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Roll up for the Wall of Death

2011-07-02 12:28

DON'T LOOK DOWN: Speed, centrifugal forces and plain old nerves of steel combine in the death-defying stunt.


You may have heard about the outlandish ‘health and safety’ rules and regulations that have overtaken common sense in Britain of late but I was amazed to discover that at fairgrounds across the country one can still find the ‘Wall of Death’ troupes entertaining the public in their very bizarre way.

I first came across these brave entertainers who pit their wits and skills on the vertical wooden stage about six metres in diameter back in the early 1960s at a seaside resort called Southend.  Possibly made famous for its Rossis ice-cream, for me it was the Kursaal, an art deco amusement park the size of the Waterfront here in Cape Town, where my brother and I would be drawn to the sound of incredibly noisy motorcycles hurtling around vertical wooden barrels at death-defying speeds.

Sure there was brightly-coloured dodgems and the iron mouse railway to ride, along with gaudy carousels and the shooting galleries to choose from. If you got hungry, which kid could resist saucers of cockles and all the candyfloss you could eat — but our parents always knew where to find us.

The bikes used were very special: ancient Indian Chiefs that had been stripped down of excess bodywork. The exhaust systems were anything but, their tailpipes open to give even more impression of speed. The trick riders (I seem to remember a blonde girl who was also part of the team), would hurtle around in a tight radius, for about 30 minutes, to the delight of the audience — or until they run out of fuel, whichever came first.

DAREDEVIL'S TOOL: American Indian motorcycles are the machine of choice for Wall of Death performers in the UK.

They started their act riding in a small circle low down the wall, then ascended slowly but surely where centrifugal forces took over, allowing them to even take their hands off the bars. Talk about gravity-defying stunts, they rose higher and higher within a few inches from the startled audience, at an estimated speed of about 70km/h!

No leathers or crash helmets to be seen anywhere. Make no mistake, the show was dangerous. I once got a splinter in my finger from leaning too far over the wooden parapet…  Seriously, the star of the Kursaal show that season was a daredevil rider called Tornado Smith.

My dad knew him quite well and Tornado told him that during the cold UK winter months he would take the show to sunny Sierra Leone in Africa…  Could this have aroused my interest in coming even further south to find work in the late ’60s, I wonder?

No one seems to know when or where the Wall of Death was first performed. I suspect the US, because it would have made an excellent support show at those interstate flying circuses that were so popular in the ’20s. That, and the fact American Indian motorcycles were usually the chosen steed — certainly at all the British performances.

If you happen to be over in the UK in the next three months or so, why not take in one of these shows — you’ll be simply mesmerised — before those ’ealth and safety spoilsports clamp down on this star-spangled show too!

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