John A. Krause bent over backward to become famous – and paid for it by dying before he was 30 years old.
More than a century ago, Krause also bent himself into an assortment of other seemingly impossible configurations as "Adonis Ames – The Original and World Noted Flexible Marvel in His Sensational and Picturesque Elastic Productions."
In the late 19th century, contortionists were a ho-hum staple of vaudeville stages everywhere, and according to the Inter Ocean newspaper of Chicago, most were "emaciated, loosely jointed persons, like ill-made manikins that have a tendency to tumble down in heaps, and their doing of unnatural and preposterous things with their vertebrae and limbs seems easy enough for such creatures, who have no muscle to get in the way of the bones that they fling so carelessly about."
Adonis Ames changed that with the astonishing musculature, athleticism, showmanship and unusual abilities he developed growing up as John Krause on Milwaukee’s South Side.
"The contortionist specialty ordinarily is not a particularly taking feature, but the work of Adonis Ames this week at the Chicago Opera House is something different and provokes an interest seldom aroused in this species of acrobatic performance," said the Chicago Tribune in August 1896. "Ames is a very handsome and singularly graceful man, and has spinal curves that might satisfy the exacting taste of a Hogarth [a famous 18th century painter who designated the S-curve as the 'line of beauty']."
Born Dec. 8, 1871, John Krause attended and began his athletic career at the Fourteenth District School. After he left school as a teenager and drove a delivery wagon for Johnston Brothers, a Downtown mill and bakery on Broadway Street, Krause continued his training in contortionism and acrobatics in the company’s barn. A friend and fellow acrobat was Erich Weiss, with whom Krause performed free shows on the Wisconsin Avenue bridge over the Milwaukee River. Weiss also went on to make the big time under a nom de plume: Harry Houdini.
Krause’s first paid gig was at Jacob Litt’s Dime Museum on North 1st Street and Wisconsin Avenue. Then he disappeared from his hometown for several years.
"When the Exposition Music Hall [on the site of the current Milwaukee Theater] was opened," it was later reported, "one of the first performers … was a contortionist who figured on the playbill as Adonis Ames and who made a tremendous hit with the music hall audiences. To the astonishment of his friends, this performer turned out to be John Krause."
He had been in Europe refining his skills and making a (new) name for himself, and by the mid-1890s, there was no better and better known contortionist on either side of the Atlantic than the handsome man the New York Journal admiringly called "a veritable 'human snake.'"
Ames performed in a white body stocking that showed off his un-puny physique as he performed graceful balancing stunts on a white pillar before getting to the meat of his act with such mind-bending body bending feats as the "Transformation Bouquet" in which he curled himself into the shape of a rose, slowly unfolded and then sprang into a cartwheel. One of his popular opening bits was to be wheeled on stage in a specially made coffin that dramatically flew apart as he emerged in a series of spectacular contortions.
"All his ideas in dress, costume and electrical effects are copyrighted," reported the L.A. Times, "and he absolutely refuses to permit others to imitate him."
In 1896, Ames toured American vaudeville halls with his new Spanish wife, whom he’d met performing in Europe. Billed as La Belle Carmen, her specialty was dancing on a wire stretched across the stage. "La Belle Carmen does numerous entrancing and graceful feats on the tight wire, many of them as unique and novel as possible," said the Times when she and Ames appeared at L.A.’s Orpheum Theater that April. But Carmen and the other acts on the bill played second fiddle to the performer about whom the Times gushed:
"We have seen boneless wonders here, time and again, but Adonis Ames, who is rightly named ‘Adonis,’ outclasses all previous contortionists, acrobats and balancers. He is as flexible as a piece of rubber hose and most graceful and easy in his methods. He is every inch a star."
Held over for a week, the "marvelous male beauty and premiere contortionist," marveled the Times, was "still smiling and contented, in spite of the uncanny knots into which he ties his wonderfully elastic anatomy every evening, to the uproarious delight of an audience critical as to contortionists." The LA Herald said it was "hard to believe that (Ames) could improve upon his work of last week, but he demonstrated his ability to do so."
In ’98, Ames was wowing spectators at the historic Wintergarten in Berlin, Germany (including Kaiser Wilhelm) when he suddenly took ill. He and La Belle Carmen returned to the U.S. and lived in Wauwatosa. Ames’ health steadily deteriorated. He had tuberculosis (then called "consumption") and was gradually forced to quit performing.
He was 29 when he died at his Tosa home on April 16, 1900. "It is believed," said The Evening Wisconsin, "that his feats of contortion had something to do with his early death, as people in the profession say that contortionists never live long."
The Milwaukee Journal concurred: "His ‘act’ was one of the best in his class. So difficult in fact that the continual performances undermined his health, and his death recalls the fact that those in his business usually die young."
Adonis Ames is buried under his real name, John A. Krause, in Wauwatosa Cemetery.