When tightrope artists Gustave and Alma Brandt went on tour, they always packed their trunk.
Their novelty act, featuring “Rajah the Wire Walking Elephant,” was a routine that audiences never forgot.
Nearly 100 feet above ground, a baby pachyderm inched onto a steel cable. Crowds watched with fascination and trepidation as the tusked behemoth shuffled its giant feet, swung a wrinkled trunk and ambled across the tightrope as a brass band provided peppy music.
In the event of a misstep, there was no net. Every step was fraught with peril until the beast made it to safety.
The illusion was so powerful that some spectators didn’t realize the elephant was actually a married couple in a costume.
A pair of seasoned pros
German immigrants Gustave and Alma Brandt were seasoned pros when they moved to Akron at the turn of the 20th century. Using the stage names Granada and Fedora, they entertained circuses, fairs and carnivals around the world.
“Once we traveled to many cities and to many countries,” Gustave told the Akron Times-Press in 1933. “Once I collected as much as a thousand a week for the elephant.”
“There never was such an act like ours,” Alma agreed. “And there will not be again. No one else can do what we did.”
A Berlin native, Gustave Brandt served as a medical apprentice in the German navy before emigrating at age 20 to South America in 1884. He parlayed a childhood talent for gymnastics into a job as a circus performer in Uruguay and Peru and eventually developed a tightrope routine.
Moving to the United States, Gustave delighted American audiences with a high-wire show in which he balanced on a small chair, cooked pancakes on a tiny stove and tossed them into the crowd. He met Alma, a ballet dancer, at a New York festival and somehow talked her into leaving the safety of the stage for the thrill of the tightrope. The couple married in 1895.
When Alma joined the act, she stood on Gustave’s shoulders as he walked across the wire. Later, she held a wheel in her hands while Gustave picked up her legs and rolled her like a wheelbarrow.
Elephant act begins
The courageous couple walked on stilts, stood on chairs and performed handstands on the cable. One of their signature feats was “The Revolving Pyrotechnic Fountain,” later dubbed “The Revolving Cascade of Fire,” in which they crossed the tightrope with fireworks spiraling below them.
Then Gustave came up with a big idea. In London, he hired a costume designer to create an elephant suit.
Gustave donned the head and forequarters while Alma brought up the rear. The couple practiced for weeks in the bulky costume before debuting the “Rajah” act in public.
“The elephant skin weighed 80 pounds,” Gustave said. “And the balancing pole weighed 25 pounds. We’d get into the skin in a tent on one platform, and then we’d walk out on the wire. I could only see through the elephant’s eyes. Sometimes it was very hard to see at all. The music swelled up from the orchestra below and the people held their breath as the elephant walked the wire.”
Alma was equally proud: “It was the greatest outdoor act on the circuits. We had our wire up 90 feet. There was no net at all below us. Sometimes the wire was hundreds of feet long. I tell you, sometimes it took every bit of strength we had to walk that wire. But it was a great act.”
Granada and Fedora liked to string tightropes between tall buildings. At White City Park in Chicago, they crossed over a plaza teeming with visitors. At Wonderland in Minneapolis, they bridged two towers. In Columbus, they traversed a wire from the Ohio Statehouse to a building across the street.
In Akron, they were featured at the 1900 Elks Carnival at Lakeside Park, later known as Summit Beach. The Brandts were on a bill with such novelty acts as Dado the Wild Man, Lunette the Flying Lady, Professor Speedy the High Diver, Cora Beckwith the Water Queen, Mrs. Murphy the Monkey Balloonist and Professor Rice and His Troupe of Educated Pigs.
“Enveloped in an elephant skin, Herr Granada and Madame Fedora walk the wire, and so clever is the imitation of this clumsy animal’s movements it seems to be a real elephant,” the Beacon Journal reported.
Settling down, kind of
The couple liked Akron so much that they moved to a West Hill house at 167 Benjamin St., a now-defunct connector between Crosby and South Maple streets.
Already the parents of a toddler, Francis, the couple wanted a home base for their rapidly growing family.
Over the next 15 years, they welcomed six more children: John, Joseph, Gustave, Anna, Alma and Hulda. They moved frequently in Akron, living in homes on Westwood Avenue, Lumiere Street, West Market Street and Roscoe Avenue.
When Granada and Fedora toured, they took their kids with them. The elephant act continued to thrill crowds.
Only once did the couple have an accident in the “Rajah” costume — and it was nearly fatal.
“The hook that held our cable broke one night and we dropped 60 feet like that,” Gustave told the Akron Times-Press. “But the eye of the cable caught in the notch just as we neared the ground.”
The audience roared with approval, thinking the plunge was part of the act. The tightrope artists took off the costume, bowed to the crowd and didn’t let on that it was almost the final performance.
The Brandts finally did retire the act in the 1920s. Granada and Fedora were aging and didn’t want to tour, and Rajah’s costume was disintegrating from decades of use. With heavy hearts, the Brandts lugged the suit to the garbage, an ignoble fate for a wire-walking legend.
Gustave worked temporarily as a deputy bailiff in Akron Municipal Court before the couple moved to Randolph Township in Portage County to open a grocery store, which they immediately lost during the Great Depression.
In the early 1930s, they moved back to Akron and operated a boarding house at 291 W. Market St., where they were happy to regale visitors with tales of the past.
Gustave Brandt passed away in 1944 at age 79. Alma followed in 1951 at age 74. They are buried at St. Joseph Cemetery in Randolph.
For as long as they lived, the couple expressed pride in their singular ability to make an elephant walk a tightrope.
“It was very hard but there was no other act like it,” Gustave said.
“But there could be none like us,” Alma agreed. “When we stepped on the wire, we were like one person.”
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or email@example.com.