Life As The Worlds Greatest Daredevil
In The American Circus, John Culhane calls Elvin Bale “the greatest circus daredevil of the second half of the twentieth century.” Over the course of his illustrious career, Elvin won much acclaim and many awards, including the Circus Oscar at the 1973 Circus World Festival in Madrid and the Gold Clown at the 1976 Monte Carlo International Circus Festival, both for his heel-catching trapeze act. He also performed his trapeze act in the Vatican for Pope John Paul II and under helicopters in the French Alps and at African soccer stadiums. In 1979, he won the Silver Clown in Monte Carlo for his “Wheel of Death” act. Elvin is a member of the Circus Hall of Fame and Sarasota’s Ring of Fame.
EARLY FAMILY LIFE
Elvin Bale was born in London, England, to Irene and Edwin Trevor Bale while the family toured on his father’s show, Trevor’s Allied and International Circus. Trevor was known as a world-class animal trainer, and Irene was a dancer-turned-aerialist. Elvin started practicing trapeze at the age of six along side his older sister Gloria and his twin sister Nita.
While John Ringling North was searching for talent in Europe, he saw Trevor performing in Denmark, and immediately invited him to come to the U.S. and train a brand new wild animal act for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey consisting of eight tigers and one male lion. The family moved to Sarasota, and Elvin grew up on the Ringling show with three beautiful sisters (including the baby of the family, Bonnie). He worked for his family as a groom and a cage boy, and he also drove the clown car in the circus, sold peanuts, and worked as a showboy under the direction of Richard Barstow.
At 16, Elvin decided that he didn’t want to be a groom anymore; he wanted his own trapeze act, one that would eventually include his famous “heel-catch” finish. He started practicing on his own in the dark, at night and in the early morning hours. When he debuted the act for his dad, Trevor said, “Not bad, but you gotta take the mechanic off.”
“Now?” asked Elvin.
When Trevor said “do it,” Elvin did it. It was an exciting time for both of them; the mechanic came off, and so did the act without a hitch. A couple of weeks later, Trevor had a show at The Majestic Theater in Fort Worth, TX, and that’s where Elvin performed the act in public for the first time. He ended it by sitting on the trapeze, swinging it up to its highest point, then diving forward into space with a yell—no net underneath—throwing his legs back just in time to catch the middle of the bar on the descent with his heels with his heels alone.
From there, Elvin worked on Shrine Circuses, performing his single trapeze act, the family bicycle act, and the family horse act.
ON HIS OWN
Elvin’s debut outside the family came when Art Concello invited him to work his heel-catching single trapeze act on a cultural exchange program, the American Circus in Russia. After his tour behind the Iron Curtain, Elvin returned to the States to work Shrine Circuses until Irvin Feld came to see one of his shows and hired Elvin to premier with the new Blue Unit of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey.
After performing the trapeze act for two years, Elvin introduced the Astro Cycle on RBBB. Elvin and the Astro Cycle were also featured on the TV special Circus Super Heroes with Bruce Jenner, where Elvin rode the cycle 300 feet in the air between the cliffs at Black Beach in San Diego
Two years after the Astro-Cycle debut, Elvin first performed the Wheel of Death on RBBB. He was known as “The Phantom of Balance” as he ran around an 8’ steel-mesh wheel on the end of a 38’ steel arm suspended from the ceiling. Sometimes he performed blindfolded, sometime with a man standing on his shoulders. Elvin opened the Louisiana Superdome in 1975 with the Wheel act and the Astro Cycle 150 feet above the ground in front of a 60,000-person standing ovation.
In 1978, Elvin debuted the Human Space Shuttle, a new version of the Human Cannonball. Two years after that, he toured Australia and Japan with Ringling’s Monte Carlo Circus. When he came back from Australia, Elvin premiered the Mechanical Monster along with the Wheel, the Space Shuttle, and the Astro Cycle on RBBB.
In 1983, Elvin left Ringling and joined Circus Americano in Italy for 15 months, then Circus Sarrasani in Germany for two years.
In December of 1986, Elvin joined Chipperfield Circus in Hong Kong to perform his human cannonball, Astro Cycle, and trapeze acts. The circus was already up and running when Elvin arrived, so for the first 16 days of performing, the rigging was in the way and Elvin had to do a short cannon shot. A day off provided a chance to change the rigging and set up a longer shot.
The sandbag dummy used to calibrate the shot had been left under the bleachers on a rainy Hong Kong day. Water ran along the asphalt under the tent, and the dummy absorbed it. By the time the Chinese workers retrieved the dummy on the day off and brought it to Elvin for the test shot, the outside of the bag had dried but the inside apparently still held maybe an extra five pounds of moisture, so the dummy landed short of the thirty-foot airbag during the test shot.
Elvin put it in a second time and gave the cannon more power. The dummy landed right in the middle of the airbag.
The next day, Jan. 8, 1987, Elvin got into the cannon and had a fleeting thought that it seemed a little long, but pushed the thought aside and went for it. He got shot out, looked down, and knew he was going to be over the bag because he was too high, going too fast. The only thing he could do was rotate more and try to land on his feet instead of his head. He flew over the airbag by a few feet and hit the ground, breaking his ankles and knees and his back in two places.
He spent six months recovering from surgery in a Hong Kong hospital and six more months rehabilitating at England’s Stoke Mandeville Hospital before he was finally up again, walking on forearm half-crutches.
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