Culture My Journey With A Daredevil In Training800 miles, 3 states, 32 days and counting on the road with Wall Of Death rider Corinna Mantlo.
- Words & Images Heidi Zumbrun
There are moments in life that won’t shake loose from your memory, moments where you abruptly veer down an unexpected path. For me, it was on a typical summer day with a warm setting sun glaring through the windshield of a red vintage Ford truck. Three of my girlfriends and I are crammed onto a solo bench seat cruising down the palm-lined streets of Los Angeles, and I’m hanging out of the passenger window trying to document this wild ride with my iPhone, straining to hear the chatting and laughing through the wind in my ears. All of a sudden, I vaguely hear some magical words: “hell riders,” “Wall of Death,” “daredevils,” “circus,” and “training.” And that was it.
I only needed to hear Corinna Mantlo say once that she was ditching her city life in New York to join the circus and train to be a daredevil with the Wall of Death, and I was immediately as hooked on the idea as she was. I made her promise that she would let me follow her anywhere and everywhere to document her story. At this point I had watched a few Wall of Death performances in Biarritz and North Carolina, but I wanted the opportunity to get behind the scenes and learn more about the famed American Motor Drome Co. Wall of Death and what it’s like to travel and train to become a trick rider.
Luckily, Corinna and I have a few things in common, and that’s probably one of the reasons she said “yes.” One of them is a love for motorcycles; another is our obsession with the Wall of Death. We also share an undeniable thirst for the vagabond lifestyle. For me, this thirst was born when I worked in the whitewater rafting community, living in a tent, seasonally bouncing from the rivers to the mountains. For her, it came from her childhood summers growing up on an artist commune in upstate New York, followed by an adult life living ruggedly in the BonestownUSA trailer park in Bushwick, New York.
Corinna lived for years alongside fellow self-proclaimed “outcasts, carnies, artists, sailors, and ramblers” without running water — hence the water droplet tattooed below her left eye as a reminder of the scarcity — until they had to make a pandemic-triggered exodus when the landowner kicked them out during quarantine. In true vagabond style, she relocated her home from the trailer park to the boat docks of Rockaway Beach, recreating her community again and renaming it Bonestown by the Sea. When she’s not training and performing with the Motor Drome, Corinna lives here on her boat with her one-eyed dog and non-releasable rescue squirrel.
Since the first Wall of Death was built, there have been a limited number of trick riders with the knowledge and training to pass down from elder to apprentice. Spaces are only made available by retirement, injury...or death.
She first saw the Wall of Death in 2016 in Germany, then promptly left her life in New York City behind. What instigates a woman in her 40s — born and raised in the city; owner of the famed custom upholstery business Via Meccanica; founder of Cine Meccanica, a weekly running film screening series as well as the International Motorcycle Film Festival in Brooklyn; curator of film for The Vintagent; and founding member of the all-women motorcycle club, the Miss-Fires — to ditch it all for daredevil training? I thought for sure it would be an addiction to speed or the adrenaline rush of riding a machine up a 14-foot by 30-foot silo-shaped wood wall perpendicular to the ground at three Gs of centrifugal force, but no. Corinna wants be a part of the Wall of Death family in hopes of preserving this dying art.
Originally built in the early 1900s, there are only five Walls left in the United States, and Corinna Mantlo wants to preserve this 100-plus-year-old tradition. Currently one of the latest in an elite lineage of female wall riders, Corinna is performing on a go-kart with the end goal of trick-riding a 1920s tank-shift Indian motorcycle on the rickety wooden walls of this 30,000-pound Motor Drome, and my goal is to document her journey. I felt called to drive more than 2,000 miles from California to Tennessee to live amongst this band of carnival daredevils for a month, and I was fortunate that not only Miss Corinna but her mentor troupe of veteran hell riders — Jay Lightnin’, Hobo Bill, and Red — generously allowed me to go behind the big-top curtain to photograph their performances, as well as their lives.
This is a specific window of opportunity — not only for me as a photographer, but also for Corinna. Since the first Wall of Death was built, there have been a limited number of trick riders with the knowledge and training to pass down from elder to apprentice. Spaces are only made available by retirement, injury . . . or death, and Corinna crossed paths with this motordrome right when there was a vacancy waiting to be filled. When I arrived, I was surprised to learn that this Wall of Death cast of mentors consisted of only three people besides Corinna and her pet squirrel.
Jay Lightnin’ built this particular wall in 1999 (the largest wall in the country) for one of the most renownded female hell riders, Samantha Morgan, and he’s been performing on the wall for over 50 years. Lightnin’ is a cancer survivor diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but is still riding the wall every hour, every day, at 30 miles per hour on his 1927 Indian Scout with his hands behind his back. Then there’s Hobo Bill, an ex-motorcycle racer riding a 1974 Harley-Davidson as well as a 1928 Indian Scout, grabbing dollar bills from the audience while performing death-defying tricks riding with no hands and side-saddle. Finally, Red in da box, who is retired from stunts but has traveled with the troupe for over 12 years, currently helps with all needs off the wall and is part of the pre show Bally Act on the front stage, calling the crowd to showtime.
Learning from these mentors, Miss Corinna is now not only on the Wall, driving a go-kart custom built by Lightnin’, but she is also stunt riding a motorcycle in place on rollers during the pre-show Bally act. She is also paying her dues along the way, like all newbie rookies in this crew, and she has a long list of daily tasks to accomplish in order to support the collective. I nicknamed Corinna “the den mother” because she looks after the group from morning ’til night, from providing morning coffee to selling merch, to whipping up crew dinners in her pink 1950s vintage trailer while simultaneously helping out with any repairs needed on and around the big top.
As the newest member and apprentice, Corinna will continue working her way up the ladder over the next few years as she trains and continues to tour with American Motor Drome Co.’s Wall of Death. The seven-month season has just ended and Lightnin’, Hobo Bill, Miss Corinna, and Red spent 16 hours taking down the 30,000-pound Wall and loading it up on the truck so it can sit in storage until next summer. I’m packed up and heading back to California with about 10,000 images, dozens of rolls of film, and hours of interviews, but my journey is not over. I’ll continue to follow these hell riders as they travel from town to town next year, capturing these thrill seekers’ daily life and Corinna’s daredevil progression. This is only the start of the story.