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Vaudeville's Superman

Juggler, magician, speed painter, violinist, equestrian, animal trainer, acrobat, and marksman, Sylvester Schäffer Jr. thrilled audiences around the world.

Vaudeville's Superman

Because of his consummate skills and the impressive variety of his performances, which included sharpshooting, speed painting, juggling, animal training, and much more, Sylvester Schäffer Jr. (1885–1949) was known as “Vaudeville’s Superman.”

Not all famous exhibition shooters came from America, and not all of them performed in Wild West traveling shows. In fact, Europe has a rich history of sharpshooters who performed stage shows in music halls and vaudeville theaters. Sylvester Schäffer Jr. was one of the greatest.

Born in Vienna, Austria, on January 22, 1885, Sylvester started training when he was just three years old. His father was a famous juggler and entertainer, and his uncle was, too. Sylvester was doing more than just following in their footsteps, and by age four he was a violin virtuoso. Not long thereafter, he showed talent in painting as well as in all types of athletics. He was so naturally adept that at the age of nine, he was considered a prodigy. Soon thereafter he became skilled in juggling, horsemanship, dog training, and sharpshooting.

Before he was 20 years old, he was a vaudeville sensation. Eventually, his show was so large and involved so many attendants that it required four wagons to transport his accessories and accoutrements. He even had a marching band in his act that traveled with him.

At the height of his career, Sylvester was one of the highest-paid entertainers in vaudeville. A newspaper article published after his death reported that at one point, he was earning 25,000 Gold Marks a month.

He performed throughout Europe and in the United States prior to World War I, and his act included manipulating coins, performing card tricks, catching cannon balls on his neck, conjuring magic tricks, balancing a Roman chariot on his chin, creating oil paintings in three minutes, and soothing “savage” beasts on the stage. He also played violin solos and performed daring horseback tricks.

I was unable to find any detailed accounts of his shooting feats, but vaudeville trick-shooting typically involved shooting objects, such as cigarettes and playing cards, held by an assistant in their mouth or hand; extinguishing the flame of a candle; and shooting glass balls or wooden blocks suspended in the air or tossed into the air, sometimes hitting the same block more than once before it hit the stage.

Sometimes a brass ball was attached to an assistant’s head, and the assistant walked in a circle around the shooter at a steady pace so the shooter could make multiple hits on a moving target. Other shooting acts included shooting from various positions, with the shooter lying on his back, or bent down, or with the gun upside down or turned to one side or positioned between the shooter’s legs. Often, the shooter would use a mirror to eye a target and shoot behind his back, with the gun over his shoulder; the target was often an apple or potato rested on the assistant’s head.

One review of Schäffer’s “one-man three-ring circus” mentioned that he was especially good at “sharpshooting from a running board.” Another article said that it was not so much what kinds of acts he performed but how he did them. Referring to Schäffer’s consummate skill, regal bearing and breeding, and almost too-modest stage demeanor, James H. Dougherty wrote, “It’s not so much the things he does but the inimitable way in which he accomplishes them…. He has rightly been called ‘Vaudeville’s Superman.’” Another review called him “the most talented man in the world.”

Schäffer had been living in New York between 1914 and 1917, but when the United States entered World War I, he was prohibited from performing shows and living in New York because of his German heritage. In fact, he was required to reside in the state of Montana, where he met many Native Americans. He enthusiastically learned and adapted to many of their traditions.

After World War I, he returned to the artistic life, touring Europe and starring in more than 25 movies. In 1939, along with his wife and son, Schäffer moved to the U.S. and resided in Hollywood. He died on June 20, 1949, in Los Angeles. He was 64 years old.




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