMarlo cut a fine figure in his devil suit of red tights as we talked on the lot. He was limbering as we discussed his act and training. He informed me that he had doubled for the late John Barrymore in acrobatic shots and fencing in some of Barrymore's early silent films. Later, I was able to witness DeMarlo's "Laughing Mephistopheles" trapeze offering of contortions and one-arm dislocations.

"Contortion gives you a well proportioned and athletic body, and keeps you fit in every way," Harry said. "It helps you to stay young and alert. The only way to achieve contortion stunts is by patient and constant training and nothing else." He went on to tell of the racket of the Gay Nineties when bakers sold a dark brown concoction known as "snake oil" to make youthful and ambitious contortionists limber. Of course this was an out and out fake, but sold enormously under such names as "Angle Worm Oil" or "Lizard Oil". It was eagerly bought and used by the would-be contortionists of the period. "But," continued Harry, "sometimes I wish such an oil would have effect, because it is only by relentless practice and unending limbering that I can accomplish results."

Let no one doubt that simply because of their marvelous training in such a skilled work that contortionists are a race apart. It is true that to do the extreme feats of bending, they must have remarkably supple joints as well as great muscular control. This flexibility of joints is apparently due to a rather shallow interlocking at the joint in combination with long ligaments; performers who are at the top of the profession undoubtedly posses this natural equipment.

While not all-important, the correct age to begin contortion is from two to six years. Many childeren inherit their talent, and Albert Powell, the brillian back bender with Ringling Brothers, comes from a long line of acrobats, all contortionists, and he started training at the age of six months!

The modern performers make no apologies to anyone - past or present - for the amazing and astounding feats they present. All of us can study these performers - as well as those of the bygone period when contortionists were supreme on any bill - and increase our learning and understanding. Some day there may be a new generation interested in this forgotten art of the arena. Perhaps some of the youngsters will find an inspiration to become an accomplished acrobat and bender. Let us hope that when that day comes there will be an opportunity for them.

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