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February 5, 2022

Bird Millman – Queen of the High Wire

Bird Millman O’Day (October 20, 1890 – August 5, 1940) was one of the most celebrated high-wire performers of all time. In the early decades of the 20th century, she won stardom and attracted audiences with her exploits that she performed with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Born Jennadean Engleman in Canon City, Colorado, during her childhood “Bird” would string a wire between fence posts and entertain the neighborhood children by walking on the wire.

Her parents were circus artists, and known as “The Millman Trio” she started performing with them at the age of three. Her first stunts were performed on a pony. She then graduated to a trapeze. Bird gave her first solo wire performance at the age of 10 after her father had fallen 40 feet from a wire and was being treated for his injuries at a hospital. She soon realized that her calling was that of a wire walker.

A 1913 Barnum & Bailey circus flyer for the “Greatest Show on Earth” said of Bird, “Wirewalker is a misnomer — she does not walk, she runs upon it, dances and swings in so fearless a fashion.”

In 1917, Bird gave a daring performance on a wire strung between the 25th stories of opposite buildings on Broadway in New York City. She did the stunt hundreds of feet above the audience as part of U. S. War Bonds drive.

Not only did Millman perform on circuses, she also appeared in silent films, including the movies The Deep Purple (1920) and The Law of the Yukon (1920). She appeared on stage in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1916, Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic of 1920, and The Greenwich Village Follies of 1921.

Bird married Boston millionaire Joseph O’Day in 1924. But wedded bliss did not last long. He lost his investments in the stock market crash of 1929 and died in 1931. Bird, who had suffered a number of injuries during her career was no longer able to perform. Penniless, she returned home to Cañon City and lived with her mother on a chicken farm. Bird Millman O’Day died in Cañon City, Colorado on August 5, 1940, at age 49 of cancer.

Bird’s legacy has not been forgotten in her home town. A bronze statue of her, created by Cañon City artist Robert Henderson, is displayed at Coldwell Banker at Seventh and U.S. 50 in Cañon City, while a painting of her, created by local artist Edward Adamic, is on display at the Cañon City Public Library. In 2002, local writer August Mergleman wrote, directed and starred in the play “Bird Millman.”

Shortly after Bird’s death, her mother donated one of her shoes to the Royal Gorge Regional Museum, where it is still on display. A March 14, 1941, newspaper article called it the “shoe that danced around the world.”


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