THE GREAT BLONDINA CCOT CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT PROJECT
Jean Francois (or Emile) Gravelet, aka Charles Blondin, was considered to be one of the greatest funambulists (aerialists/tightrope-walkers) of all time. He was born in St. Omer, France on Feb. 28, 1824.
Blondin saw his first rope-walker at age five when a traveling circus troupe pitched camp near his home. He came home after the show and immediately strung up a makeshift rope in his back yard between two chairs and started to practice rope-walking. Blondin's father was a gymnast himself and took the rope-walking interest seriously. He sent Blondin to the Ecole de Gymanse in Lyons that same year. After only six months training, Blondin made his debut as "The Little Wonder". At age 9 Blondin was orphaned and he began performing professionally.
In 1851 Blondin was recruited by the agent of Mr. William Niblo to perform with the Ravel Troupe at Niblo's Garden. It was while he was with this company that he devised the show-name of Charles Blondin -- the troupe had two brothers with the last name Javell, and it was thought there would be confusion at the similarity. He chose "Blondin" for the color of his hair. Blondin was with the troupe for several years. On their American tour he found his way to Niagara Falls, and his greatest fame.
Blondin became obsessed with the idea of crossing the falls the first time he saw them in 1858. A year after his initial visit, he returned to accomplish the feat. The stunt was not without controversy. Many people felt that a stunt like Blondin's would trivialize the falls, turning them into a backdrop for a circus act, and should not be allowed. Blondin's original plan was to string his rope to Goat Island, but the owners supported the opposition and denied him permission. Eventually, Blondin was allowed to string his wire a mile further down-stream and on June 30, 1859, he was the first man ever to cross Niagara Falls by tightrope. A large crowd of 100,000 people watched him walk on a single three-inch hemp cord, 1,100 feet long and 160 feet above the falls at one side and 270 feet at the other. You can read the details of the crossing on page 3 in the copy of the July 4, 1859, Chicago Tribune article.
Blondin made many more trips across the gorge during the next year and became popularly known as "the Prince of Manila" (the rope he used was made of Manila.) Each time, he thrilled larger crowds with more exciting acts. He balanced a chair on the rope an d stood on it. He took pictures of the crowd while he balanced on the rope. He cooked a meal on a small portable cooker and lowered it to amazed passengers on the Maid of the Mist below. He crossed blindfolded, in a sack, on stilts, and trundling a wheel barrow. On August 17, 1859 he increased the risk by carrying his manager, Harry Colcord, across on his back. When the Prince of Wales visited in September, 1860, Blondin carried his assistant, Romain Mouton, across and performed antics on the way. The prince, like other spectators, was left breathless and asked Blondin never to do it again. Imagine the Prince's reaction when Blondin offered to carry him across on his back or in a wheelbarrow!
Blondin remained popular for the rest of his life. He continued to thrill audiences for many years after Niagara and was showered with medals, gifts, and money. The Blondin March was even composed in his honor. His fee was said to be $500 a performance and in his last two seasons, he reportedly made over $400,000. Blondin retired to South Ealing, England (a suburb of London) a rich man. He settled his family in a house he named Niagara Villa -- but he did not remain there long. In 1861, at the request of the Prince of Wales, he appeared in London at the Crystal Palace, reenacting all his Niagara Falls stunts before a backdrop of the falls. His young daughter Adele accompanied him on high-wire acts during this engagement and it caused great controversy. In spite of this, he received many more requests to perform and at the age of 64 he reappeared in the United States for a series of exhibitions on Staten Island, N.Y. His final performance was given in Belfast, Ireland, in 1896 at the age of 68. The French daredevil lived to be 73 years old and died peacefully in his bed in Ealing on February 22, 1897 of diabetes. He is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London next to his first and second wives: Charlotte (died 1888) and Katherine (died 1901).
Everyone who encountered Blondin found him to be a charismatic, confident, powerful man. He was a showman at heart and everything he did was dramatic. He seemed to have a very large ego, but received only admiration for this quality. Blondin loved his work, and the people loved "The Great Blondin".
About the Creators:
Ronald G. Vigue (Composer)Ronald G. Vigue’s latest works have been inspired by nature; mostly using the image of water. These works also include what the composer refers to as simultaneous dualities. The choral work “Thirst” (2007), the operetta “Tides” (2008) – that won an American Music Center CAP award in Oct 2008 – and the solo trombone work “Drown”, all incorporate this ideal. These works explore elements in the natural world that have twin meanings. His current project “The Great Blondin” – a new chamber opera – is based on the story of the 19th century wirewalker who performed high above Niagara Falls during the summer of 1860. With “Blondin,” the ultimate natural dichotomy is presented. The main character’s struggle to stay above the rush of an enormous amount of plunging water exemplifies the composer’s favored technique of a natural duality. Most recently, Mr. Vigue is writing a series of pieces titled, “Curtis Shoots,” that are based on the work of controversial photographer Edward Curtis (1868-1952). There is a debate among Native American scholars as to whether Edward Curtis’s photographs captured true images of Native American life at the turn-of-the-century. It is widely held that Mr. Curtis and his colleagues staged some images. As in the water-inspired works mentioned above, it is this duality that is most interesting to the composer. The piano trio “Curtis Shoots: Lodge Interior, Piegan 1910” (2010), and the SATB choir work titled, “Curtis Shoots: San Ildefanso Tablita Dance, 1905” (2010) are the first works in the series. Ronald G. Vigue was born in 1974 in Niagara Falls, New York. His principal composition teachers were Lukas Foss and Theodore Antoniou at Boston University, and Betsy Jolas at the Conservatoire Amèricain in Fontainebleau, France. Upcoming performances include: “Epigram for Lukas” for chamber ensemble, ALEA III, performers (Boston, MA, Mar 2010); “Thirst” for SATB choir (University of Chicago, Evanston, IL, June 2010); “Curtis Shoots: Lodge Interior, Piegan 1910” for piano trio, Trio Solisti, performers (University of California – Fullerton, Fullerton, CA, Oct 2010); “Wonderland” for SATB choir, dancers, and video, The Crossing, Miro Dance Theatre, performers (Please Touch Museum, Philadelphia, PA, Sept-Nov 2011); a new work for chamber orchestra and actors (Lewiston Council on the Arts (Lewiston, NY), Summer 2012). Ronald G. Vigue’s music has been performed throughout the US and Europe and he has participated in music festivals including: Centre Acanthes, June in Buffalo, Glimmerglass Opera, among many others. His recent performances include: “Per(re)sistence” for violin and Double bass for the International Society of Bassists 2007 annual convention (Oklahoma City, OK in June 2007); “Thirst” for the Philadelphia-based Eakins Vocal Consort (Philadelphia in Nov 2007); “sore; soar!” for string quartet at the Niagara Falls International Music Festival with members of the Buffalo Philharmonic and Toronto Symphony (Niagara-on-the-Lake, ONT in Aug 2008); “Tides” for Orchestra 2001 and Tony-nominated singer-actress Ann Crumb (The Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia and Swarthmore, PA in Oct 2008); a solo trombone work titled “Drown”, for celebrated trombonist Steve Parker (Baltimore and Milwaukee in Jan and Mar 2009, resp.); and the piano trio “Mo(u)rning Pure,” for the Oregon Bach Festival Composers Symposium (Eugene, OR in July 2009).
Albert Innaurato (Librettist)Albert Innaurato was born in Philadelphia and attended Central High School and the Philadelphia Musical Academy (now part of University of the Arts). He received his BFA from California Institute of the Arts where he studied music and theater and then received an MFA from the Yale School of Drama. As a playwright he received the Guggenheim Grant, the Rockefeller Grant and three National Endowment of the Arts Grants. He was active as a consultant for the Guggenheim and for the National Endowment both in music and theater. Two of his plays, The Transfiguration of Benno Blimpie and Gemini opened off-Broadway the same week, winning Innaurato acclaim and two Obies. Gemini moved to Broadway where it became one of the longest running nonmusical plays in Broadway history. Innaurato’s plays have been widely produced by American Regional Theaters, and in Europe and Japan. He has worked for TV, winning an Emmy for Verna the USO Girl, which starred Sissy Spacek and Bill Hurt. In the 1990’s Innaurato had a successful second career as an arts journalist, with articles appearing in Opera News,The New York Times, Vogue, Vanity Fair, New York, Gramophone, BBC Music and Opernwelt. He has written and narrated, as well as playing the piano, on 17 CDs/cassettes from the Metropolitan Opera Guild. He also lectured for the Guild, the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. He appeared often on the Metropolitan Opera Broadcast Intermission feature as a member of the popular Opera Quiz. He taught playwriting at Columbia University, Princeton, Yale and Rutgers. He currently teaches at the University of the Arts.
Staged Workshop, September 9-13, 2009