You’re Tall…

 

When you’re in the supermarket and you hear,“You’re tall…” you’re about to be asked to retrieve something from a high shelf.

Besides being naturally tall, I became a stiltwalker. I started out in Jackson, NJ at Great Adventure, which was one of the first theme parks that followed the Disney model before it was bought by Six Flags.

Later, after a 10 year hiatus, I  worked in five different casinos in Atlantic City as a  host character. Someone who brought good cheer to everyone.

Other venues including New Year’s Gala’s Beaux Arts Ball in Philadelphia interacting with a bunch of drunk debutantes, and Princeton University, where my picture was on the cover of the Princeton Alumni Journal.

Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller got me a very good gig with the Philadelphia Museum of Art for their celebration of an incoming  exhibit of medieval armor. I knew him from working at Great Adventure in 1974.

I’ve heard every tall joke that ever was told. And I was not above stealing good lines when they came my way. It’s basically comedy. Nothing deep, Henny Youngman-level quips. Jokes are about a common perception, and the giraffe in the room was…

Stand-up comedians always focus on their obvious attributes that make them different. It’s standard practice and can be the entire premise for some. But in my case, the ‘stand-up’ part was crucial, the comedy part could fall flat as long as the stand-up part worked.

I had a hundred puns and throwaway lines. It was by mutual agreement: short,  positive, interactions with people, and pretty good money.

My first gig in Atlantic City was at Resorts International Hotel and Casino owned by Merv Griffin. I saw him a few times escorted by Eva Gabor.

I was one of about a dozen variety artists hired to  entertain guests in public areas: magicians, ventriloquists, jugglers, and stiltwalkers. Everyone got a two-week contract.  The pay was very good. Each week several performers were getting fired – what performers call “not getting your contract renewed” – but they kept renewing my contract. I loved my job.

These goodwill gestures that businesses grant their customers are tremendously appreciated, and I’m surprised they have fallen out of fashion.

“How’s the weather up there?”

This the phrase you will hear as a stiltwalker twenty-five times a day. I can’t even think of the second-place question. It’s what everybody says. Well, not everybody, it’s always men. Women don’t usually ask random questions to strangers, or try to make jokes in public.

Other stiltwalkers I’ve met along the way had disdain for the question. Some would act as if it was some kind of affront to them, “If I hear ‘how’s the weather up there’ one more time…

This never made sense to me because it presupposed it was the audiences’ role to be creative. We’re getting handed a great straight line over the plate, isn’t there a funny answer? Other stiltwalkers I rubbed knees with, generally gave semi-snide responses like, “it’s raining” and then pretend to spit. That was the common line handed down from jaded carny clowns.

That wasn’t my style, and not what people really want. I saw my role was to affirm them, and if they spoke to me first, all the better.

Tried different comebacks, but nothing was funny.  The last one, after years almost out of  exasperation: “I haven’t the foggiest idea“.

They laughed. Not a knee-slapper, but it worked. It served better than anything I tried before. I used it at the next opportunity. It worked again. The reaction was always a positive chuckle that affirmed the interaction. It was what the the guy who asks the question wanted. He knows you’ve heard it before.

I was recently reminded by a fellow performer who walks on stilts (I haven’t done it in 20 years by now) that I gave him that line after  a discussion over that same conundrum 5-8 years ago. He began using it and told me what a gift it was. Works every time!

(He is the featured stiltwalker in the bonus video below (free with your paid membership!)

The world is not built for tall people.

We have to bend over for almost everything. Imagine your whole world six inches or a foot lower. Cars, planes, trains also drastically reduced in size… but we can’t complain because… being tall is good, right?

I would have to crouch into the elevator. My dressing room was usually on a high floor. If I entered with other people and we were going down, I would ask someone, “You’re short, can you press ‘Lobby’  way down at the bottom?”

I would wander into the dining rooms and restaurants. It was amazingly free in all the casinos. I could go into the hotel lobby, the buffet, almost anywhere. The only place they didn’t want us was the casino itself and I wasn’t interested in going there anyway.

At some point I would drop the line, “can I get you anything while I’m up?” I remember a short interchange stopped at Angelo Dundee’s table at a Resorts International steakhouse. There was a fight that night. In that era Atlantic City was actively competing with Las Vegas for high profile boxing matches fights and superstar headliners. Don King (?) was one of the four, using the aforementioned as an entree.

I know youse guys, put me in the ring! I’ll take anyone in 3 rounds, – but no hittin’ below the belt!

Got a good laugh.

(Aside: About ten years ago, I was casually watching this BBC series called Crime Inc. and saw myself in this clip. I had completely forgotten that day, and it was astonishing to see a forgotten moment, however briefly, in a BBC documentary on crime. My first time in Atlantic City was representing Great Adventure in this parade.)

It wasn’t until the early 90’s that I was to begin working for casinos there, starting with Resorts International, then owned by Merv Griffin, who I would see in the lobby sometimes with Eva Gabor.

I walked up to Boston Celtic great Robert Parrish,  shook his hand saying,”You need someone to look up to?” My standard line for anyone over 6’5. Tall guys always appreciated that.

It was always short and sweet unless they were engaging, which many were. I came to really like people and I very much enjoyed spreading good cheer.

I would perform a short comedy juggling routine in the lobby for small crowds. If I dropped a club in the routine, my line was, “I’ll get it… “

In one such performance, Don Henley was watching. I knew he was playing there that night, so I quickly recognized him.  He laughed and applauded at the end of my routine. He went entirely unrecognized by the mid-day  crowd of elderly slot players. At any opportunity when his name is mentioned I enjoy saying,  “I’ve never seen Don Henley perform, but he’s seen me perform”.

Then I somehow got on the Renaissance Festival circuit and at times used my stiltwalking skills. I could never do it now. Nino, my string-ed friend, was a handful… 

Stiltwalking isn’t especially hard to learn, but it takes courage. You are ultimately responsible for safeguarding others by way of yourself. If you fall you will not land on your feet. You either go over like a falling tree and break your wrists, or go directly down into some kind of meniscus-wrenching split. And you do not want to fall into a giant ice sculpture with pointy things, or onto a table of partiers.

Dealing with people, the chaos of kids, and the myriad of potentially dangerous situations and obstacles, is a much steeper learning curve. You have to be hyper-vigilant. Every step you take, your surroundings, traffic patterns, anyone running, the crowd, low-hanging chandeliers, a drunk guy or gal, drink-spill on a marble floor…

Another common prompt is usually delivered by a somewhat burly 11 year-old kid.

“What if I push you?”

(considering)

I’d rather you didn’t.

That response always diffused the tension. The kid would laugh. And the hint of a challenge in the tone helped.

Falling on Stilts

On the bottom of my stilts was dense rubber. The rubber was for wood or marble floors. Carpets were much friendlier to stilts. My first fall was in front of a few thousand people at The Great Arena Circus Show at Great Adventure, and when I was helped off, I got an big ovation -not the kind of applause I wanted. I was out of the show for six weeks in a full cast on my right leg.

But in terms of time and very difficult circumstances, I fell only three or four times. In each case it wasn’t due to any real negligence on my part.

My first stiltwalking was on the street at Great Adventure 1974, ’75 and ’77.

In the circus show in 1977 I met  Australian stiltwalker, Barry Sloane. He was a cynical circus guy at the end of a long career, who had a four minute feature in the show. How does a stiltwalker perform? Being really tall gets old pretty fast to modern audiences. So Barry had these ‘Heads’ which were  8 cute barrel-like body puppets to jazz up his walk around the arena. Honestly, it’s a remarkable skill and very dangerous, but not especially exciting… you do not want to fall from 10′ stilts.

I learned from him about circus etiquette, and it all made more sense as I continued in the business. He was a professional and we were amateurs. He didn’t really like us, but I understood why.

A few years later I was in Lugano, Switzerland with my Scoula Teatro Dimitri classmates, attending Circus Knie, the esteemed Swiss ational circus. Dimitri, a world renowned Swiss clown from the Italian-speaking Canton of Ticino, was the feature that year.

As we were entering the giant tent I heard “Avanti prego” in a distinct  Aussie accent. Avaaantee Praayy-goe.

It was Barry Slone. I told him how I knew him and why I was there. He was distracted and uninterested. But that’s fine. Then, sure enough in the show, the ‘Heads’ came out in the circus ring as Barry was introduced. These were the same ‘Heads’ worn back at the Great Adventure Circus Show and the same music. I’m sitting with my European classmates from the theater school and I’m trying to explain how I actually, at one time in America, wore one of those ‘heads’ in another show. That’s Show Biz.

As a stiltwalker, it’s hard to not look down on people.

I’m trying not to look down on you… but really… I have to… it’s my burden 

Bonus!

Video of my stiltwalking friend Santiago. It’s whimsical.  This was a one-time performance.

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  1. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    @drbastiat

    I hope you and your daughters will see this. I’m just under 6’3” in real life BTW.

    • #1
  2. Lunchbox Gerald Coolidge
    Lunchbox Gerald
    @Jose

    In my teen years I had stilts similar to the picture below.  I never had the guts to strap them on because I knew a fall would be serious.  If I went down I just stepped off.  Never performed but I had fun with them.  You had far more courage than I did.

    Franco: It was always short and sweet unless they were engaging, which many were. I came to really like people and I very much enjoyed spreading good cheer.

    Good on ya!  I can imagine an old circus performer becoming jaded and tired of people.  I would be. Enjoying the interaction made it good for everyone.

    • #2
  3. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    Oh, I forgot the  nine-year-old genius who would proclaim, “You’re on stilts!” as though he alone has discovered the secret. Future Harvard graduate…

    • #3
  4. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    A great post! I’ve had the privilege of meeting him in person quite recently, and the man lives up to his billing! Franco’s fascinating side of showbiz is just one of a number of Ricochet membership’s stereotype-busters. We’re a website full of boring middle-aged right-wing conformists who did stuff like…work casinos in Atlantic City on stilts. 

    Now, I don’t want to give you a swelled head, Franco…it might affect your balance!

    • #4
  5. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member
    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw
    @MattBalzer

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    We’re a website full of boring middle-aged right-wing conformists

    • #5
  6. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Franco’s far from the only tall man in here. Do you know what it’s like standing next to @jasponrudert at high noon?

    • #6
  7. Internet's Hank Contributor
    Internet's Hank
    @HankRhody

    Franco: I had a hundred puns and throwaway lines. It was by mutual agreement a short,  positive, interactions with people, and pretty good money. 

    • #7
  8. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Franco: Besides being naturally tall, I became a stiltwalker.

    I’m in awe of all the unusual talents of our Ricochetti . . .

    • #8
  9. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Awesome post!

    I made stilts for my kids when they were small – they had a great time on them.  Now they don’t need them.

    I won’t pass this on to them, because they’re a little sensitive about feeling like circus oddities already.  But I loved the post.

    • #9
  10. Bishop Wash Member
    Bishop Wash
    @BishopWash

    I remember a guy in the area when I was growing up who would show up at parades and county fairs on stilts. Usually dressed as Uncle Sam. Later he ran for state representative and campaigned in the parades on stilts. Great attention grabber. I remember being amazed at the seemingly precarious sticks he was on and afraid that I’d accidentally knock him over.

    • #10
  11. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    A short video illustrating the global importance of stilt walking.  

    Stilts Essential For Survival (@mamaruethiopiantours) #shorts (youtube.com) 

    https://youtube.com/shorts/YOTVY6xyj-U?si=CF1PU2gCmJ_hlKV6  

    I hope the link works for you.  

     

     

     

    • #11
  12. Old Bathos Member
    Old Bathos
    @OldBathos

    In the post-Biden societal collapse, mastery of entertainment skills suitable for medieval fairs will be in vogue.

    • #12
  13. Lunchbox Gerald Coolidge
    Lunchbox Gerald
    @Jose

    DaveSchmidt (View Comment):

    A short video illustrating the global importance of stilt walking.

    Stilts Essential For Survival (@ mamaruethiopiantours) #shorts (youtube.com)

    https://youtube.com/shorts/YOTVY6xyj-U?si=CF1PU2gCmJ_hlKV6

    I hope the link works for you.

    The link works.  Snakes! Never thought of that.  I hope that knowledge never comes in handy.

     

     

    • #13
  14. Globalitarian Lower Order Misanthropist Coolidge
    Globalitarian Lower Order Misanthropist
    @Flicker

    To me, it’s a big deal between being 5’10” and 5’11”, and even 6′.  It’s just a few inches!  Not even a few, it’s just 2 inches.  But it’s a big deal.

    They say George Washington was only 6’2″ but he was taller than everyone else around him, and he was a general, a leader in battle, and chosen by the people to be our first president.  A man named Saul is described as tall, standing head and shoulders above his countrymen, and he was chosen by the people to be Israel’s first king.

    More deference is given to tall people, but I think also more is expected of them.

    I know a guy who’s 6’5″ and he’s the easiest going guy around.  But he also gets a lot of deference.  When you’re that tall, you don’t know what it is to be short, or even average.  But everyone else recognizes that you’re tall, and knows that you’re not at all average.  So think about that next time you have to duck your head going through a doorway.  :)

    • #14
  15. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    I found some more photos online from the mid seventies..

     

     

     

     

    Rare photo of Penn Jillette(L) Michael Moschen (R) and Karen Gersh  at Great Adventure 1975

    Penn Jillette should need no introduction, but please click on the other bios above to get the idea that –  we are always among greats or potential greats. 

    I played the role of cig-in-the-middle a couple of times with those guys. It was just a street show, no stage and would get crowds of 30-50 people. Penn was also doing Renaissance Festival in Wisconsin and Michael played out his contract as a solo. Penn teamed with Teller shortly thereafter and they moved into theater venues. 

    It’s strange to see someone you know as a regular guy (sorta lol) become world famous while seeing him as exactly the same person decades later. Penn will forever be Penn. 

    • #15
  16. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    “Other stiltwalkers I rubbed knees with….”

    I’ve never heard that phrase.

    • #16
  17. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    Awesome post!

    I made stilts for my kids when they were small – they had a great time on them. Now they don’t need them.

    I won’t pass this on to them, because they’re a little sensitive about feeling like circus oddities already. But I loved the post.

    LOL one Christmas I got a unicycle.  I could almost ride it, but gave up and put it on my bicycle – front wheel drive!

    • #17
  18. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    Jimmy Carter (View Comment):

    “Other stiltwalkers I rubbed knees with….”

    I’ve never heard that phrase.

    Made it up, thanks for noticing!

    • #18
  19. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    Stad (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    Awesome post!

    I made stilts for my kids when they were small – they had a great time on them. Now they don’t need them.

    I won’t pass this on to them, because they’re a little sensitive about feeling like circus oddities already. But I loved the post.

    LOL one Christmas I got a unicycle. I could almost ride it, but gave up and put it on my bicycle – front wheel drive!

    I tried unicycle also and hated it. Of course it’s difficult until you get it, but I found it painful. I don’t think of the many unicyclists and stilt walkers I encountered, that any of them did both things. 

    • #19
  20. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member
    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw
    @MattBalzer

    Franco (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    Awesome post!

    I made stilts for my kids when they were small – they had a great time on them. Now they don’t need them.

    I won’t pass this on to them, because they’re a little sensitive about feeling like circus oddities already. But I loved the post.

    LOL one Christmas I got a unicycle. I could almost ride it, but gave up and put it on my bicycle – front wheel drive!

    I tried unicycle also and hated it. Of course it’s difficult until you get it, but I found it painful. I don’t think of the many unicyclists and stilt walkers I encountered, that any of them did both things.

    Especially not at the same time.

    Also unicycles and stilts being mutually exclusive skills does make sense but not in a way I can define.

    • #20
  21. Addiction Is A Choice Member
    Addiction Is A Choice
    @AddictionIsAChoice

    I, too, am a juggler.  And I always thought I could pull off the “stilts thing” but never had the opportunity.  Which is probably for the best: I don’t need another skill that generates very little money.

    Super fun post, Franco!

    • #21
  22. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    Addiction Is A Choice (View Comment):

    I, too, am a juggler. And I always thought I could pull off the “stilts thing” but never had the opportunity. Which is probably for the best: I don’t need another skill that generates very little money.

    Super fun post, Franco!

    It used to be lucrative, but then lots of people discovered painter stilts or drywall stilts which are easier since they are basically platforms with an articulating joint. You can also stand still unlike pole stilts where you must constantly adjust. They were bulky and loud but it didn’t really matter.  In one casino I worked in a nerdy magician (they are almost all nerdy) started using these stilts and got into several accidents because he lacked physical sense and wasn’t careful enough. And that casino stopped hiring stiltwalkers.

    Currently I’m only working as a musician and that’s even lower than variety arts on the pay grade. 

    • #22
  23. Internet's Hank Contributor
    Internet's Hank
    @HankRhody

    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw (View Comment):

    Also unicycles and stilts being mutually exclusive skills does make sense but not in a way I can define.

    I’m thinking it’s like that guy’s analysis of the House of the Rising Sun being about the eternal war between tailors and gamblers. Two powers in the universe must be at odds, even if it unicyclists and stiltwalkers.

    • #23
  24. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    Franco (View Comment):

    Addiction Is A Choice (View Comment):

    I, too, am a juggler. And I always thought I could pull off the “stilts thing” but never had the opportunity. Which is probably for the best: I don’t need another skill that generates very little money.

    Super fun post, Franco!

    It used to be lucrative, but then lots of people discovered painter stilts or drywall stilts which are easier since they are basically platforms with an articulating joint. You can also stand still unlike pole stilts where you must constantly adjust. 

     

    • #24
  25. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Congrats, Franco, to another day at #1 on the Main Feed!

    So, how’s the weather up there?  ;-)

    • #25
  26. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    Jimmy Carter (View Comment):

    Franco (View Comment):

    Addiction Is A Choice (View Comment):

    I, too, am a juggler. And I always thought I could pull off the “stilts thing” but never had the opportunity. Which is probably for the best: I don’t need another skill that generates very little money.

    Super fun post, Franco!

    It used to be lucrative, but then lots of people discovered painter stilts or drywall stilts which are easier since they are basically platforms with an articulating joint. You can also stand still unlike pole stilts where you must constantly adjust.

     

    These guys are making serious $$$ The skill is in lathering the mud on smoothly and cleanly (which I’ve tried – not on stilts – and it takes years I’m sure to master) and we see how efficient the system is! They are definitely making more than a nerdy magician making balloon animals  in some casino and for good reason!

    • #26
  27. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Congrats, Franco, to another day at #1 on the Main Feed!

    So, how’s the weather up there? ;-)

    Rarified… 

    As long as Dr. Bastiat and the guy with all the great Hollywood stories doesn’t post something, I’m on top of the world!

    • #27
  28. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    Stad (View Comment):

    LOL one Christmas I got a unicycle.  I could almost ride it, but gave up and put it on my bicycle – front wheel drive!

    Gee…. thanks, mom and dad…. half a bike…

     Did you get the hint? They wanted you to run away with the circus. 

    • #28
  29. DaveSchmidt Coolidge
    DaveSchmidt
    @DaveSchmidt

    Franco (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):

    LOL one Christmas I got a unicycle. I could almost ride it, but gave up and put it on my bicycle – front wheel drive!

    Gee…. thanks, mom and dad…. half a bike…

    Did you get the hint? They wanted you to run away with the circus.

    They’d drop him off at every circus that came to town, but he kept finding his way home.  

    • #29
  30. Franco Member
    Franco
    @Franco

    Internet’s Hank (View Comment):

    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw (View Comment):

    Also unicycles and stilts being mutually exclusive skills does make sense but not in a way I can define.

    I’m thinking it’s like that guy’s analysis of the House of the Rising Sun being about the eternal war between tailors and gamblers. Two powers in the universe must be at odds, even if it unicyclists and stiltwalkers.

    Also, jugglers and magicians are at odds. Very few do both. Of course, to be good it takes 100% effort, as there are no world-class pianists who are also excellent violinists.

    But that aside, the two things are very different skills. Jugglers display their skills,  magicians hide them. Magicians tend to be more cerebral, jugglers are essentially athletic types.

    I probably know (still) dozens of both. I have done some magic in shows but I never got a kick out of fooling people, and that’s a real divide. When you make a living deceiving people (for their entertainment – not talking politics here) you develop a certain contempt for them. It’s impossible to avoid psychologically. Magicians have a fundamental low-level contempt for the general public because once you know how a trick is done it’s really difficult to respect peoples’ cognitive abilities.

    One quite clever trick I invented and performed with a partner hundreds of times in a variety show whereby a fake dove ‘came to life’ after the show a guy came and said he’s seen the show many times and still couldn’t figure out the trick. Instead of feeling complimented for my clever trick, I more felt sorry that he was unable to figure it out. But that’s the divide, knowing and not knowing.

    Penn and Teller invited the wrath of amateur and professional magicians exposing magic tricks. Once you see it you can’t unsee it.

    Penn was a juggler and Teller was the magician – and quite excellent and innovative one at that- and it was a perfect match in the tension and especially how they found new ways to present magic.

    Here’s a performer who actually does both, but he also makes fun of magic.

    • #30
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