Amusements for All, Page 3



Spectacular Acts in 1890s:  Tightropes, Divers, and Contortionists


1894   From time to time the Lake’s management found it profitable to add paid acts to their in-place amenities.  The first recorded are the aerialists.  In the 1890s they were the artistes du jour.  In 1892, Toronto’s Clifford Calverly, treading a ¾ inch cable, set the record for the fastest crossing of Niagara Falls and in 1896 the last tightrope crossing of the falls for more than 115 years was made by 21-year-old James Hardy.

In the ‘90s, Washingtonians strolling along the boardwalk at Chesapeake Beach were treated to a performer riding a bicycle on a wire strung 60 feet above the ocean.  Glen Echo, Cabin John Bridge, Mount Vernon and Wildwood parks all used high wire stuntmen and, in its opening year and its first advertisement, Chevy Chase Lake featured this one.


Washington Evening Star, July 27, 1894, p.10


1899   For special occasions like July Fourth, such acts were further embellished.  In 1899, for example, two wires were strung across the lake and illuminated by arc lights, one for daring tricks of balance, and a lower one, for “fairy dancing.”  Prof. Joyce was the performer on both, “gaining the applause of hundreds nightly.”  Washington Post, July 9, 1899, p. 4. 


Later that month, a Prof. Pondor took the spotlight and proved so successful that he was held over an extra week.  The only description we have of his act is that it was “unique and decidedly clever.” Washington Post, July 25, 1899, p. 2.


1899 - 1900   It was not such a far leap from the high wire to the high dive and we are fortunate to have descriptions of two such acts from the Minneapolis Journal.   The first was a real crowd-pleaser: a family of aquatic children shepherded by their father, Capt. Q. C. Meier, from venue to venue.  Below is the large display ad that Chevy Chase Lake managers ran in the Evening Times:


The Evening Star,  August 8, 1899, p.10

The children included Miss Bessie, 13, billed as “the most graceful child diver of the day” and Master Tommie, 10, “all around diver and trick swimmer.”  These two plunged from a 60-foot high board, with Bessie sewn into a sack and Tommie’s hands and feet tied. Minneapolis  Journal,  August 17, 1901, p. 17.  The baby, Elma, 3, rowed out onto Chevy Chase Lake “in the tiniest craft afloat and managed it with strength and skill.”  When the family returned in the summer of 1900, an even younger child, Minnie, 2, raced her sister in her own boat.                                                                


1900   In June “The Whirling Zolas” brought the crowds out even in rainy weather.  The Zolas swung from a trapeze and balanced on a tall seemingly frail “breakaway ladder.”   Although we have no account of their act, the ladder trick probably involved planting a ladder at lakeside with its top resting on a high wire.  The water would provide the safety net.  While climbing, some performers kicked out the rungs as they passed them.  At the top, half the ladder was thrown down, leaving only one pole on which the gymnast swung, balanced and posed.

The Zolas were followed by Almo and Kola, aka "alligator and lizard," who performed on a floating stage specilaly constructed in the lake. 


The Washington Times, June 27, 1900, p. 5.


“Almo and Kola, the contortionists, who are appearing at the Lake this week, are as clever a pair of “India rubber” men as has ever been seen in this city. They call themselves the alligator and the lizard, but it is doubtful if any reptiles ever twisted and turned and tangled themselves into as many seemingly impossible positions as these supple gymnasts. Their act is quite a lengthy one and is replete with startling and amusing contortions.”  Washington Post, June 26, 1900, p.5.                        

Prof. Noran, The Champion High Diver of the World

But the crowd still craved its daredevils.  On July 16, Professor Noran appeared at the park.  The Washington Post described his act.


The Evening Times,  July 17, 1900, p. 5.


“A throng estimated at 10,000 rode out to Chevy Chase Lake last evening and witnessed the performance of Prof. Noran, the champion high diver. From a specially constructed tower 100 feet high, brilliantly illuminated, the professor did all manner of dives and acrobatic feats. Nothing like it has ever been see here-abouts. The Devil’s dive was particularly spectacular and praiseworthy. With a mantle of tissue paper saturated in kerosene and lighted, he plunged downward, a sheet of flame making a scene intensely weird and thrilling.”  (The management was offering $200 to anyone who could duplicate Noran’s “fire dive.”) 

On the next page, learn about the Outdoor Movie Theater at the Lake.