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Karl Wallenda - legacy - his family & great grandson Nik

Updated on October 21, 2015
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High wire performer Karl Wallenda - great-grandfather of the famous Nik

Karl Wallenda performed on the high wire - or tightrope - in circuses throughout the world for an amazing sixty seven years.

He was the patriarch of a large circus-performer family, members of which continue to perform high wire stunts to present day.

His family followed him in his profession and at the height of their family's fame, they were known as The Flying Wallendas.

He is shown in the photograph - he is the second from the left.His career wasn't without family tragedy however, but this didn't stop him from continuing to perform. If you've never heard of him before, or are unsure of the story of his life, you might realize from the above words that he was devoted to his trade and his act.

Therefore it might not surprise you to learn that he lost his life - at the age of seventy three - by falling from a high wire during a stunt in Puerto Rico.I first read about the Wallenda family when I was just a child - I don't remember the pyramid tragedy when it happened but I read about it a few years later in my precious Readers Digest Junior Treasury. All these years later I am still fascinated by the family and the whole circus culture.


Wallenda history

Karl was born in 1906 into an established circus family. Within that business, it's common for children to be taught to perform at an early age and Karl faced his first circus audience when he was just six years old. As he came to manhood, he formed a troupe which included his wife-to-be Helen who, in the future would bear his children.

The troupe toured widely in Europe and eventually, in America; their first US appearance being at Madison Square Garden in 1928. The Walendas were known for performing without safety nets. This would not be allowed by law today, but in the first half of the twentieth century, it added to the thrill of their performances - they were truly death-defying.

WILLI

Willi was Karl's brother. In the 1930s he was killed whilst performing on a high wire - with a safety net. This make Karl determined that he and his family would perform without safety nets. Safety nets, he reasoned, lulled performers into a false sense of security.

CIRCUS FIRE

In 1944 the troupe were performing in the big top at Hartford, Connecticut. There is a musical code in the circus - if the band plays Stars and Stripes Forever this is a distress call to all circus staff and performers. The bandleader noticed that a small fire had broken out in the tent and instructed the band to play the tune. The Wallendas quickly slid down the ropes and helped people escape from the rapidly growing fire. At least 168 people died and many more were severely injured. The family was unhurt.

RIETTA

Rietta was Karl's sister-in-law and died when she fell from a high wire.

THE SEVEN PERSON PYRAMID

Karl had the idea of a high wire pyramid act and this took several years to develop. No-one before had ever attempted such a feat.

CHICO GUZMAN

Chico was Karl's son-in-law and was killed in 1972. The balance bar he was holding when he was on the high wire glanced a live electrical cable.

Source

TRAGEDY

In January 1962, the seven man pyramid fell. The only person remaining standing was Karl's nephew, Gunther. Three other members of the troupe were hanging on to the wire and Gunther was able to rescue them. Karl saved the woman who was on the top of the pyramid thanks to catching her and holding her until a safety net could be hurried into the area below.

His adopted son, Mario, was crippled and confined to a wheelchair. Afterwards he had no recollection of the accident. Mario was just twenty one at the time. His cousin, Dieter Schepp aged twenty three, and his twenty nine year old brother in law Dick, were dead.

Dick was married to Karl's daughter, Jenny. She controversially said that Karl had known that Deiter was the weakest member of the troupe and should not have been included in the performance.Karl sustained a broken pelvis when he fell from the wire.

The circus - further reading

I've always been fascinated by circus life. It's a curious but compelling mix of entertainment, drama and occasionally, tragedy. I can't read enough about this form of entertainment.

Click thumbnail to view full-size

The pyramid performers

At the time of the accident, the performers were:Bottom row: Dieter Schepp who was 23, Dick Faughnan aged 29, Mario Wallenda just 21 and Gunther Wallenda aged 42.Second row: Karl and Herman Wallenda who were 57 and 60 respectively.Top: Jana Schepp just 17.

Karl crosses Tallulah Falls

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Karl walked a high wire across the Tallulah Falls in Georgia. This was in 1970 when he was aged 64. During the crossing, he twice performed headstands on the wire, saying that they were in honor of 'our boys in Vietnam'.

Not for the faint-hearted

You may wish to skip over this video - I know that I can't watch it. But an article about this astonishing man would not be complete without its inclusion. He was seventy three at the time.Nevertheless, be assured that the family have always maintained that he died in exactly the way he would have wanted. I know, that gives me goosebumps too ...

The family said that it was high winds that caused Karl to fall. Notice how the wind is blowing his shirt - I'm inclined to agree.

But this... IS one to watch

This is Nik Wallenda and his mother Delilah. They walked a wire between the buildings where Karl lost his life. I think he would have approved.At the approximate place that he fell, Delilah sat on the wire and Nik stepped over her. If you haven't watched the video yet, please do and notice how incredible this act was. Probably the most heart-stopping part of the video is the thirty seconds just after Nik stepped over his mother.Also, during the walk Nik knelt on the wire and blew a kiss to his late great-grandfather. Goosebumps...

Helen

Karl's wife, Helen, was originally the girl on the top of the seven-man pyramid. She had retired from performing when the tragedy occurred. She was present when Karl died in San Juan. Helen herself died in 1996 in Sarasota. The family generally wintered in the Florida city when they were performing and Karl and Helen eventually purchased a home there.

THE FIRST WALLENDA FALL

What was it like being married into this amazing family? Helen was part of the troupe when they had their first fall in 1934. They were performing in a big top and severe rain meant that the ground beneath was muddy and unstable. Helen - the couple hadn't been married for long -climbed onto her husband's shoulders high on the wire.

This unbalanced the wire and, due to the poor condition of the ground below, this caused the wire to tremble violently. Wallenda brothers Joseph and Herman were also on the wire. Herman fell but grabbed the wire with Joseph hanging onto his legs. Karl grabbed it too and, as his wife fell past him, he grabbed her with his legs. Such was the force of his hold, that she lost consciousness. On the ground, staff provided a net and he dropped Helen and then he himself fell into the net.

Neither were injured.

The family today

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Today, the Wallenda family still perform. Probably the most well know is Nik who walked a tightrope on live TV in 2012 - over the Niagara Falls. Nik is Karl's great-grandson.The photograph above shows Carla, Karl's daughter, as a little girl. She was born in 1936 and at time of writing (January 2013) is still performing.

Nik Wallenda June 2013

In June 2013, Nik became the first person to walk a high wire over the Grand Canyon. True to the family legacy he used no net, no harness and no safety equipment whatsoever.The area is notorious for its high, unpredictable winds. Nik practiced in his home town in Florida earlier in the year when a tropical storm hit our state. In addition, he used airboats - commonplace in Florida - to blast winds at him as he practiced for the Grand Canyon walk.After the walk, he paid tribute to his great-grandfather.

Photograph © Dave Pape via Wikipedia Commons.

October 2013

Nik and his sister walked across a wire over Charlotte Speedway. Similar to the stunt he performed with his mother in Puerto Rico, Nik stepped over his sister when she sat on the wire halfway across.As always, they had no safety net. See the video.

Carla

Wallenda memorabilia on eBay

Today, Wallenda memorabilia is likely to be signed photographs of Nik who so famously walked the Niagara Falls. However, older items do crop up and if this interests you, it's a good idea to keep an eye on this page. Wallenda memorabilia will almost certainly increase in value with time.

Karl Wallenda in London in 1974

This is amazing and was done for charity. He was 69 years old at the time.

Thoughts?

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    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 3 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @David Stone1: I'm the same.I was about eight when I first became aware of them. But I've been fascinated ever since. Yes, I think they were crazy :)

    • David Stone1 profile image

      David Stone 3 years ago from New York City

      I remember the daredevil Wallendas very from my childhood. Just reading the stories was nerve-wracking then. Times have changed now, and in a tamer world, people would just think they were crazy to take the risks they did. And maybe they were. Hard to see how any of it justifies the deaths and injuries.

    • KathyZ1 profile image

      KathyZ1 4 years ago

      Great lens.

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @SteveKaye: Thank you Steve, for dropping by. I find the story of the family totally fascinating.

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      SteveKaye 4 years ago

      Fascinating story. Thank you for publishing this lens.

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @rking96: It's so wonderful that the family continues. I love the way that Nik is so respectful of his great-grandfather's memory.

    • rking96 profile image

      Rick King 4 years ago from Charleston, SC

      Great lens. Nik's performance at the Grand Canyon was incredible and adds to the Wallenda legacy.

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @WinWriter: It's a strange thing isn't it? It's so scary to watch that sort of thing but yet it's irresistible too. I have been fascinated by the family ever since I first read about them and I do think it's lovey - but nevertheless frightening - that they keep the tradition going.

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      WinWriter 4 years ago

      I watched the Grand Canyon walk last night and, with chills, just read your lens. Amazing family and they keep going doing what they love - and turning tragedies into loving tributes to those who have passed. I was amazed and impressed last night although really scared for Nik as he got midway over the Canyon.

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @wildbluefrontier: It's one of those things that is a sort of morbid fascination... the fall video is awful and in a way, I find it sad that it exists. He deserves better fame than that. Such a fascinating family though - for the reasons that you suggest - the whole 'show must go on' philosophy is completely off my radar but curiously understandable in a strange way.

    • wildbluefrontier profile image

      Nathan M 4 years ago from Tucson

      I remember seeing the Karl Wallenda video years ago and I'm with you, i never need to see it again. After all the tragedies in the family, especially after the seven man pyramid fall, you would have thought they would have found other kinds of work. Interesting read.

    • BritFlorida profile image
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      Jackie Jackson 4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      @delia-delia: How fascinating! I love the whole circus culture. It's very special.

    • delia-delia profile image

      Delia 4 years ago

      Interesting lens! my mom knew the Wallenda's when she was with Ringling Circus, she was the godmother to one of the kids during that time in the mid 1930s