Con Colleano: “The Australian Wizard of the Wire”

Flip-Flaps and springs from “The Australian Wizard of the Wire

Con Colleano - The Australian Wizard of the Wire
Con Colleano – The Australian Wizard of the Wire

After I watched the feet-tingling 2008 documentary “Man On Wire” about Philippe Petit’s high-wire stunts, I rediscovered an incredible wire-walker much closer to home.

Con Colleano (1889-1973), was born Cornelius Sullivan of Aboriginal, Anglo-Irish and West Indian descent. Colleano began his circus life in his family’s rural circus, the Colleano’s All Star Circus. He performed his first act at 3 years of age doing tricks upon his father’s feet called the Risley Act.

Eventually, Colleano could perform nine different acts including bareback riding, flying trapeze, tumbling, trampoline, and playing the trombone in the circus band. With years of training, he perfected his performance on the tightwire, developing his unique forward ‘feet to feet’ somersault. This took almost ten years to learn. His act was influenced by Spanish bullfighting and his costume was that of a ‘toreador’ or bullfighter. He would dance on the wire, performing flip-flaps and springs to a standing  position as well as the forward somersault.

Photograph of Con Colleano performing a somersault on the tightwire
Photograph of Con Colleano performing a somersault on the tightwire

One of the earliest donations to Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection, the Colleano family collection of photographs was donated in 1979 by Mrs. Winnie Colleano (neé Trevail) – herself a well known Australian Vaudeville Soubrette. Other Colleano Family members are represented in the collection, including Maurice Colleano, acrobat, dancer and comedian; his wife Elsie Bower, Hoyce, George and Lyn, and Winnie Trevail (Wife of Con Colleano) also an acrobat.

Photograph of the Colleano family, 1932
Photograph of the Colleano family, 1932

Whilst Philippe Petit’s story is now being re-told in a feature length 3D film The Walk, Con Colleano’s collection provides a more intimate snapshot of the art of wire walking.

You can view more of the Colleano Family collection in our catalogue here.

Discover the Theatre Collection

Costume worn by Geoffrey Rush in 'Exit The King', Malthouse Theatre, 2007 Designed by Dale Ferguson Gift of Malthouse Theatre, 2011 Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Costume worn by Geoffrey Rush in ‘Exit The King’, Malthouse Theatre, 2007
Designed by Dale Ferguson
Gift of Malthouse Theatre, 2011
Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
The theatre collection is the largest and most diverse part of the Performing Arts Collection. It represents many aspects of traditional and contemporary theatre including drama, comedy, magic, musical theatre, puppetry, vaudeville and variety.

At the centre of the theatre collection is the J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd Archive, a vast photographic and paper-based collection generated by what was the largest commercial theatre enterprise in the Southern Hemisphere for almost a century. Other large collections highlight the contributions made at both a personal and company level to Australian theatre.

Poster for 'Waiting For Godot', Arrow Theatre, Melbourne, 1957 Gift of Barry Humphries, 2004 Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Poster for ‘Waiting For Godot’, Arrow Theatre, Melbourne, 1957
Gift of Barry Humphries, 2004
Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Drama
The presentation of drama in Australia – through comedies and tragedies, classics and new works – is documented in collections relating to many theatre companies, including J. C. Williamson Ltd, St Martin’s/Little Theatre, Melbourne Theatre Company, New Theatre, Playbox Theatre Company and Bell Shakespeare.

Individuals represented include internationally recognised actors Oscar Asche, Frank Thring, Coral Browne and Zoe Caldwell, along with local heroes such as Bland Holt, Patricia Kennedy, Irene Mitchell and Sheila Florance.

Comedy
Central to the area of comedy is an extensive archive and costume collection tracing the career of Barry Humphries and his alter egos, particularly Dame Edna Everage. Melbourne’s lively comedy scene is also represented through artists including Mary Hardy, Wendy Harmer, Max Gillies, Los Trios Ringbarkus, Rod Quantock and the Doug Anthony Allstars.
Wallaby production box used by Esme Levante, c.1958 Purchased, 1995 Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne Esme Levante was the daughter of "The Great Levante" (Leslie George Cole), a famous Australian stage illusionist. This trick was used in her cabaret act, in which a live wallaby was produced from an apparently empty luggage case.
Wallaby production box used by Esme Levante, c.1958
Purchased, 1995
Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Esme Levante was the daughter of “The Great Levante” (Leslie George Cole), a famous Australian stage illusionist. This trick was used in her cabaret act, in which a live wallaby was produced from an apparently empty luggage case
Magic
Magic-related items provide an insight into the mysterious world of illusionists and their fearless assistants. Australian performers including The Great Levante, Parer the Magician, Wong Toy Sun and Moi-Yo Miller Montes are represented, along with visiting international magicians who influenced the local magic scene.
Musical Theatre
The enduring practice of staging large-scale international musicals in Australia is documented in the extensive collections from J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd and the Gordon Frost Organisation. Home-grown musicals reflecting Australian stories are also represented, such as Lola Montez and The Boy From Oz.

Significant collections also trace the careers of musical comedy stars including Gladys Moncrieff, Evie Hayes, Maggie Fitzgibbon, Toni Lamond, Jeff Warren and Reg Livermore, along with designers such as John Truscott and Brian Thomson.

Pantomime
The traditions and spectacle of pantomime are captured through material associated with J. C. Williamson Ltd annual productions, most notably original costume designs from the early 20th century. Also represented are individuals who performed in pantomimes including Nellie Stewart, Jenny Howard, Maggie Fitzgibbon and Kenneth Laird.
Chinese hand puppet Gift of Joan and Betty Rayner, 1982 Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Chinese hand puppet
Gift of Joan and Betty Rayner, 1982
Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Puppetry

The creativity of Australian puppetry is documented through the extensive Handspan Theatre Collection, along with items relating to the work of J.F. Ley, Joan and Betty Raynor, Pilgrim Puppet Theatre and Polyglot Puppet Theatre. The puppetry collection is also home to a unique cast of well-known characters including Ossie Ostrich from Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday and Claude the Crow from Shirl’s Neighbourhood.
Vaudeville and Variety
The history of the Tivoli Circuit, the home of vaudeville and variety from 1901 to 1966, is highlighted by hundreds of costume and set designs by resident designer Angus Winneke, and photographs by Harry Jay and Zeus Merfield. Rival vaudeville managements run by George Sorlie, Max Reddy and Harry Wren are also represented, along with performers such as Roy Rene (‘Mo’), Will Mahoney, Charles Norman, Queenie Paul and Toni Lamond.