El Niño Farini

El Niño Farini with drum, mid 19th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

El Niño Farini with drum, mid 19th century. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Born in 1855, El Niño, 'the boy' Farini, first performed at the age of 10 on stage at the Alhambra theatre in London with his father, Guillermo Antonio Farini, who was an acrobat and tightrope walker. El Niño Farini was an orphan and adopted.

Farini senior was not really Spanish or Italian as the name suggests - he  was actually called William Leonard Hunt. Exactly where Farini found El Nino is uncertain, but he was born Samuel Wasgate somewhere in Maine, USA.

He was an attractive boy, with blond curly hair, and no fear of heights. Sam appeared with Farini at Chelsea Pleasure Gardens for the first time in 1866. He performed this act, called Le Tambour Aerial - 'the aerial drummer', on his opening night, swinging through the air balancing on his neck. Audiences were rather shocked by how young he was (Farini claimed that Sam was only eight) but they were reassured by the big grin which apparently never left his face. Farini also provided Sam with a safety net, the first recorded use of such a thing.

At the Crystal Palace in 1869 his father carried El Niño on his back on a tightrope 180 feet (55 metres) above the audience emulating the performance of Blondin who seven years earlier had carried his daughter. The pair performed in music halls across the country billed as ‘The Flying Farinis’.

El Niño first performed as Lulu in Paris in 1870 appearing as ‘The Beautiful Lulu the girl Aerialist and Circassian Catapultist’. Returning to London he continued to perform as Lulu. At the Holborn Amphitheatre in 1871 he was top of the bill and such was Lulu’s success that she was billed as ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World’! Her act consisted of being catapulted from the ground up to a trapeze and turning three full somersaults.

Lulu 'flew' by being fired into the air by a contraption hidden under the stage. At a performance in Dublin, however, the contraption malfunctioned, injuring Lulu's legs as he took off. Instead of landing gracefully on a plank suspended between two trapezes, he fell and bounced off the edge of the safety net and was badly injured. 'Lulu' was rushed to hospital where the secret of his gender was discovered. Lulu / Sam continued performing for Farini, but by this stage he was growing tired of his stage persona, had his hair cut and wore men's clothes.

There was much embarrassment amongst male admirers when it was revealed in 1878 that Lulu was in fact a man.

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