Oddity of the Week: 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.
Karl Wallenda was born in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1905 to an old circus family, and began performing at the age of 6. 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 and 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.
Tragedy has struck several times.
In 1962, while performing at the Shrine Circus at Detroit’s State Fair Coliseum, the front man on the wire faltered and a pyramid of wire walkers 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.
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.
Then, on March 22, 1978, during a promotional walk in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Karl Wallenda fell from the wire and died.
Karl’s great grandson Nik Wallenda became the first aerialist to walk directly over Niagara Falls on June 15, 2012, from the United States into Canada.
On June 23, 2013 he then became the first person to walk across the Grand Canyon, walking 1400 feet across without a harness.