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The Brief, Bold Life of a Forgotten Chicago Daredevil

Jimmy Terry was always itching to top his last stunt. Before his untimely demise, Chicago was the playground for his most jaw-dropping antics.

In 1929, Jimmy Terry dangled from a tightrope 500 feet above the Loop in front of enthralled film crews.   Courtesy of the Moving Image Research Collections, University of South Carolina

Ninety years ago this year, Jimmy Terry performed one of the craziest stunts in Chicago history: walking on a slack rope tied between Mather Tower and the Carbide & Carbon Building.

Rather than use a horizontal balancing pole, Terry held on to a vertical 18-foot long plank, not unlike a makeshift walking stick. The rope ran through a notch in a board and was anchored by a weight attached to the bottom to keep Terry centered.

This newsreel and its outtakes capture the din of the busy city below, as well as Terry’s self-effacing charm and remarkable fearlessness.

The son of Slovak immigrants, Johnny Andrews (also known as John Andrasi) grew up in in Cadogan, Pennsylvania, a small mining town on the Allegheny River. He told the Arkansas Gazette he stumbled on work as an “upper story man” in Pittsburgh, working on the construction of chimneys and tall buildings.

He eventually moved to Jefferson City, Missouri, lured by a large hotel construction project. Finding all the jobs filed, the broke ironworker decided to perform a few stunts on top of the Missouri State Capitol in the hopes of getting a few bucks from onlookers.

“I got a real thrill out of that performance and when I came down the crowd gave a collection of $200,” he recalled.

Adopting the stage name Jimmy Terry, he crisscrossed the country in the late Twenties performing a series of seemingly unfathomable stunts. In June 1927, he summited the dome of the Wisconsin State Capitol in his tennis shoes. The following year, he returned to Madison with a newsreel cameraman, stiltwalking on a banister and roller-skating around the dome. Swinging from a rope fastened to the base of Lady Forward, the statue atop the Capitol, he was caught in high winds, which caused him to repeatedly smash against the building. After his fractured left arm healed, he took his act to the Arkansas State Capitol, dancing atop its dome.

Elements of Terry’s act presaged the television show Jackass in its use of improvised props and gonzo slapstick. Above Miami, he did “repairs” on the rudders of a plane in flight as he dangled outside the cabin; in Chicago, he once even jumped from the undercarriage of a plane as it buzzed around an airfield. (Wearing a regulation football outfit, he slid on the ground headfirst, but walked away unharmed.) In San Diego, he walked on a tightrope between a bank building and the New California Theatre, which paid Terry to promote the premiere of The Dummy, a comedy feature film.

Besides being underwritten by newsreel companies and publicity-hungry organizations, Terry’s act was even facilitated by indulgent city governments. The El Paso City Council initially refused to grant permission for Terry to walk a tightrope, their only concern being that crowds might trample San Jacinto Park. In Oakland, he walked on a slack rope tied to the 14th floor of City Hall. Telling the San Francisco Chronicle that he hoped to die with his boots on, Terry said that it was “just as easy to fall and beak your neck from a one-story building as it is from a 20-story skyscraper, and not half so much fun walking so close to the ground as it is way up in the sky.”

From the October 6, 1929 issue of the Tribune. Photo: Courtesy of the Chicago Tribune

Despite his far-flung travels, Chicago had been Terry’s home base. The tightrope walk from the Mather Tower and the Carbide & Carbon Building on September 27, 1929 was by far the most dramatic stunt of his career, but it certainly wasn’t his only Chicago landmark–inspired exploit. In addition to jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, Terry’s past capers had included dancing on the vane atop the Montgomery Ward Tower Building and walking on the girders of the unfinished Willoughby Tower. 

Four weeks after his tightrope walk, the French film company Pathé inked a contract to film Terry skating along the ledges of the Stevens Hotel (now the Hilton Chicago). Three days after the scheduled stunt, Terry showed up to tumble in skates for the newsreel camera. He later told Billboard that he was late because he was teaching himself how to skate. (In actuality, falling down in roller skates around the ledges of tall buildings had long been part of Terry’s repertoire.) 

Leaving Chicago for Staten Island, Jimmy Terry mysteriously changed his stage name to Norman J. Terry. On September 21, 1930, Terry crept across the sagging catwalk of the unfinished span now known as the George Washington Bridge, avoiding the watchmen who had intercepted him at the bridge the day before. His arms and legs taped with gauze, he wore a corset and a wooden brace to protect his ribs and back. As usual, he was wearing gym shoes.

Leaping into the Hudson from well over 200 feet, it would have been a world-record jump. Terry held an enormous blue banner above his head as he fell; in addition to the obvious benefit of making the leap more photogenic, he had hoped the streaming fabric would help keep him vertical.

Instead, Terry hit the water on his back, the impact killing him instantly. He was 24 years old.

Predictably, the fallout from his death became a media circus. Terry’s manager was held on a technical charge of homicide, which was later dismissed. The New York Daily News, which ran a front-page picture of Terry’s “leap of death,” explained that it had “merely contracted for exclusive rights to the pictures and the story” but had played no role in the planning or execution of the stunt.

Terry was the ninth person to die at the Hudson River bridge. The others who lost their lives were engaged in high-risk construction work — the same profession Johnny Andrews had left behind for a life as a stuntman.

Two days after Terry was laid to rest in Guardian Angel cemetery in Cadogan, the local movie theater ran a benefit for his mother, which showed several reels of his stunts. Because it was an outtake, it is unlikely the audience saw this footage of Jimmy Terry strumming a ukulele above Chicago, his adopted town, and vowing in song that he wasn’t going to walk ropes anymore.

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