What do hand-balancing, a parade float and View-Master have in common?
A brief bio of Montyne, an artist and performer known for death-defying stunts and iconic sculptures.
On Instagram, people ask me about the artists behind View-Master scenes all the time. Montyne is certainly among the most mysterious in my mind. He was a little different from the rest: He was a contract artist, not a full-time employee of View-Master, and his packets (Tarzan and Beetle Bailey) were wildly different from each other and somewhat controversial compared to the Disney-fied and family-friendly visuals that dominated the diorama/clay and cartoon reels View-Master was widely known for. Next week, we’ll talk about the reels. This week, let’s talk about the man.
Montyne — nee Sherman Lamont Sudbury — was born in 1916 in Salt Lake City, Utah. According to his official biography, Sudbury was a “frail and sickly child” with an early aptitude for art and anatomy. However, a childhood mail-order weightlifting course from Charles Atlas resulted in a lifelong passion for weightlifting, martial arts, fencing and gymnastics — or “physical culture.”
Sudbury graduated from the University of Utah College of Fine Arts. As a young man, he traveled extensively, including spending time in Mexico, Spain and Italy. His travels would inform his work for the rest of his life. He even painted a series of bullfighting scenes inspired by his time in Spain. For Montyne, physical prowess and art were inextricably linked.
In 1934, he began signing his pieces “Monty” but later added the letters “ne” to create a dramatic single-name moniker. Big intense Cher energy for a man in the 1930s! And Montyne was nothing if not intense. In 1940, he wanted to go to the Olympics for fencing and/or weightlifting but WWII upended everyone’s plans.
Throughout the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Montyne worked as an illustrator, commissioned artist and muralist. But he also worked as a stunt/performance artist doing hand-balancing work.
Montyne’s official biography says he was rejected from enlisting in WWII because he had previously broken his back and was bedridden for months. It also notes he was an incredible athlete and went on to tour with Bob Hope to entertain the troops with his dangerous hand-balancing act. It’s unclear to me how much of his biography is real and how much is self-aggrandizing showmanship (he was a kind of sideshow performer after all). I’m not sure it matters, because sometimes building a legend is more important than hewing to facts, and this is one of those times. That said, most of what I found checks out! He was a larger-than-life creative character by all accounts.
He met his wife Madeleine — she went by “China” — Sydney Evans in her hometown of Portland, Ore., in 1955. She was often his artistic muse and model and worked the entertainment circuit with him. Madeline was a widow with four children: Cynthia, Anthony, Marc and Michael. They also had one child together: Lamont (Monti Jr.).
Whatever his flair for showmanship, there’s no question Montyne performed feats of strength and balance above an actual bed of knives!
Minor Histories is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
From The Capital Journal, Salem, Ore., April 1963:
Any man who depends on knives for a living is bound to find the hazards catching up with him now and then. They caught up with Montyne at a show in a Portland night spot not many months ago. One of his acts involves delicately balancing a dagger on the point of a saber. He did it faultlessly, until he came to the end. He let the knives go and moved out from under, but the saber slashed his right forearm and that was the end of the act. Montyne went to the hospital.
He does several acts which put him in the death-defying category. In one of them, he balances on his hands over a bed of 20 knives and then walks on his hands up a ladder. He hasn’t yet missed on that one or he probably wouldn’t be available this week.
In various publications, he goes by his nickname, Monti Montyne, or simply The Great Montyne.
One longer piece from the Red Deer Advocate, a newspaper from Alberta, Canada, features insights into Montyne’s world view, his marriage and his parenting style:
“Montyne has Narrow Margin of Error” by Heather Wood, August 3, 1963:
“The act is actually more dangerous than people believe. They think everything has gimmicks. Actually, it is balancing on a narrow margin of error. Those knives are just waiting for me to relax,” says Monti Montyne.
The act began when he was 12 years old and he became interested in physical culture. He has been training ever since, although balancing has been a hobby since the beginning.
Gradually, Mr. Montyne acquired strength and saw his way to make the hobby into a profitable way to travel and see the world. So far, he has been all through the Western Hemisphere, living in Mexico and South America.
It was in Mexico that he got the idea of balancing above the knives, but at first impresarios were cautious about booking such a dangerous act… His interest in blades is not merely passing, for he is a fencing master.
[Montyne…] is a strong advocate of scientific physical culture who believes firmly in the healthful aspect of physical and mental control. His wife, Madeline, gives lectures on physical culture for women. …She is a living example of her message, for after having five children, she is still able to add a generous amount of glamour on stage.
Mr. Montyne finds it difficult to convince people that balancers are true athletes, not fakers. “It is mental control in balance and nerve.” He has had to concentrate completely on the one thing, for one false move and he has had it.
Part of the difficulty in concentration comes from the fact that Mr. Montyne has conflicting talents. He is a sculptor and painter as well as a physical culture enthusiast. … However, with much control he has managed to learn how to switch his attention from one art to the other. “I have found that one lends enthusiasm to the other.”
Mr. Montyne once gave up the show circuit to concentrate on his art but found he became somewhat stagnant. “It requires the enthusiasm of new places and new faces.”
He finds show business stimulating because of the enthusiasm generated by contributing to the emotional experience of the audience. “This is also creating,” he says.
… Mr. Montyne looks at his son, Monti, who is four, and sees in him the potentiality of becoming a balancer. “He has the spirit for it, and the inherent vitality, and he seems to have the reflexes. When he reaches manhood, he will also have the strength.” But Mr. Montyne will not force Monti into the business: “It is for him to decide.”
Here’s a brief video about Montyne, with appearances by China and many examples of both his dedication to fitness and to art.
In June 1963, Montyne created a float experience that stretched four whole blocks called the Roman Fiesta for Portland’s Rose Festival. He took top honors, obviously. You can see the float, which includes a live, very restless bear and a real lion, at about 22:30 minutes into the video above. This project seems like it was the culmination of all of Montyne’s formative experiences and loves: sculpture, performance, the circus life, feats of strength and over-the-top bravado.
View-Master was headquartered in Portland back then, and they were sponsors of the very popular Rose Festival. I don’t know this for sure, but it seems likely to me that the prolific Montyne — and his being kind of a true creative oddball (I mean no offense: I love creative oddballs) — brought him to the attention of the folks at View-Master.
However it came about, Montyne was contracted to create some reels for View-Master around 1966. He was tasked with adapting 21 scenes from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes. Rumor has it (per View-Master historian and photographer Wolfgang Sell’s online comments) that the execs at View-Master weren’t entirely comfortable with Montyne’s work. It was a bit racy by View-Master standards!
Montyne also did work on two lesser-known packets: Beetle Bailey and an update on a Woody Woodpecker set.
Oddly enough, we haven’t even touched on what Montyne was arguably most famous for: his Las Vegas sculptures.
Montyne and family moved to Las Vegas in 1968, so he could sculpt the statues in front of Circus Circus, the legendary themed casino that opened in October 1968. Owned by Jay Sarno and Stanley Mallin, it was the first family-friendly casino in town with an adult gaming floor on the first floor and carnival games for children on the second floor. A 15-story hotel was added in 1972, and the rest was Vegas history!
Montyne created a series of sculptures for the casino and hotel/pool area: The Balancer (a self-portrait, depicting himself as an acrobat, seen at the end of this post), the Lion (below), the Clown (above), Gargantua the gorilla and a statue of his wife China teetering on a balance board (above).
Montyne completed commissions of statues at other hotels as well. He was commissioned by the MGM Grand to create the wall murals in its conventional hall. He also painted the murals for the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino’s 15 ceiling arches, which was longer than a football field. The murals were destroyed in a fire in 1980.
Montyne died in 1989 from pneumonia. His wife, China, went on to marry again and died at the age of 91 in 2019. She was a performer and entrepreneur in her own right and an active member of the LDS church in Nevada.
Well after Montyne’s death, in 2006, Circus Circus stirred up controversy when they unceremoniously dumped his iconic statuary in a landfill. Vegas has always been ruthless about discarding its history, of course, but you’d think the management might have at least donated it to the Neon Museum?
That ceiling mural sure seems to look like Montyne and China, doesn’t it?
Check out this post on Montyne’s View-Master packets.
Note that I compiled this from publicly available information found online and in newspaper archives. I can’t say that every source was completely accurate!