PERU, Ind. -- Indiana's 'Circus City' held a memorial service Thursday for 'The Great Wilno, Human Projectile,' the legendary human cannonball of the Big Top who spent his retirement teaching children his circus skills.
Willi Wilno died Tuesday in a Fort Wayne hospital. He was 80.
Wilno was born Otto Willi Wiedrich in Dresden, Germany, where he began his career. He thrilled crowds worldwide with his 60-foot arcing flights from a smoking cannon's mouth into a safety net 200 feet away.
'You don't hear the explosion because your mind's a blank,' Wilno said. 'You come out head first and you're completely numb until you hit the highest plane. Then your senses come backand you realize you must turn over. The only way you can land is flat on your back.'
One of his greatest flights was over a giant Ferris wheel at the 1936 New York World's Fair.
The advertisements that called act death-defying were not just ballyhoo. A fellow performer who substituted for him at times once fell short of the net, plunging to his death.
The tragedy made Wilno grieve, but boosted his career as newspapers at first erroneously reported the Great Wilno himself had been killed.
Peru is known as Indiana's 'circus city' because it holds an annual circus, inspired by the many Big Top troupers who retired in the area. After Wilno retired in Peru in 1958 he began training local children to perform in the annual circus.
Wilno was a watchmaker in Berlin when he abandoned the quiet trade for the spotlight and the crowds of the circus life, joining a trapeze act in 1916.
Twelve years later he built his cannon and moved to America, traveling for three years with the Peru-based Hagenbeck Wallace Circus.
He quit circuses in 1932, built a new cannon and independently worked fairs, carnivals and amusement parks until he moved to Peru in 1958.
He suffered recently from emphysema, but loved to reminisce and to instruct young people, insisting on courage.
'If you're afraid of something, you shouldn't do it,' he told a reporter just last year, admitting erosion of his courage led him to retire.
'The more times you do it, the more scared you get. You see how many things can go wrong,' he explained.