As far back as 1780, in the cafes of Old Bohemia in the Austro-Hungarian
Karl Wallenda was born in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1905. He was performing in the family show at age six and doing stunts in beer halls at age eleven. His feature was stacking several chairs and doing a handstand on the top chair. In the early 1920s, he answered an ad in a trade paper for "an experienced hand balancer with courage." The job consisted of following behind a wire-walker, Louis Weitzmann, out to the middle of the wire and doing a handstand on Weitzmann's feet as he lay down on the cable. Karl learned the art from him and in 1922, began to develop his own act, recruiting his brother Herman, an aerialist named Josef Geiger, and a teenage girl, Helen Kreis, who would eventually become Karl's wife.
The act toured Europe for several years and featured an amazing 4-person, 3-level pyramid. Karl precariously balanced on a chair on top of a bar between the shoulders of the two men who were on bicycles on a wire 50 feet in the air while Helen would stand on Karl's shoulders! This act was such a sensation that when John Ringling saw them performing in Cuba, he immediately contracted them to appear with the "Greatest Show On Earth." When the Great Wallendas debuted their act (without a net - it had been misplaced in shipping) at Madison Square Garden in 1928, they received a standing ovation that lasted 15 minutes! Never before or to date has applause stopped a performance for that length of time.
The Great Wallendas were headliners with Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus during much of the 1930s and 1940s. Once in Akron, Ohio, the wire slipped slightly as they were performing. All four members fell to the wire, yet they were relatively unhurt. The next day, a reporter who witnessed the accident stated in the newspaper, "The Wallendas fell so gracefully that it seemed as if they were flying,", and the headline read "THE FLYING WALLENDAS." That name is still synonymous with the family to this day.
In 1944, the Wallendas were performing when the greatest tragedy in circus history took place, the Hartford Fire. As the blaze started, they heard the first screams and saw the flames ripping through the bleachers. One by one, they slid down the ropes and out to safety. Over 168 people lost their lives in the fire, not to mention the many animals that were lost.
The year 1947 was the one in which Karl began to build a circus of his own. At the Wallenda's Sarasota, Florida, home that winter, he also created his crowning achievement -- the seven-person chair pyramid. Four men stood on a wire 35 feet in the air, two pairs yoked together by shoulder bars. On top of them on the second level stood two more men, again yoked together with a shoulder bar. At the pinnacle of this pyramid was a woman sitting and then standing on a chair! This trick was successfully performed from 1948 through 1962 by the Wallendas with an occasional change of family members and varying conditions, including surviving an earthquake in South America.
On January 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, 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 as he miraculously held her until a makeshift net could be held beneath her. Two of the three men who fell to the earth died that night The third, Karl's son Mario, survived, though he is paralyzed from the waist down. The girl suffered a concussion. Karl's injuries included a cracked pelvis and a double hernia. In the midst of such a 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 life does continue and 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.
In the years following the catastrophic fall in Detroit, Karl continued performing as the feature performer with a smaller troupe and became increasingly popular doing "Sky Walks," walking between buildings and across stadiums, including Busch, Veterans, JFK, 3 Rivers Stadiums and the Astrodome, among others. His most famous walk was a 1200-foot long trek across the Tallulah Falls Gorge in Georgia, where 30,000 people watched as this 65 year old legend performed two separate headstands at a height of over 700 feet in the air.
It was during a promotional walk in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in March, 1978, that 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 of several misconnected guy ropes along the wire. Karl once said, "Life is being on the wire, everything else is just waiting." The Wallenda legacy lives on to the sixth and seventh generations through Karl's grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The Flying Wallendas Today
There are several distinct branches of the Wallends performing today. Of the grandchildren, Tino and Delilah, brother and sister, perform with their respective families. Rick and Rietta, also brother and sister, have performed as a team. All have performed together in the past and were involved in the 7-Person Pyramid at various stages in recent years.In 1998, the current era of the Wallendas reunited the performing family members to recreate their crowning achievement, the 7-person pyramid, reestablishing their legacy in circus history. To debut the intricate maneuver the Wallendas premiered their feat for the Hamid Circus Royale during the 1998 Moslem Temple Shrine Circus in Detroit, the sight of the Wallendas greatest tragedy 36 years before. Several attempts have been made by others to perform this intricate 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. And now the Wallendas fring the 7-Person Pyramid to Circus Flora audiences.
The original members of the 1998 pyramid included Delilah Wallenda, Tino Wallenda, Alida Walenda, Nikolas Wallenda, Sacha Paviata, Tony Hernandez, and Terry Troffer. Going a step further, the Wallendas have also recreated the 3-level, 4-person pyramid that originally brought the Wallendas to the United States in 1928. It was put on the shelf when they began performing The Seven. This feature trick has the same intricacy as The Seven and has not been performed in over 50 years. It was the standard for excellence in pyramids on the high wire and was performed in the United States by the Wallenda family between 1928 and 1947. Both of these feats are performed currently, but only by special request at selected venues. On Februare 20, 2001, the Wallendas once again accomplished a trick never even attempted. For the cameras of Fox TV's Guinness Records Primetime, the Wallendas assembled an 8-Person, 3-Level Pyramid. To secure their record,they added 2 more family members to form the first and only 10-Person Pyramid.