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.
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.