Wallendas' history one of greatness and tragedy
|By Billy Cox
Herald Tribune, Saturday, June 9, 2012 at 11:05 p.m.
Part of the draw of the Wallenda family's celebrated history of “death defying” acts is the cold hard fact that sometimes, death is not actually defied.
From the 1936 demise of Willie Wallenda in a fall in Europe, to the crash of family patriarch Karl Wallenda onto Puerto Rican pavement in 1978, the family's history is noted for its tragedies almost as much as for its triumphs.
Nik Wallenda hopes to secure his own legacy in the family — one of success, and survival — on Friday night when he attempts to cross Niagara Falls on a 1,450-foot-long high wire.
But history has taught him that even if he makes it through alive, if perfection is not attained the results can be disastrous.
Few have a greater appreciation of that risk than Mario Wallenda.
The 72-year-old adopted son of circus legend Karl Wallenda doesn't remember the accident that put him in a wheelchair for life. What he recalls instead is a photo taken by one of 7,000 horrified spectators at the Shrine Circus outside Detroit on Jan. 30, 1962.
The blurred image showed a man in midair, grabbing for the tightrope suspended 32 feet, 6 inches above the straw-matted concrete floor, and a wooden chair above him.
Wallenda assumes he was the one about to get clobbered because of the splinters plucked from his scalp in the hospital.
Once he collected his senses, the full measure of the tragedy became clear. At 21, the young acrobat awoke to a mild concussion, a broken rib and a broken back, from which he would never fully recover. Distant cousin Dieter Schepp, 23, the newest addition to the Seven-Person Pyramid, was dead, along with brother-in-law Dick Faughnan, 29.
The pyramid was Karl's signature creation, based on fastidious teamwork at once fragile and muscular. Four acrobats on the wire, supporting two on the next tier, with the seventh at the summit, usually on a chair, all at the mercy of a single mistake.
Fifty years later, on a storm-tossed afternoon at his home in Sarasota, Mario reflected on that distant catastrophe with an eye on the future.
Next Friday night, he will be watching Nik's bid to make history at the falls. Shrugging off the dangers of gravity that left him a paraplegic, Mario voices contempt for the ABC executives who are forcing his nephew to wear a tether when he traverses the roaring chasm.
“If it were me,” he declares, “I'd step out on the wire a few feet, where they couldn't reach me, then I'd sit down and take it off. I mean, what are they gonna do — take a sniper and shoot me?”
This is the sort of fearlessness that has mystified and compelled audiences since the Wallendas began their aerial acts in Austria-Hungary in 1780. But it was reportedly the death of German-born Willie Wallenda in the 1930s that prompted brother Karl to dispense with the illusion of safety measures altogether.
Willie Wallenda was using a net when he fell from a high wire bicycle ride. Never again, vowed Karl, would his family be lulled into false complacency by a net or anything else.
But no doubt the Wallendas' subsequent string of successes would inure audiences to the dangers of their trade; so tight were their performances that even the accidents looked staged.
During the 1940s, four troupe members toppled from a wire in Akron, Ohio, but were unhurt, moving a bedazzled reporter to write, “The Wallendas fell so gracefully that it seemed as if they were flying.”
At times, the wire could actually seem safer than the ground itself. During a big-top show in Hartford, Conn., in 1944, the Wallendas were performing when a fire broke out.
Claiming 148 lives, the incident was billed as the greatest circus disaster of all time. Even more might have died had the Wallendas not helped drag spectators from the flames.
But the Flying Wallendas' own illusion of invincibility ran out in Detroit with the collapse of that pyramid. A year later, Karl's 42-year-old sister-in-law, Rietta Grotofent, plunged 50 feet to her death in Omaha, Neb., when she attempted a headstand on a fiberglass swaypole.
In a 1972 accident no one had had prepared for, perched high above a crowd in Wheeling, W.Va., Karl's son-in-law, Chico Guzman, was shocked into a fatal fall when the balance pole he was to pass to Karl struck a live wire.
Despite his own peerless triumphs, from Tallulah Gorge to the Houston Astrodome to a world skywalk distance record of 1,800 feet at King's Island, Karl Wallenda himself would be defined by his horrific final act for the YouTube generation. At the age of 73, he fell to his death in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1978.
“You know why he did that walk?” daughter Jenny Wallenda asks at her home in Sarasota. “Because nobody was coming to the circus down there. He said, ‘OK, I'll do this for free, and that will sell tickets.' ”
At 84, Jenny is Nik's grandmother, Karl's oldest daughter and a veteran performer/circus teacher. Jenny's 76-year-old sister, Carla, is on tour with her swaypole.
Imbued with mischievous humor and a tendency to dish — “You don't have to write that down!” she says in her German accent — Jenny Wallenda admits to famously calling her father a murderer after the Detroit disaster.
Jenny claimed her second husband, Faughnan, died needlessly because Karl knew Dieter Schepp was the weakest link in the pyramid and inserted him into the lineup anyway. She says she watched Schepp adjust his bar too abruptly during the walk, which triggered the fatal chain reaction.
Traversing a high wire, after all, isn't like other quests for perfection. A hole-in-one, a 10.0 in the uneven bars, or 27 consecutive batters mowed down at the plate are always big news. But high-wire acts make headlines only when they fall short.
“I attempted to walk the wire when I was there. I think we were 10 feet off the ground,” Froehle says. “I was tethered, I had a belt around me, and Alex \ was right behind me, so there was no way I was going to fall and get hurt.
“But I couldn't do it. It was nearly impossible for me. I felt incredibly unstable. I got maybe 5, 7 feet out, but I couldn't finish. My equilibrium, my center, everything was wrong.
“Then you realize they have to be perfect every time out. And they make it look easy.”
With the Wallendas, even when the flesh is weak, the spirit is willing.
Tino Wallenda, Jenny's son, tells a story about a 1959 gig in Mexico City. His cousin, Gunther Wallenda — who would maintain his balance and survive the collapse in Detroit three years later — watched his wife, Margarita, take a fall from a lyra hoop during a live show. Gunther rushed to her side and prepared to accompany her on the ambulance.
“Dad said, ‘What about the act?'” recalls Mario, noting that Karl's Seven-Person Pyramid had yet to perform. “He said, ‘If you leave now, we can't do the Seven.'”
Gunther brushed aside Karl's plea and left with Margarita, who would die from her injuries. Gunther quit the show and never came back.
Mario, Karl's paralyzed son, tells the tale with a sense of awe over his father's tunnel vision.
He avoided circus shows for years after Detroit, but not because he was bitter. He was envious of those who could accomplish what he could no longer do. “I thought, why should I go to the show when all it does is make me feel bad?” he wondered.
But his own limitations failed to suppress the impulse to test the wire again.
With the assistance of friends, family and a custom-built, battery-powered “skycycle,” Mario Wallenda skymotored between two cranes in Sarasota, in 2001 and 2004. Two years later, he crossed the Chicago River on his skycycle.
“It was a little strange,” he says. “My legs were kind of flopping around, without any foot rest or support down there, so they were pulling me down a little bit.”
At 72, Mario has no plans to try that again. Sometimes he wonders if his father got off easy. He remembers how Karl's business partner suffered a stroke and was incapacitated before dying.
“If there's any such thing as dying happy, my father died happy,” Mario says. “He went out in a blaze of glory.”
Karl, who broke his pelvis during the fall, rebounded to perform the next day. “The show must go on, that's what he always drilled in us,” Jenny says. After that, his widowed daughter vowed she would never do aerials again.
But less than a year later, Jenny, whom Karl introduced to the circus as a child atop bareback horses, would rejoin him on the high wire. The family bond was unbreakable.
She was at home in Sarasota when she learned of his death in Puerto Rico.
“I don't like the fact that he died because of mistakes,” says Jenny, referring to an uncharacteristic slack in the rigging. “But my daddy died the way he wanted, not getting sick in bed and dying that way. Me, I got no choice no more.”
Karl's greatest unfulfilled ambition was Niagara Falls.
What he lacked was Nik's patience for slicing through the red tape from two international governments in order to seal a deal.
“Daddy didn't want to have to get permission,” Jenny recalls. “He was the type who would say, ‘You want me to do it, here I am now or you can forget it.' ”
Jenny sounds an alarm over her grandson's unprecedented lack of stabilizing guy wires, which are impossible to secure in the falls' rugged environment. But she is equally concerned over the mandatory tether, which she fears may be an impediment.
One outsider who initially found the Wallendas' aversion to safety devices incomprehensible wound up turning it into a documentary. Chicago filmmaker Paula Froehle spent eight years behind the scenes with Jenny's son, Tino. Her film, “The Show Must Go On,” premiered at the Sarasota Film Festival in April.
During early production, she asked Tino where she should put the safety mats prior to filming a rehearsal. The suggestion immediately branded her as clueless.
“His response was coming from a place of such conviction and history that it now makes me realize just how offensive it is for Nik or anyone else in the family to be told to wear a tether,” Froehle says. “What you're rubbing up against is something that runs very, very deep, like a code of conduct.”