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?”


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 


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

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  1. Internet's Hank Contributor
    Internet's Hank

    Franco (View Comment):
    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.

    Interesting. I’ve heard that to be a really first class hacker you need to have the will to mess with your target. Sounds similar, and I imagine there are some areas with a large overlap.

    • #31
  2. Levi King Member
    Levi King

    Dunno.  But all I can think about is:

    • #32
  3. Franco 🚫 Banned

    • #33
  4. Stad Coolidge

    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.

    True.  It would definitely be difficult to ride a unicycle wearing stilts.

    OTOH, if someone managed to do it, there’d be a video posted on YouTube . .  .

    • #34
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