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Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014

The flying Wallendas

Monday, August 27, 2012

In June 2012 Nik Wallenda, the grandson of Karl Wallenda astounded the world with an ABC TV airing of his spectacular crossing of Niagara Falls from New York State to Canada, via a tightrope (actually a metal cable). This crossing of the Falls was the first of this type in 116 years. Upon his arrival in Canada he was met by an immigration official, who asked to see his passport. He produced the passport and the official asked as to the purpose of his visit. His reply, "To inspire people around the world to do great things". It seems that he has indeed served as the source of inspiration for many others, from ministers, who have used his feat of daring as the subject of sermons, to high school athletes, who have made a place on the wall for Wallenda's picture, along with their favorite and Olympic champions.

Some families take pride in the fact that several generations of their family have become doctors, or lawyers, or bankers, or bakers. These are all noble occupations, but they lack the drama, the excitement of the Wallenda Family's occupation---the business of thrilling thousands of circus goers, since, at least 1780, in Austria-Hungary, performing as acrobats, aerialists, jugglers, animal trainers, and trapeze artists.

For many years the Wallendas performed in the cities, and countryside in all of the countries of Europe, but since 1928, when John Ringling recruited them for his circus, their main stage has been in the United States, beginning with their inaugural performance at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Gradually the Wallenda family gave up some of their circus skills and specialized in high wire stunts. The stunts were spectacular to be sure, but what gave the Wallendas the edge, and enhanced their reputation was the fact that their high wire acts were performed without a net, which kept their audience on the edge of their seats, fearing a fall, which would certainly result in death, or at a minimum, broken limbs.

Karl Wallenda, who was born in 1905 was probably the most famous member of the family, the one who constantly pushed the envelope with ever more amazing tight wire stunts. Inevitably, accidents did happen. One night in Akron, Ohio, several members of the family were performing together on the high wire. Someone slipped and all fell off the wire. Surprisingly, no one was hurt, and the Akron paper reported the next day that all members of the troupe fell "so gracefully, it seemed that they were flying". This gave rise to the name they have used ever since---"The Flying Wallendas".

In the 1940s Karl instituted the stunt he called, "The seven person chair pyramid". In this stunt two pairs of performers walked the wire, each supporting an aerialist on a long pole. These two aerialists in turn support a seventh member of the team who sits on a chair, which is balanced on a pole. This stunt was of a difficulty that the Wallendas were able to claim it as their signature act---there were few if any imitators.

As skilled and spectacular as the Wallendas were, tragedy never seemed to be too far away when they performed. In 1944 the family was performing with the circus in Hartford Connecticut when a fire broke out in the circus tent. All of the Wallendas slid down the rope to safety, but 168 of the circus goers perished in the flames.

The next year, in 1945, Karl's sister-in-law, Rietta fell to her death during a performance in Omaha.

In 1962, at a Shrine Circus in Detroit, while performing the 7 person pyramid, the front man slipped, the pyramid collapsed, and three men fell. Karl's son-in-law and his nephew were killed in the fall, while Karl's adopted son, Mario was paralyzed from the waist down.

In 1972, Karl's son-in-law, Chico was killed when he came into contact with a live electric wire while holding part of the metal circus rigging.

Despite the tragedies and dangers Karl kept on performing the 7-person pyramid, in 1963 and again in 1977, plus he kept planning ever more spectacular stunts. In 1970, 65 year old Karl crossed the high Tallulah Gorge in Georgia successfully on a tight wire. In 1978 he helped the Condado Plaza Hotel in Puerto Rico promote their Grand Opening by walking, via tight wire from one tower to another, 10 stories above the ground. On this walk, without safety harness as usual, gusty winds caused the wire to sway violently, to the extent that Karl fell to his death. He was 73 years old. (Note: In 2011 Karl's grandson, Nik, and Nik's mother, Delilah, honored Karl, the Patriarch of the Wallenda family, by completing the walk that Karl had begun in 1978.)

Angel Wallenda, the wife of Karl's grand-nephew, Steve, was stricken with cancer when she was only 17. Parts of both lungs and her right leg below the knee were removed. Still, she continued the family tradition, becoming the only person to perform on the high wire with an artificial leg. She finally lost her battle with cancer and passed away in 1996 at 28 years old.

In the years since Karl's death, of the 14 members of the family who perform today, Nik, Karl's grandson, has emerged as the Wallenda most in the spotlight, and the one determined to keep the Wallenda legacy alive. Nik and his wife, Erendira, of another famous circus family, "The Flying Vasquez Family" regularly perform in the Ringling Bros Barnum and Bailey Circus, and the couple's three children are learning the family trade.

To date Nik, 33, a 7th generation Wallenda, has garnered six spots in the Guiness Book of World Records. In addition to Nik's completion of Karl's walk between the Condado Plaza Towers, in 2008 he broke the world's record for the longest and highest bike ride on a tight wire when he completed a ride at Prudential Center in Newark NJ in 2009, an event carried by NBC .

In June, 2012, while thousands of people watched, and before millions more on TV, Nik Wallenda performed his most spectacular walk (to date), when he traversed the length of four football fields, some 200 feet in the air, directly over Niagara Falls, from New York State to Canada. For 116 years it has been illegal to make such a walk, and the preparations that were made, involving officials of two nations, were monumental. The cost of stringing a high wire across the Falls was estimated at some $1.2 million. To help defray that expense Nik Wallenda entered into a contract with ABC TV, which was almost terminated when ABC insisted that Mr. Wallenda wear a safety harness, which of course ran contrary to the Wallenda code. However, in this case money talked and Wallenda submitted to the safety requirement.

While millions of spectators held their breath, Wallenda, with nerves of steel, made the walk over the 2-inch cable without apparent trouble. It was only later that we learned that the heavy mist made it very hard to see and made the cable very slippery. Nik was in constant radio contact with his father, who offered tips and encouragement throughout the walk.

Nik Wallenda has more spectacular stunts in mind, and more Guiness World's Records to smash. Among his future plans---to walk, via tightwire across the Bosphorus Divide in Turkey, the divide between Europe and Asia. Another goal is to walk from one mountain peak to another high above the Inca Ruins at Maccu Piccu in Peru. Another plan, within the next year, Nik hopes to complete a high wire walk across the Grand Canyon, which at one mile will be his longest high wire walk yet-. These proposed stunts are all part of Wallenda's plans to become the greatest high wire performer of all time.

Source: Nik Wallenda's official Internet site, and "The Flying Wallendas"


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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By