Friday, 8 April 2016

Grahamstown Gazette: The Globe of Death

Every month I write a local heritage-themed column, on behalf of The Treasury, for the Grahamstown Gazette. Here's my piece for the April edition.

From The Treasury: 

We often imagine our female ancestors expressing their creative urges through more subdued and genteel pursuits – cross stitch, perhaps, or maybe the odd lively tune on the piano. Less often, if at all, do we imagine dare-devil acrobatics or death-defying motorbike stunts. For Miss May Staig of the ‘Fearless Staigs,’ however, defying gravity in one of New Zealand’s top vaudeville acts was the ultimate form of creative expression.

This ‘breathlessly daring’ night of entertainment reached a full house at the King’s Theatre in Thames in April 1916. Finishing off an eclectic night of drama and comedy films was the touring vaudeville act Miss May and Master Laurence Staig, performing inside the ominously-named Globe of Death. Locked inside a steel sphere set up in the theatre, they rode motorcycles at top speed until Master Staig built up enough speed to perform a series of thrilling loop-the-loops. Various local newspapers reported that by this point, he was moving faster than the fastest trains of the period.

The Staig family toured New Zealand with their golden Globe of Death throughout the 1910s and 1920s. As well as three nights in Thames, they took their Indian motorcycles to Easter and Winter shows across the country, as well as town theatres. The troupe also occasionally teamed up with travelling circuses, including Baker’s Big Circus in 1915. The Manawatu Times called their performance with Baker’s Circus ‘little short of marvellous,’ singling May and Laurence out as the high point of an extremely talented line up of comedians, acrobats and equilibrists. By the time they reached Thames, the Staigs were considered one of the best acts in the Dominion.

 May Staig, popularly called ‘The Girl in the Golden Globe,’ claimed to be one of the only ladies in the world to attempt The Globe of Death. While it was Laurence who performed the loop-the-loop for the Thames shows, by the 1920s it was May herself and her sister Sadie (performing as the Staig Sisters) who regularly pulled off the act’s thrilling finale. The Staigs travelled overseas during this period, playing theatres in England, Scotland, Ireland and Spain. Although she was injured on stage at the 1927 Wellington Winter Show, when her handlebars came off mid-loop, May continued to perform motorbike stunts into the 1930s. The New Zealand Herald regularly advertised her shows at Auckland’s Luna Park in early 1930, where she performed in a side-show called The Wall of Death.

Staig Enterprises did make a return trip to Thames in 1928, but as they mainly supplied touring carnival rides instead of performers by that point, it is unclear if May was with them. F.H. Staig had brought to town a selection of ‘outdoor entertainments,’ including a racing game imported from Luna Park. Unfortunately, his visit coincided with the ‘fiercest easterly gale in living memory,’ lifting and shredding his tents against nearby trees and causing £200 worth of damage.

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