The Skyscraper Daredevil dangles over Midtown

BendovacontortionistThe skyscraper age of the 1920s and 1930s didn’t just bring the city cloud-touching towers.

It also inspired stuntmen who performed acrobatic shows (or at least, the illusion of acrobatics) a thousand feet over Manhattan.

One of these stuntmen was Joseph Spah, a German-born contortionist and acrobat (left).

After immigrating to Queens, Spah adopted the name Ben Dova and hit the vaudeville circuit.

By the 1930s, he developed his signature act: the “convivial inebriate,” which had him stagger onstage in a tuxedo trying to light his cigarette with the lit flame of a gas street lamp.

That doesn’t sound too thrilling, except that he performed this act on the edge of the roof of the Chanin Building, the 56-story Art Deco skyscraper on East 42nd Street opened in 1929.


Footage of his skyscraper act looks legit. But it’s actually the product of some trick photography, according to one historical blog.

“Spah’s lamp post was placed on the small, one-story brick structure on the roof of the Chanin Building, rather than on the edge of the roof itself,” explains the blog.

“The angle of the cameras make it look as though Spah were hanging over the edge of the Chanin Building’s roof, when in fact he was only facing a drop of perhaps ten or twelve feet to the building’s main roof had he lost his grip.”

Spah performed his act all over the States and Europe. His act has a certain magic, and Spah himself certainly had luck on his side.

On his way back from Europe to make it to a week-long run at Radio City in May 1937, he caught a ride on the Hindenburg . . . and survived the terrible fire that killed most of the passengers.

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