The world-famous 'Wizard of the Wire'

BY TARA MARYNOWSKY

The NFSA has recently acquired and digitally preserved a rare collection of home movies featuring Con Colleano (Cornelius Sullivan). The Australian-born and world famous Colleano (1899–1973) was considered in his prime to be the greatest tightrope circus artist that ever lived.

Born in Lismore, NSW with an Indigenous Aboriginal, Irish and West Indian background, Colleano adopted a Spanish toreador persona as part of his act which proved highly successful. From 1925 until the late 1930s Colleano toured with the largest circus in America, Ringling Bros & Barnum and Bailey Circus, promoted as ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’. Colleano was billed as ‘The Wizard of the Wire’ and was their principal star.

The home movie collection, originally shot on 16mm film, features Colleano at the very height of his career. The films feature remarkable circus backyard scenes filled with clowns, goofs, circus freaks and exotic animals. Scenes depict Con’s close relationship with the Ringling family – in particular John and Mabel Ringling.

 

The home movies also feature footage of candid moments with the Colleano family, including: a young Bonar Colleano (Con’s nephew), who became a film star best known for playing wisecracking Americans in British-made films; and holidays at Con’s lakeside farm in Pennsylvania, USA with his mother (nee Vittorine Julie Robinson), brother Maurice Colleano and sisters.

There is footage shot in blue tint of the extended family partying and skylarking at a London home. Dressed to the nines, the Colleano sisters pose with their mother, husbands and new babies while cats mingle. One young Colleano girl performs the hula in Hawaiian dress. Other scenes document international travel, rehearsals and staged performances.

The home movies give a sense of a life well lived and enjoyed by Colleano and his wife, vaudeville soubrette Winnie (nee Trevail).

Although the home movies were primarily shot by Colleano, we assume that Winnie also took control of the camera for several of the scenes depicting her husband at his handsome best.

This rare collection was brought to the NFSA’s attention by circus writer and academic Mark St Leon who says, ‘What Australia’s Don Bradman was to cricket, Australia’s Nellie Melba was to opera, so Australia’s Con Colleano was to tightwire’. St Leon has written numerous monographs and articles on Australia’s circus history and is a direct descendant of the St Leons, one of Australia’s major circus families from 1847 until the 1950s.

St Leon lodged the original films with the NFSA and says, ‘I am proud and delighted that Con Colleano’s wonderful home movies have now been added to the NFSA collection. This is history on celluloid – circus, Indigenous and Australian – now preserved for future generations.’

This unique collection also builds upon recent home movie collections depicting Australian circus folklore such as the Wirth’s Circus home movies.