The Wallenda Troupe
Inducted into the Ring of Fame: 1988
Circus Profession: High Wire Daredevil Artistry
The Flying Wallendas
The Flying Wallendas is the name of a circus act and daredevil stunt performers, most known for performing highwire acts without a safety net. They were first known as The Great Wallendas, but the current name was coined by the press in the 1940s and has stayed since.
Karl Wallenda was born in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1905 to an old circus family, and began performing at the age of six. While still in his teens he answered an ad for a "hand balancer with courage". His employer, Louis Weitzman, taught him the trade. In 1922, Karl put together his own act with his brother Herman, Joseph Geiger, and a teenage girl, Helen Kreis, who eventually became his wife.
The act toured Europe for several years, performing some amazing stunts. When John Ringling saw them perform in Cuba, he quickly hired them to perform at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. In 1928, they debuted at the Madison Square Garden. The act performed without a net (it had been lost in transit) and the crowd gave them a standing ovation.
In the following years, Karl developed some of their most impressive acts, such as the seven-person chair pyramid. They continued performing those acts until January 30, 1962 when, while performing at the Shrine Circus at Detroit's State Fair Coliseum, the front man on the wire (Dieter Schepp) faltered and the pyramid collapsed. Three men fell to the ground, killing Richard Faughnan, Wallenda's son-in-law; and nephew Dieter Schepp. Karl injured his pelvis, and his adopted son, Mario, was paralyzed from the waist down. Dieter's sister Jana Schepp let go of the wire to fall into the quickly-raised safety net, but bounced off and suffered a head injury.
Other tragedies include when 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 electric wire while holding part of the metal rigging. Nonetheless, Karl decided to go on. He repeated the pyramid act in 1963 and 1977. Karl continued performing with a smaller group, and doing solo acts.
Karl Wallenda crossed the Tallulah Gorge in Georgia on a high wire on July 18, 1970.
On March 22, 1978, during a promotional walk in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Karl Wallenda fell from the wire and died. It was between the towers of Condado Plaza Hotel, one hundred feet high. He was 73. Nik Wallenda completed the walk on June 4, 2011, with his mother, Delilah.
Nik Wallenda became the first aerialist to walk directly over Niagara Falls on June 15, 2012, from the United States into Canada. Wearing a safety harness as required by ABC television, he crossed at the river's widest point.
Nik Wallenda is the first aerialist to walk over the Little Colorado River Gorge at the Grand Canyon. The event was broadcast live on the Discovery Channel. He used a 2-inch wire and made the journey without a harness or safety net. The canyon is 1,400 feet (430 m) wide and 1,500 feet (460 m) deep.
There are several branches of the Wallendas performing today, comprising mostly grandchildren of Karl Wallenda. They still perform regularly and have achieved recognition in the Guinness Book of Records. On November 2, 2014, Nik successfully crossed between two Chicago skyscrapers, the west tower of Marina City and the Leo Burnett Building. After accomplishing this feat, he successfully crossed the two towers of Marina City while wearing a blindfold in cold conditions with strong winds. He set two world records, one for the highest incline, 19 degrees, between the west tower and the Leo Burnett building and one for the highest blindfolded wire walk between the two towers of Marina City. Both crossings were broadcast live on Discovery Channel.
In February 2017, a rehearsal of the troupe's eight-person pyramid highwire act for Circus Sarasota (an attempt at a new Guinness World Record for height) turned awry when the pyramid collapsed, plummeting five of the performers to the ground while three others, including Nik Wallenda, managed to cling to the wire. Miraculously no one was killed, but all five performers were severely injured: Nik's sister Lijana Wallenda suffered the worst injuries, breaking nearly every bone in her face.
Nik and Lijana became the first individuals to successfully cross New York's Time Square on a tightrope 25 stories above street level on June 23, 2019. The duo crossed from opposite ends of the wire, which measured 1300 feet (396 meters) long and was suspended between 1 Times Square and 2 Times Square. The stunt was broadcast live on ABC and marked Lijana's return to live performance since her accident. For the stunt, both Wallendas used safety harnesses, despite the family's long-standing objection to the use of safety devices. In contrast to his statements during his Niagara Falls walk, Nik Wallenda admitted he felt the use of a harness was important for Lijana's first highwire walk since her fall.
Notable family members
- Karl Wallenda (21 January 1905 – 22 March 1978) was the founder and leader of the group until he fell to his death in 1978. He was 73.
In popular culture
- In 1978, The Great Wallendas, a made-for-TV movie about the family, aired.
- In 1983, on the Family Ties episode titled "Margin of Error" when Steve confronts Alex about spending his father's money on stocks, he tells him he's a high school student, not a "Flying Wallenda".
- On the November 17, 1997, episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, Frank says that he doesn't give a "Flying Wallenda", about a fish that Ray bought for him.
- In August 2003, on the 8th episode of Sex and the City's 6th season, Stanford teases Carrie by comparing a piece she's writing about the flying trapeze to "her days as a Flying Wallenda."
- In 2004, the Flatlanders album Wheels of Fortune included the Joe Ely song "Indian Cowboy", previously recorded by Guy Clark, Tom Russell, Townes van Zandt, and Kathy Moffett; the song opens with the line "If you ever out to the circus, where the Wallendas walk on the wire".
- In December 2008, TLC aired a one-hour documentary about Tino and the Wallenda family produced by Jen Stocks for Figure 8 Films.
- In 2010, alternative country band Drive-By Truckers recorded a song, "The Flying Wallendas", about the high-wire circus act. It appears on their album The Big To-Do.
- The Flying Wallendas mentioned in Dead Like Me – "Send in the Clown" (25 July 2004)
- Rietta Wallenda's death is referenced in Mad Men Season 3, Episode 2.
- In a Days of Our Lives episode that aired on July 26, 2012, Nicole Walker quips that she doesn't give a "Flying Wallenda" what Victor Kiriakis thinks, a reference to the circus act.
- Electronic producer Andrew Weatherall wrote the song "Let's Do The 7 Again" from his album A Pox on the Pioneers about the Wallendas' tragic attempt at the seven-person high-wire pyramid in 1962, and their triumph at succeeding when trying again in 2008.
- The Legendary Buck 65 details the family's story in a track about The Flying Wallendas on his free, 3-album Dirtbike project.
- The Wallendas were mentioned in the 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street.
- In 2014, The Wallendas were referenced in "Tibetan Peach Pie", a collection of autobiographical accounts by Tom Robhins.
- The Wallendas are mentioned a few times in "The Book of Speculation" by Erika Swyler published in 2015.
- On June 21, 2017, Steve Harvey's show Little Big Shots: Forever Young featuring former wunderkinds (a spinoff of his show Little Big Shots) aired its first episode. One person featured was Carla Wallenda (at the age of 81), who climbed a wobbly pole and did stunts while suspended far above the ground.
- Major League Baseball catchers Bengie, Jose, and Yadier Molina, who are all brothers, are known collectively as "The Catching Molinas" - a play on the Flying Wallendas' name.
- In 1979, fantasy author Marion Zimmer Bradley released the novel "The Catch Trap", which many believed was loosely based upon the history of the Wallenda family.