BEN DOVA – The Drunk Daredevil

BEN DOVA - The Drunk Daredevil

Ben Dova was born in Strasbourg on March 14, 1905 as Joseph Späh. After immigrating to the United States, as a young man, he took an interest in vaudeville and became quite an adept acrobat and contortionist.

Ben Dova was perhaps best known for his signature ‘convivial inebriate’ act. His act consisted of Dova playing a quirky drunkard. He would swaggeringly stagger out onto the stage, dressed in a rumpled top hat and wrinkled tails, and would feign falling into the audience while perform wonderfully limber moves. It appeared to the audience as though Ben Dova would topple at any moment and he teased such a disaster, only to steady himself and proceed. He would search, for a comical length of time, through his pockets for a cigarette which was in his mouth during the entire time. Then, at this point, he would climb a street lamp to light his cigarette.

While perched atop the lamp the lamp would begin to sway back and forth, eventually to an alarming degree. Dova would hold on and begin an astounding acrobatic routine heighten by his seemingly intoxicated state.

To some, Dova’s act was comedic and entertaining fluff, however in 1933 that all changed. For the benefit of American newsreels Ben Dova performed his act atop New York’s 56 storey Chanin Building with no net, no wires and no camera tricks. Theatre audiences were terrified by what they saw and genuinely feared for Dova’s personal safety. Fainting at the sight of the newsreel was documented.

Here, in all its unbelievable glory is the great Ben Dova performing atop the Chanin Building.

Dova’s remarkable survivability did not stop there. On May 3rd, 1937 he was a passenger aboard the ill-fated airship The Hindenburg. He survived the disaster by climbing out a window and dangling until the airship was close enough to the ground to execute an acrobatic tumble. Physically he suffered only a sprained ankle in the ordeal but long after the disaster, many people wrongfully fingered Dova as a saboteur.

Dova continued performing his ‘convivial inebriate’ act well into the 1970’s before retiring to simple acting jobs. His most notable role was opposite Laurence Olivier in the 1976 film Marathon Man.

Ben Dova eventually succumbed to old age in September of 1986. He had lived his long life as a successful entertainer, daredevil and survivor.

image: Watch Ben Dova defy death atop New York’s Chanin Building on Youtube.

Author, researcher and an expert of the odd, J. Tithonus Pednaud has been chronicling bizarre history and highlighting the lives of those born exceeding different for over a decade.

19 Comments

  • Reply July 25, 2007

    Anonymous

    “and would fain falling into the audience while perform wonderfully limber moves.”

    i believe it should be feign not fain.

  • Reply July 25, 2007

    J. Tithonus Pednaud

    Right you are. The error has been corrected and thank you for editing.

  • Reply July 28, 2007

    Anonymous

    That was the greatest thing I ever seen. Ben Dova is the greatest…

  • Reply November 10, 2007

    Anonymous

    If audiences fainted at the sight of that, then what would they have done after viewing 2 Girls 1 Cup?

  • Reply November 15, 2007

    Anonymous

    i was scared just looking at him! i hope he made alot of money cause sure as hell he earned it.

  • Reply March 29, 2008

    BoeBoeBi

    “If audiences fainted at the sight of that, then what would they have done after viewing 2 Girls 1 Cup?”

    don’t post such unnessessary and dumb comments on a blog like this.

    anyways, i’ve been reading your blog for quite some time and i’m intrigued by it. greatly infact. i’ve seen this video of the above man and it just amused me. :P

  • Reply July 3, 2008

    Anonymous

    Do we have any independent confirmation that what we are seeing actually happened the way we’re told it did? Remember we were told that Harold Lloyd was putting himself in real danger while doing “Safety Last” and decades later we found out it was all camera angles and fakery & he was never in any real danger. This looks to me to be way too edited to be “newsreel” footage, plus there are never any shots that show him going close to or over an actual building ledge — We are TOLD that this is what’s happening, but after looking at it repeatedly, I’m afraid it jus doesn’t look real to me.

  • Reply July 3, 2008

    J. Tithonus Pednaud

    We do, actually. The shoot was witnessed and he was involved in similar feats sans safety equipment well into old age. There is no reason to believe he wasn’t doing exactly as claimed.

  • Reply July 3, 2008

    peter johnson

    I have no doubt he is doing his act — you can clearly see him performing — just that I doubt he was putting himself in any real danger.
    Several things make me suspicious. For example: We see him slipping and sliding around on the “edge of the building” from the point of view of the “roof”, shooting upwards. This is an odd camera angle. Why is that? For all we know, there’s a 3-ft. drop on the other side, as we don’t get to see what’s on the other side, except in shots edited in later. It would be far more impressive were we to get that over-the-head angle again to show some depth on the other side.
    There are a number of genuine newsreels from the same time period showing people roller skating on platforms atopt flagpoles, tapdancing on I-beam girders on buildings under construction, etc. etc., that are shot with a single, steady camera positioned in such a way as to emphasise the height and danger involved. Why does this one look so different from the others? Why so many “closeups”? It may not be staged, but it sure looks staged.
    Where can I find independent records of this? Was it written up in the papers? Were reporters present?

  • Reply July 3, 2008

    J. Tithonus Pednaud

    Of course there were reporters present and independent articles written. It was a publicity stunt filmed for newsreels. If you do a newspaper archive search of Ben Dova, many articles regarding this and other aspects of Mr. Dova’s career will turn up.

    I realize that in this day and age it is common to question that which appears extreme. There has been a lot of fakery and trickery in cinema and even in 5 o’clock news. People, like you, have grown cynical to what they see. This newsreel was shot the way it was shot because the documentarian didn’t have to prove anything. The intended audience was not distrustful out of habit or necessity. It was shot to emphasis drama and the participant.

    This was, after all, a publicity stunt.

    Even without outside sources, it would be inconceivable for this stunt to be staged as Mr. Dova continued to put his life in extreme danger for decades after this footage was shot. Video of him performing similar and even more dangerous stunts can be found online an in library archives. The man worked without a net in situations where error would mean certain death. I do not see why he would take such risks – especially later in life whist not in his prime – yet fake the same act in front of newsmen. Whether he was 50 feet above a crowd or 52 stories above the ground – a mistake would mean death either way.

    Mr. Dova was an extraordinary acrobat and contortionist. So much so that I would say that regardless of the situation, he was never truly in any real danger due to his incredible and unfathomable skill.

  • Reply October 18, 2008

    anonymous

    Ben Dova was a remarkable man. My family grew up with his family, and his sons are equally remarkable. I always delighted in hearing stories of his act and his sons’ acts in ice shows. They were truly a showbiz family and each Dova has many notible films or shows accredited to their names. Anyone who could have survived the Hindenburg disaster is someone who embodies determination and bravery and should continue to be admired and remembered as he has been for many decades now.

  • Reply November 14, 2008

    Joey's #1 Fan

    He’s my great grandpa. it really happened and he really did put his life in danger all the time. look at pictures of that building they’re is no ledge he stepped on when he went off the sides. and it’s a 1933 video they didn’t have the technology to edit a film the way it is.

    and he actually broke his ankle not sprained it.

  • Reply December 1, 2008

    Patrick Russell

    Excellent stuff here! JTP, an excellent article to begin with, of course, and then some great additional info in the comments. I’m doing ongoing research on the Hindenburg and particularly the passengers and crew from the final flight (I did the http://www.its-behind-you.com bio on Mr. Spah a few years back, and just put up a later draft of it on my own blog earlier this evening – http://facesofthehindenburg.blogspot.com/) and it’s always fascinating to hear from relatives or family friends of some of these folks.

    It’s been so many years since the Hindenburg crash, and not only are there fewer and fewer people left who knew those who were onboard, but also there’s been plenty of time for factual errors to be passed along too.

    Speaking of which, Joey’s #1 Fan, thanks for clearing up the error about your great-grandpa having broken his ankle rather than just spraining it. I’ve seen it written up both ways over the years, and have also seen accounts where it was his heel rather than his ankle that was injured. Like I said, so many years, so many mistakes retold over and over.

  • Reply November 6, 2009

    RKM

    I’ve been browsing through the website for a while (I traveled here via Stumbleupon) and I have to say, what a unique site. :)

    I’d read from another person’s perspective about how, while they were watching the Hindenburg go up in smoke, they saw a man drop from the airship and limp away, which shocked the observer. Now I know the rest of the story, and after watching the video, I’m not surprised.

  • Reply December 10, 2009

    Claus Vossen

    Hi, my name is Claus, I´m a distant relative of Josef Späh. Funny thing is I am right now working as a construction worker in the cinema studio in Cologne/Germany on a movie about the Hindenburg. I will have to find out tomorrow if Ben Dova is playing a role in it. Relatives of Ben, drop me a line…..

  • [...] Ecco un articolo in inglese che ritraccia la vita e le imprese di Ben Dova. Ben Dova su The Human Marvels. [...]

  • Reply June 25, 2011

    Ulrich from Ruhrgebiet, Germany

    Thanks Mr Pednaud for this website. Quite a lot of relatives of Ben around here ;-) I’m (quite a distant) one myself. As a kid I didn’t really believe that this guy on the rubber lantern and the Hindenburg was an uncle of mine aka “Onkel Seppel” as he was referred to for some reason, until he actually came around for a short visit, I think that was in the late sixties – a very nice guy he was indeed. I liked his part in movies a lot and try to get hold of that 1980 German movie “Der Preis des Überlebens” where, if I remember correctly, he played a taxi driver throughout the whole film with the chief character played by famous Michel Piccoli. If I understand the internet correctly Ben has a son Dick Dova aka Richard Spah who was or is an ice follies comedian and the name Dick Dova also shows up as a technician in some Hollywood movies, looks like Ben’s got a family tradition there :-)

  • [...] Dova (womp womp) came to the States as a young man, with an interest in vaudeville and acrobats, eventually becoming well known for [...]

  • Reply July 19, 2012

    Thurman Toller

    I was a cast member of Holiday On Ice 1957. I started the tour with Ice Vogues in June of 1956, in Minot N.D.
    Mr Dova did his act in that show. One of my jobs was to help anchor Mr. Dova’s lamp to a anchor point at the edge of the ice. The lamp post had a large spring near the base the alowed him to swing at least 30 degrees off vertical. The post was about 12 to 15 feet tall. Near the end of his act he would apparently fall from the top of the lamp. Except for the fall, the act was very similar to what he did in the New York stunt.
    I was privlidged to see his act several times and was amazed by his agility and skill. He was 57 at that time.
    Our next show, after Minot, was in Bloomington Stadium in Minniapolis, MN. There was a rain delay of close to an hour.
    Mr. Dova went out on the flooded ice and adlibbed a comedy bit to entertain the crowd of approximately 13,000.

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