Posted 7 months ago
By Chris Berry
These three posters feature "The Great Wilno" - one of the first "Human Cannonballs" to be fired from a large howitzer.
The First poster is from Circus Busch (Germany) circa 1927.
The Second poster is from Hagenbeck Wallace Circus - 1930
The Third poster is from the Premiere Penn Shows (Carnival) - 1942
Here's more on Wilno excerpted from a comprehensive article by Fred Pfening Jr., published in the Nov-Dec 1976 issue of "Bandwagon", the journal of the Circus Historical Society.
"It was during the 1920s that another German entered the cannon act picture, a man who would become as well known in the United States as the Zacchinis. Willi Wiedrich was born in Dresden, Germany on December 13, 1902, the son of a coppersmith. In his youth he received training as a watchmaker, but became interested in acrobatics and began doing an aerial act using roman rings, later developing a trapeze and sway pole act. When playing in England he met Mrs. George Starr, the original Zazel, in 1927. This inspired him to build a cannon. Borrowing money from his sisters Wiedrich started construction, using a catapult cylinder inside a 25 foot barrel, and mounting it on wheels that were 5 1/2 feet in diameter. Developing the tension by use of a dummy the same weight as his, he felt he was ready to make a jump himself. He was performing with the Circus Busch in Berlin at the time, and the cannon and net were set up outside the building he then made his first shot. The act was then introduced into the Busch program, using the name The Great Wilno. Wilno appeared with other German circuses before going to France for a Paris date during the winter of 1927-1928.
During the Paris date he was seen by Frank Wirth, husband of May Wirth, who with George Hamid operated a booking agency. Wirth signed Wilno and arranged to bring him to the United States in the spring of 1929. The Wirth Hamid firm ran a full page advertisement in the May 19, 1929 issue of the Billboard, announcing Wilno as "the greatest and most stupendous gate attraction ever conceived for parks and fairs." Wilno and his cannon left Germany by boat and arrived in the United States on May 4, 1929. Wirth booked the act at a park in Boston that spring and later in the summer on fairs. John Ringling purchased the American Circus Corporation in 1929, one of the Corporation shows, Sells-Floto, had a cannon act in 1929 and Hugo Zacchini had been on Ringling Barnum that year. Being cannon minded the Wilno act was booked for the 1930 season on the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. Wilno remained on that show through the 1932 season. During these depression years Wilno saw his salary reduced each year. He felt he could do better on his own elsewhere. Wilno had settled and purchased a home in Peru, Indiana. Following the close of the 1932 season he purchased an Indiana truck and motorized his cannon. Wilno went to Hawaii with his new cannon truck and then returned to tour with the Cetlin & Wilson Shows as a free attraction. This was the first of his long affiliations with carnivals. He spent later seasons with Johnny J. Jones, Rubin & Cherry, World of Mirth, Penn Premier, Sheetley, and Endy Bros. carnivals. He later built a cookhouse which he operated on the carnivals he appeared with as a free attraction. Wilno appeared in 1937 with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus at the Chicago indoor opening stand, but did not go on the road with that show. He also appeared with the Hamid-Morton Circus in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and was on the Tom Packs show in 1957. In 1939 Wilno was elected as the seventh most popular performer in a Billboard poll, and first in the human cannon division. In 1943 while with the World of Mirth Shows Wilno made a shot over a #16 Big Eli Ferris Wheel going 60 feet high and a distance of 180 feet.
The Great Wilno is shown standing by his cannon after it was mounted on a truck in 1933.
Wilno performed the act himself for 20 years and then used Henry Duchone as the bullet for another 10 years. Following his retirement the cannon was parked in his Peru, Indiana, quarters for four years.
In 1960 he visited the Beatty Cole show and Frank McClosky offered to buy the cannon. Luis Munoz had served as the bullet for Zacchini on the Cristiani show in 1958 and 1959, and a deal was made with Munoz to present the act on the Beatty show, buying the cannon from the show over a four year period. Munoz used the name Capt. Astronaut.
Following his final season with the Beatty show Munoz took the Wilno cannon to Mexico to appear in a winter show. The cannon was sold there and last appeared on Circo Osorio, where a young man was killed while making a shot. The cannon was later lost in a wreck."