El Nino Eddie

By Anthony Sansonetti

Eddie Rivers (1855-1923), El Nino Eddie, Little Eddie, or, more appropriately, “the Boy Wonder” was born in New York City to American equestrian and circus director Richard (Dick) Rivers.1 El Nino made his debut in 1863 at Chiarini’s in Havana, the capital of Cuba, as a juvenile circus performer on the tightrope and quickly created an outbreak of public excitement.2 The Cuban public renamed him El Nino, since he executed considerable feats of tightrope performance comparable to those of Charles Blondin and Leon Javelli and needed a snappy and memorable name to match theirs.3 Upon El Nino’s return to the United States of America in 1865, Rivers used the name “the Infant Blondin” to describe his son’s risky tightrope dances and acrobatics. This title undeniably amplified the lure of El Nino’s (juvenile) persona, so as to bolster and, in turn, emphasize the similarities between little Eddie and the incredible Blondin.

Soon El Nino, influenced by his father’s equestrian talent and passion, began to perform an equestrian exhibition with his father, “master of the circle,” and Nat Austin.4 Much of what led to El Nino’s success in New York is the relationship between his father, Lewis B. Lent, and Nat Austin.5 Lent (the employer) and Austin (the director of amusements) reopened the Hippotheatron and renamed it Lent’s New-York Circus.6 Rivers, Lent, and Austin created a talented circus troupe in 1863 called the New-York Circus and recruited El Nino, who was still eight years old at the time.7 This collaboration marked the birth and later success of El Nino’s theatrical career in London, Bristol, and Kent as well as American states such as New York, Louisiana, North Carolina, Philadelphia, and Washington.

To say that El Nino was strictly a ropedancer is an understatement if ever there was one. During the time I spent researching El Nino, I have found that he was continuously called the best tightrope performer in the world. For the most part, this is true, but El Nino also followed in his father’s footsteps and became an equestrian gymnast.8 The New York Times, for example, stated that Little Eddie’s spectacle on horseback was not only accompanied by the complete mastery of a horse and impeccable balance, but also attractive mirth and charm.9 El Nino’s unexampled equestrian skill also included an array of artistic talent including the roles of gymnast, acrobat and pantomimist.10 As a beginner, El Nino commonly performed a series of graceful exercises and ascension on a quarter-inch wire with which he traversed the theatre.11 With time, however, El Nino’s juvenile role as a multi-faceted circus performer developed and props such as blindfolds, ropes, sacs, other children12 and clever horses13 were assimilated into his idiosyncratic tightrope performances and equestrian routines. By the end of 1866, Eddie performed the unique role of a juvenile daredevil and British and American audiences visited him six nights a week.14

Luckily for El Nino, his American and British agents were as generous as they were supportive. As much as Rivers, Lent, and Austin added fuel to El Nino’s success in New York City, El Nino’s ambition and praise shifted to Washington. By September 1865, El Nino was in contact with one of the best Music Hall directors in Washington: Canterbury Music Hall & Theatre’s director of amusements Mr. George Lea.15 No other agent in the musical theatre or circus business ever had so many performers on their salary list at the same time. Known for his financial security and success, Lea usually had over one hundred performers under a year’s contract.16 Under Lea’s direction, El Nino’s movements were tightly managed, yet Lea, like Rivers, Lent, and Austin, rented El Nino out to other agents and directors, thus allowing him to be seen at various theatres by distinct audiences.17 When Lea announced that he secured El Nino—that is, “the wonder of the age” in the gymnastic/circus business—the Washington press was in awe at Lea’s dedication to the public seeing as, at the time, he presented the Washington public with Little Eddie, one of the most innovative child performers on the American stage.18

Though indebted to the likes of his father, Lent, Austin, and Lea, British agent Mr. F. Strange was most notable for El Nino’s trans-Atlantic career. In the summer of 1866, Strange brought ten-year-old El Nino to London, Bristol, and Kent and advertised him as “the American Child Wonder.”19 El Nino was exhibited at prominent theatrical spaces such as the Royal Alhambra Palace,20 the Hall-by-the-Sea,21 and Hengler’s Cirque.22

After four years of unmatched success (1863-1867), moving from the United States to Britain and back again, audiences and reviewers readily compared El Nino to a highly trained and expensive horse.23 Just as horse fanciers admire robust horses that are intelligent, graceful and well trained, Anglo-American audiences transformed El Nino into a hybrid of human and horse; and in this the corporeality of El Nino’s acrobatic and fearless body in performance seemed to blend with the expensive horses he rode on. El Nino was described as unpredictable, yet capable of being trained to please his owner (audience).24

Unlike a horse, however, El Nino—sometimes blindfolded—often carried a child twice his size on a quarter-inch rope suspended in the air from the stages to the galleries of various theatres.25 This added fuel to theories of El Nino’s superhuman nature of existence. This reputation—coupled with his ability to terrify and appeal to audiences simultaneously—earned El Nino attractive titles such as “the Super Stud of Horses,” 26 “the Premiere Equestrienne of the World,” “The Wonderful Boy Artist,” 27 “the Star of the World,” “the Child Artiste” and “the Remarkable Juvenile.” 28 A sustained theme in Little Eddie’s repertoire, therefore, was the desire to testify to the vitality and imaginative freedom with which various Anglo-American audiences associated with the otherworldly of juvenile character.

Some important questions remain unanswered, though. Where, for example, did El Nino receive circus training? And whose idea was it to put a little boy, at the age of eight, on a tightrope? As historian Carolyn Steedman tells us, “The child as acrobat could not conceal its art, and was a highly resonant figure for the idea of childhood shaped and forced by adult hand.”29 If we are to trace El Nino’s debut to Cuba or, more specifically, the Cuban circus environment amid the nineteenth century, is it possible for researchers to answer these questions? American advertisements also frequently exploited El Nino’s and his father’s economic achievements.30 But why exactly did a New York based reviewer feel the need to divulge El Nino’s (overtly impressive) monetary gain?


  1. T. Allston Brown, History of the American Stage (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald), 113.
  2. William L. Slout, Olympians of the Sawdust Circle (Rockville: Wildside Press), 251.
  3. Ibid.
  4. T. Allston Brown, A History of the New York Stage (New York: B. Blom), 354.
  5. Ibid, 355.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. “The Hippotheatron,” New York Times, October 4, 1865, 7.
  9. “Hippotheatron,” New York Times, October 18, 1865, 7.
  10. “The Hippotheatron,” New York Clipper, October 7, 1865, 207.
  11. “Academy of Music,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, February 21, 1866, 5.
  12. Ibid.
  13. “New-York Circus,” New-York Daily Tribune, November 26, 1866, 7.
  14. “Canterbury Hall,” Evening Star, April 7, 1865.
  15. “Music Halls,” New York Clipper, September 2, 1865, 167.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. “Royal Alhambra Palace,” The Times, July 2, 1866, 1.
  20. “A Review of Music and Drama,” The Orchestra, July 14, 1866, 248.
  21. “Provincial,” The Orchestra, August 18, 1866, 324.
  22. “Provincial,” The Orchestra, September 8, 1866, 371.
  23. “New-York Circus,” New-York Daily Tribune, 7.
  24. “Canterbury Hall,” Evening Star.
  25. “Academy of Music,” New Orleans Daily Crescent February 21, 1866, 5.
  26. “The Hippotheatron,” New York Clipper, October 7, 1865, 207.
  27. “New-York Circus,” New-York Daily Tribune, 7.
  28. “Canterbury Hall,” Evening Star.
  29. Carolyn Steedman, Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, 1780-1930 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 111.
  30. “Canterbury Hall,” Evening Star.

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