By: Burns M. Kattenberg of "Muscle Power Magazine"
"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
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
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
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
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.