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Feature 29 Mar 13

Belgrade’s Urban Legends Remain Unforgettable

The ‘man of steel’, the dancing traffic policeman and the Belgrade Phantom are all figures who became local celebrities with their quirky stunts.

BIRN
Belgrade

The recent death of a famous piano mover, Ostoja Vukasinovic, reminded Belgraders of other fellow citizens who have become urban legends in the city over the decades.

Vukasinovic died in February at the age of 71, after transporting pianos for half a century. Although not so many Belgraders play the piano, yet alone need to transport one, only a few haven’t heard of this man.

Small, white pieces of paper with the simple words ‘Ostoja transports pianos’ have been plastered all over the city for nearly a decade. Almost every bus had at least one of these adverts stuck on the seats or near the doors.

The ads kept appearing over and over again, no matter how many times someone peeled them off. This unusual campaign turned Ostoja into an urban legend.

However, although everyone knew of him, not so many can say they actually saw him. But this is not the case with other Belgrade ‘celebrities’.

A Belgrade legend that people flocked to see was Dragoljub Aleksic, an acrobat, actor, film director and screenplay writer, and also known as the ‘man of steel’.

He was born in 1910 and became famous between the two world wars, when he performed as an acrobat across Serbia and in Europe. He showed Belgraders incredible stunts - bending iron bars, tearing chains with his teeth, walking across a tightrope stretched between buildings without a safety net and, according to legend, flying over Kalemegdan holding on to a cable hanging from a plane with his teeth.

In 1941, Aleksic also filmed the first Serbian full-length film with sound, entitled Nevinost bez Zastite (Innocence Without Protection). The movie was shot during the Nazi occupation and, because of it, Aleksic had troubles with both the Germans and later the Communists.

While Germans charged him with ‘undermining the Third Reich’ because, according to legend, his film caused a standing ovation that was louder than the neighbouring German cinema, the Communists  accused him of collaborating with the Nazis, because they believed that he filmed the movie using cameras he got from the Germans.

Aleksic died in 1985, but his story was told in several movies, including the 2008 Serbian film Charleston & Vendetta.

The life of another Belgrade legend, Vlada Vasiljevic, hit the big screen in 2009, when director Jovan Todorovic made a documentary about the man who became famous in late seventies as the ‘Belgrade phantom’.

In 1979, a man known at the time only as The Phantom drove the Belgrade police crazy with his stolen white Porsche, the only Porsche in the city at the time.

For about ten evenings he raced through Slavija Square with the police chasing after him. Word of his night drives spread and thousands of people started gathering at midnight on the square to await his performance.

On the radio he openly called on the police to catch him, if they could. The incident is seen as the first opposition act in communist Yugoslavia.

The Belgrade Phantom even managed to steal the attention of Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito, who was in Cuba at the time of The Phantom’s wild night drives.

After ten days of spectacular chases through the Belgrade streets, the police managed to catch him by blocking the roads with buses.

According to the 2009 documentary, he served a two-year sentence in Belgrade prison. He died a few days after his release, in a car accident in 1982.

Legend has it that he managed to escape from the prison. Allegedly, one day later he returned voluntarily and told police that he just needed a night’s drive.

Vasiljevic is not the only Belgrader who has stunned drivers and pedestrians on Slavija Square. In the 1970s, people also used to stop to watch Jovan Bulj, a legendary traffic policeman and a former ballet dancer who practiced his moves while trying to manage the traffic jams.

This two-metre-high officer, in his white uniform and white gloves, regulated traffic in the most graciously choreographed way the city has ever seen.

Media around the world called him the ‘dancing policeman’. Once voted Europe’s number one traffic policeman, he also tried out his skills in London’s Whitehall in July 1970.

However, according to the media, he caused “a tremendous traffic tangle, because of his habit of practising ballet-dancing while on duty”. His moves attracted applause from numerous passers-by, making his performances more and more spectacular.

However, his leap in the air with his arms and legs fully stretched caused London’s police force to decide it was time for him to come down from his ‘stage’ and let other officers direct the traffic.

Bulj retired in 1980 and died in 2010 at the age of 72.

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