Karl Wallenda was born in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1905 as a part of a circus family that had performed high-wire acts. Karl had performed at six years old in his family’s performances. He was taught the trade of hand balancer with courage by an employer, Louis Weitzman, while still in his teens. In 1922, Karl built a high-wire act with his brother Herman, Joseph Geiger and a teenaged girl, Helen Kreis, who later became his wife.
The group became The Great Wallendas and toured throughout Europe as a four-person pyramid and cycling on high-wire positions. The Great Wallendas performed in Cuba in 1927, and among the audience was John Ringling of the Ringling Brothers Circus. They performed in Madison Square Garden in 1928, performing without a net that was lost in transit from Europe. They received a standing ovation from the appreciative crowd.
The Great Wallendas became their own group and when performing in Hartford, Connecticut, a circus fire broke out in the tent that killed over 168 people, but none of the Wallendas group were hurt.
In 1947 the group performed a seven-person chair pyramid that Karl had been working on since 1938. They performed their high-wire acts without serious injuries until January 30,1962, when performing at the Shrine Circus at Detroit’s State Fair Coliseum. The front man, Dieter Shepp, faltered and the pyramid collapsed, and three men fell, killing Richard Faughnan, the son-in-law of Karl, and Karl’s nephew, Dieter Schepp. Karl injured his pelvis, and Mario, his adopted son, was paralyzed from the waist down. Dieter’s sister, Jana, let go of the wire and fell into a quickly raised safety net, bounced off and suffered a head injury. In 1963, Wallenda’s sister-in-law fell to her death and his son-in-law, Richard Guzman, died in 1963 after touching a live electric wire while holding part of the metal rigging.
The group continued performing and repeated the pyramid act in 1963 and 1977. The Great Wallendas continued doing smaller solo acts. On July 18, 1970, Karl performed crossing Tallulah Gorge in Georgia on a high wire. Karl was 65 years old at this time. The crowd estimate was 30,00 people watching Karl perform, and Wallenda did two handstands while crossing the quarter-mile gap. At 69 years old, Karl broke the skywalk distance record when he traveled 1,800 feet at Kings Island in Cincinnati, Ohio. Karl performed a promotional skywalk in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and fell from the wire, which stretched from the towers of Condado Plaza Hotel, 100 feet high, which caused his death at 73 years old. His son, Nik Wallenda, completed the walk on June 4, 2011, with his mother, Delilah, in memory of his father.
Nik broke the world record for the highest and longest bike ride on a high wire on October 15, 2008, on an NBC TODAY program. Nik became the first aerialist to directly walk over Niagara Falls on June 15, 2012 – from the United States into Canada – wearing a safety harness, which was required by the promoter, ABC Television, at the widest part of the river.
Today the Wallendas group, who are most of Karl’s grandchildren, do regular performances and are recognized by Guinness World Records. Nik performed the feat of successfully crossing between two Chicago skyscrapers – at the west tower of Marina City and the Leo Burnett Building, wearing a blindfold – setting two world records in November 2014. Nik and his sister, Lijana, became the first to cross New York’s Times Square on a tightrope 25 stories above the ground.
The troupe goes on enthralling audiences all over the world, wherever they perform on the high wire.
(Editor’s Note: Bill Stewart, better known to Saugus Advocate readers as “The Old Sachem,” writes a weekly column about sports – and sometimes he opines on current or historical events or famous people.)