Balancing Act: The Wallendas

Circus families live and work together, the older generation teaching the younger ones. From earliest childhood, youngsters learn the skills and disciplines necessary to achieve perfection in the performance of their craft. For seven generations, the Wallenda family has carried on this tradition.

As far back as 1780, the Wallenda family was a traveling circus troupe that included acrobats, jugglers, clowns, aerialists and animal trainers. They traveled through the villages of Europe, performing in city squares and village cafes, trusting in their talent and skills to provoke thrills and joy, and relying on the generosity of the audience to reward them as they passed the hat around.

In the late 1800s, and for the next two generations, the family became known for their expertise in the art of the flying trapeze.

Karl Wallenda was born in Magdeburg, Germany in 1905. He was performing in the family show at age 6 and, by age 11, was doing stunts in beer halls. His specialty was stacking several chairs, and doing a handstand on the top chair. In the early 1920s, he answered an ad placed by wire walker Louis Weitzmann, who was looking for “an experienced hand balancer with courage.” The job? To follow Weitzmann out to the middle of the wire and do a handstand on Weitzmann’s feet as he lay down on the cable. Karl worked with Weitzmann until 1922, when began to develop his own act. He recruited his brother Herman, an aerialist named Josef Geiger, and Helen Kreis, who would become Karl’s wife in 1935.

Wallenda4AZ QU 2-1.jpgThe act toured Europe for several years, featuring an amazing 4-person, 3-level pyramid.

Herman and Josef, riding bicycles on a wire 50 feet in the air, held a pole on their shoulders. Karl sat on a chair, precariously balanced on the pole, with Helen standing on his shoulders.

John Ringling saw the Great Wallendas performing in Cuba, and immediately hired them to appear with the “Greatest Show On Earth.” When they debuted their act without a net – it had been misplaced in shipping – at Madison Square Garden in 1928, they received a 15-minute standing ovation.

The Great Wallendas were headliners with Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus during the 1930s and 1940s. During a performance in Akron, Ohio, the wire slipped slightly as they were performing. All four members fell to the wire, relatively unhurt. The next day, a reporter who witnessed the accident wrote, under the headline The Flying Wallendas, “The Wallendas fell so gracefully that it seemed as if they were flying.” That became their name, and is synonymous with the family to this day.

In 1947 Karl created his crowning achievement – The Seven, a seven-person chair pyramid. Thirty-five feet in the air, four men – two pairs yoked together with shoulder bars – stood on the wire. On their shoulders stood two more men, also yoked together. At the top of the pyramid a woman sat, then stood, on a chair. The Seven was successfully performed from 1948 through 1962 with an occasional change of family members.
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Wallenda 7, bottom front to back: Nik, Terry, Sacha, Tino. Second level – Alida and Tony. Delilah on chair. Detroit 1998

On Jan. 30, 1962, while performing at the State Fair Coliseum in Detroit, the front man on the wire faltered and the pyramid collapsed. Three men fell to the ground; two were killed – Richard Faughnan, Karl’s son-in-law, and his nephew Dieter Schepp. Karl’s adopted son, Mario, was paralyzed from the waist down. The rear anchorman alone remained standing on the wire. Karl and his brother Herman fell to the wire from the second level. The girl at the top level landed on Karl and in spite of a cracked pelvis and a double hernia, he miraculously held her, keeping her from falling, until a makeshift net could be held beneath her. She suffered only a concussion.

In spite of the great tragedy, the Wallendas exhibited “the show must go on” tradition in the highest possible manner by performing the very next evening. “I feel like a dead man on the ground,” Karl told his wife. “I can handle the grief better from up there. The wire is my life. We owe it to those who died to keep going.” The Seven was only done again on two subsequent occasions: In 1963, to prove that disaster does not have to end in defeat, and again in 1977, recreated primarily by Karl’s grandchildren for the movie The Great Wallendas.

Other tragedies touched the family. Wallenda’s sister-in-law, Rietta, fell to her death in 1963, and his son-in-law Richard (“Chico”) Guzman was killed in 1972 after touching a live wire in the rigging.

In the years following the catastrophic fall in Detroit, Karl continued performing as the feature performer with a smaller troupe. He performed “sky walks” between buildings and across stadiums, including Busch, Veterans, JFK, 3 Rivers Stadiums and the Astrodome, among others. His most famous walk was a 1,200-foot long trek across the Tallulah Falls Gorge in Georgia, where 30,000 people watched as the 65-year-old legend perform two separate headstands more than 700 feet in the air.

During a sky walk in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in March 1978, the patriarch of the Great Wallendas fell to his death at age 73, not because of his age or capabilities, not because of the wind, but because guy ropes had been misconnected along the wire. Today, the Wallenda legacy lives on through Karl’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The Flying Wallendas Today

There are several distinct branches of the Wallendas performing today. Karl’s grandchildren Tino and Delilah, brother and sister, perform with their families. Rick and Rietta, also grandchildren and brother and sister, have performed as a team. All have performed together in the past and were involved in the seven-person pyramid.

AureliaCloudswing QU 2-1.jpgIn 1998, the Wallendas reunited the performing family members from the three separate groups – the Flying Wallendas, the Fabulous Wallendas, and the Great Wallendas – to recreate their crowning achievement, the seven-person pyramid, reestablishing their legacy in circus history.

Aurelia Wallenda

The Wallendas premiered their intricate maneuver for the Hamid Circus Royale during the 1998 Moslem Temple Shrine Circus in Detroit, the sight of the Wallenda’s greatest tragedy 36 years before. Several attempts have been made by others to perform this pyramid, but none, as of yet, has succeeded in accomplishing the feat the way it was performed by the Wallendas, incorporating the chair and without the use of nets or safety devices of any kind. The members of the 1998 pyramid included Delilah Wallenda, Tino Wallenda, Alida Walenda, Nikolas Wallenda, Sacha Pavlata, Tony Hernandez, and Terry Troffer. The Wallendas have also recreated the three-level, four-person pyramid that originally brought the them to the United States in 1928. This feature trick has the same intricacy as The Seven and has not been performed in more than 50 years. Performed in the United States by the Wallenda family between 1928 and 1947, it was the standard for excellence in pyramids on the high wire. Both of these feats are performed currently, but only by special request at selected venues.

On February 20, 2001, the Wallendas accomplished a trick never even attempted until then. For the cameras of Fox TV’s Guinness Records Primetime, the Wallendas assembled an eight-person, three-level pyramid. To secure their record, they added two more family members to form the first and only ten-person pyramid.

What does the future hold?

Tino says, “Three of my four children, representing the seventh generation, are active in the family tradition. My 6-year-old granddaughter is already performing; she’s the eighth generation. I have two nieces and a nephew who are also active in the circus. We continue to have offers coming in not just from the U.S., but from around the world. Our recent travels include Germany, South Africa, New Zealand, Taiwan and Monte Carlo, where we won the Silver Clown at the Monte Carlo Circus Festival – comparable to an Oscar or Emmy. In December of this year we will be performing in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

“I believe that I can safely say that the legacy will continue.”

Some Family Members

• Karl Wallenda (Jan., 21, 1905-March 22, 1978) was the founder and leader of the group until his death in San Juan in 1978.

• Helen (Kreis) Wallenda (Dec. 11, 1910-May 9, 1996), Karl’s wife, was the last surviving member of the original troupe. She joined the Wallendas when she was 16. Helen and Karl Wallenda were married in 1935. Until she retired in 1956, she was balanced at the peak of the seven-man pyramid.

• Richard Faughnan, was the husband of Karl’s daughter Jenny Wallenda. Faughnan fell 70 feet to his death on January 30, 1962 in Detroit, when the seven-man pyramid collapsed.

• Dieter Schepp, Karl’s nephew, fell 70 feet to his death on Jan. 30, 1962 in Detroit, when the seven-man pyramid collapsed. Dieter was making his first appearance in The Seven.

• Jana Schepp, Karl’s niece and Dieter’s sister, was one of the survivors of the 1962 disaster in Detroit.

• Rietta Wallenda, Karl’s sister-in-law, fell to her death in 1963.

• Richard “Chico” Guzman, Karl’s son-in-law, was killed in 1972 when he touched a live wire in the rigging.

• Herman Wallenda (June 11, 1901-Jan. 1985), Karl’s brother, was one of the survivors of the 1962 disaster in Detroit.

• Angel Wallenda (March 20, 1968-May 3, 1996), born Elizabeth Pintye, married Steven Wallenda (Karl’s grandnephew) in 1985, when she was 17, and began training on the wire. However, she became ill with cancer; in 1987 her right leg had to be amputated, and in 1988 parts of both lungs were removed. Nonetheless, later that year she returned to the act, becoming the only person with an artificial leg ever to walk a high wire.

• Edith Wallenda (March 18, 1913-Oct. 21, 1990), Herman’s second wife, performed with the Great Wallendas for a quarter century before her retirement.

• Gunther Herman Wallenda (June 25, 1927-March 16, 1996), Herman’s son by his first wife, Elizabeth, began training on the wire at age 5, though he was already part of the act. In the Hartford Circus Fire, he helped rescue a number of the spectators. When the pyramid fell in 1962, Gunther was the only one left standing and was able to help rescue three who were clinging to the wire. In the summer of 1963, Gunther married Sheila Monahan, a teacher. They settled in Sarasota, Fla., where Gunther got a university degree, and became a history and geography teacher. While teaching in Sarasota, Gunther continued to train high-wire performers.

• Mario Wallenda, Karl’s adopted son, was paralyzed from the waist down when the seven-man pyramid collapsed. In the 1990s, Mario developed an act in which he would ride a two-wheeled electric “sky cycle” on the high wire.

• Tino Wallenda, Karl’s grandson, was 2 years old when he started performing in the circus. He started training on the high wire at age 7. Today the patriarch of the Flying Wallendas, Tino is still performing the seven-man pyramid with his daughters and son, his brother-in-law Sascha Pavlata, son-in-law Robinson Cortes and family friend Jade Kindar-Martin. At age 17 he became a full-fledged member of the Wallenda Troupe. When asked how he prepares mentally for a performance, he said, “There really is no mental preparation necessary because of the combination of countless hours of training and years of practical experience and performance. Going out on the wire is the natural expression of our lives. It is our job; one that we enjoy doing.”

• Olinka Wallenda, Tino’s wife, is descended from the Valla Bertini circus family, and has been performing on the high wire with Tino since 1974. She and Tino have four children, all wirewalkers – Alida, Andrea, Aurelia and Alessandro (Alex).

• Mario B. Wallenda (Nov. 6, 1956-March 5, 1993), Karl’s grandson, learned to walk the tightrope at the age of 2 or 3, but his specialty was riding his motorcycle inside the “Globe of Death.” He tested positive for HIV in 1990 after collapsing after a performance in Canada. After his death from AIDS, his mother, Carla, said he wanted his cause of death made public.

• Rietta Wallenda, Karl’s granddaughter, has been performing since the age of 13. The only member of Karl’s family who was performing with him at the time of his death, she performed in San Juan to a standing ovation five hours after her grandfather died.

Scheduled appearances for 2008
June 6-22 St. Louis, MO Circus Flora
July 18-20 Rhode Island Balloon Fest
July 25-27 Nantucket Circus Flora
Aug. 28-Sept. 1 Spencer, MA Spencer Fair
Sept. 19-21 Guilford, CT Guilford Fair
Sept. 26-28 Deerfield, NH Deerfield Fair

In 1944, the Wallendas were performing when the greatest tragedy in circus history took place – the Hartford Fire. It was during the afternoon performance, attended by 7,500-8,700 spectators. The fire began about 20 minutes into the show as a small flame in the sidewall of the tent. The family heard the first screams and saw the flames ripping through the bleachers. One by one, they slid down the ropes to safety.

Circus Bandleader Merle Evans spotted the flames, and immediately directed the band to play Stars and Stripes Forever, the tune that traditionally signals distress to all circus personnel. Ringmaster Fred Bradna urged the audience not to panic and to leave in an orderly fashion, but the power failed and he could not be heard above the panic. Bradna and the ushers tried unsuccessfully to maintain order as crowd tried to flee the big top.

Because the big top tent had been coated with 1,800 pounds of paraffin and 6,000 gallons of gasoline (some sources say kerosene), a common waterproofing method of the time, the flames spread rapidly. Many people were badly burned by the melting paraffin, which rained down from the roof. The fiery tent collapsed in about eight minutes, trapping hundreds of spectators beneath it, according to eyewitness survivors. More than 168 people lost their lives in the fire.

While many people were burned to death by the fire, many others died as a result of the ensuing chaos. Though most spectators were able to escape the fire, many people were caught up in the hysteria. Witnesses said some people simply ran around in circles trying to find their loved ones, rather than trying to escape the burning tent. Some escaped but ran back inside to find family members. Others stayed in their seats until it was too late, assuming that the fire would be put out promptly, and the show would continue.

The most well known victim of the circus fire was a young blonde girl wearing a brown dress. She is known only as Little Miss 1565, named after the number assigned to her body at the city’s makeshift morgue. Oddly well preserved even after her death in the fire, her face has become a well known image of the fire. Her true identity has been a topic of debate and frustration in the Hartford area since the fire occurred. Despite massive amounts of publicity and repeated displays of the famous photograph in nationwide magazines, she was never claimed and eventually was buried without a name in Hartford’s Northwood cemetery, where a victims’ memorial also stands.

The cause of the fire remains unproven. Investigators at the time believed that it was caused by a carelessly-flicked cigarette but others suspected an arsonist.