The Flying Wallendas

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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 40s and has stayed since. The name in their native German, "Die fliegenden Wallenda", is an obvious rhyme on the title of the Wagner opera, "Der fliegende Holländer" ("The Flying Dutchman").

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.

It was at a performance in Akron, Ohio that the group all fell off the wire, but were unhurt. The next day, a reporter who witnessed the accident was quoted in the newspaper: "The Wallendas fell so gracefully that it seemed as if they were flying" -- thus coining the name "The Flying Wallendas".

In 1944, while the Wallendas were performing in Hartford, Connecticut, a fire broke out, killing over 168 people. None of the Wallendas were hurt.

In the following years, Karl developed some of the most amazing acts like the seven-person chair pyramid. They continued performing those acts until 1962. That year, while performing at the Shrine Circus at Detroit's State Fair Coliseum, the front man on the wire 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.

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. He was 73. Nik Wallenda completed the walk a year later.[citation needed]

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.

Some family members[edit]

  • Jenny Wallenda, Karl's oldest daughter, performed around the world. After her retirement, she remains active in the circus community, organizing parades, shows and other events to promote and preserve the art of circus. She has been honored with a place in Sarasota's Circus Ring of Fame.
  • Carla Wallenda, Karl's younger daughter, now a grandmother, still performing on the highwire and swaypole with her husband Mike Morgan.
  • Richard Faughnan, Karl's son-in-law, was the husband of Jenny Wallenda. Faughnan fell 70 feet (21 m) to his death on 30 January 1962 in Detroit, when the Seven-Man Pyramid collapsed.
  • Richard "Chico" Guzman, Karl's son-in-law, and Carla's husband, was killed in 1972 when he touched a live wire while on the metal rigging.
  • Dieter Schepp, Karl's nephew, fell 70 feet to his death on 30 January 1962 in Detroit. Dieter, who was making his first appearance in the pyramid, apparently lost his grip on the balance pole.
  • Jana Schepp, Karl's niece and Dieter's sister, was one of the survivors of the 1962 disaster.
  • Angel Wallenda (20 March 1968 – 3 May 1996), born Elizabeth Pintye, married Steven Wallenda (Karl's grandnephew) in 1985, when she was 17, and began training on the wire. Soon, however, she became ill with cancer. In 1987, her right leg had to be amputated, and in 1988 parts of both lungs were removed. Nonetheless, later that year, she returned to the act, becoming the only person with an artificial leg ever to walk a high wire. She gave her final performance in 1990. She and Steven divorced.[1]
  • Edith Wallenda (18 March 1913 – 21 October 1999), Herman's second wife, performed with the Great Wallendas for a quarter century before her retirement.
  • Gunther Herman Wallenda (25 June 1927 – 16 March 1996), Herman's son by his first wife, Lucy, began training on the wire at age five, though he was already part of the act. In the Hartford Circus Fire, he helped rescue a number of the spectators. When in 1962 the pyramid fell, Gunther was the only one left standing and was able to help rescue three who were clinging to the wire. Gunther married and became a history and geography teacher. While teaching in Sarasota, he continued to train high-wire performers, most notably as part of the Sailor Circus, a Sarasota county sponsored circus school. His daughter, Lisa Ellen Wallenda (now Wallenda-Picard) performed with her father, as well as Carla Wallenda, and was part of Ringling Brothers headquarters management for many years.
  • Helen (Kreis) Wallenda (11 December 1910 – 9 May 1996), Karl's second wife, was the last surviving member of the original troupe. She joined the Wallendas when she was 16. Helen and Karl Wallenda were married in 1935. Until she retired in 1956, she was balanced at the peak of the seven-man pyramid.
  • Herman Wallenda (11 June 1901 – January 1985), Karl's brother, was one of the original members of the Great Wallendas troop, along with Karl Wallenda, Herman Wallenda, Helen Wallenda, and Joe Geiger. Born in Magdeburg, Germany, he began performing at age two as an acrobat and clown. Together with the other members of the troop, he was discovered by John Ringling in Cuba in the late 1920s and joined the Ringling Brothers circus in the United States, where he resided the rest of his life. He was one of the survivors of the 1962 disaster in Detroit. He was the father of Gunther Wallenda.
  • Karl Wallenda (21 January 1905 – 22 March 1978) was the founder and leader of the group until his death in 1978.
  • Mario Wallenda, Karl's adopted son, was paralyzed from the waist down on 30 January 1962. In the 1990s, Mario developed an act in which he would ride a two-wheeled electric "sky cycle" on the high wire.
  • Tino Wallenda, Karl's grandson, started on the high wire at age seven. He is the family patriarch of the Flying Wallendas and is still performing (2008) the Seven-Man Pyramid with his daughters and son, his brother-in-law Sascha Pavlata, son-in-law Robinson Cortes and family friend Jade Kindar-Martin.
  • Olinka Wallenda, Tino's wife, is descended from the Valla Bertini circus family, and has been performing on the high wire with Tino since 1974. She and Tino have four children, all wirewalkers - Alida, Andrea, Aurelia and Alessandro (Alex).
  • Mario B. Wallenda (6 November 1956 – 5 March 1993), Karl's grandson, learned to walk the tightrope at the age of two or three, but his specialty was riding his motorcycle inside the "Globe of Death". He tested positive for HIV in 1990 after collapsing after a performance in Canada. After his death from AIDS, his mother, Carla, said she wanted his cause of death made public.
  • Rietta Wallenda, Karl's sister-in-law, fell to her death April 18, 1963 in Omaha, Nebraska while performing on the sway pole.
  • Sandra Wallenda, Gunther's daughter from his second marriage to Margarita, a talented Mexican aerialist who fell to her death in Mexico City in the late 1950s. Sandra performed various aerial acts around the world and was also a gifted horsewoman.
  • Rietta Wallenda, Karl's granddaughter, has been performing since the age of 13. The only member of Karl's family who was performing with him at the time of his death, she performed in San Juan to a standing ovation five hours after her grandfather died. She and her daughter Lyric, also an accomplished performer, are currently working in Hawaii.
  • Rick Wallenda, Karl's grandson, has been performing since the age of 13. He completed the walk that took Karl's life a year after his grandfather's death. He also broke his grandfather's record at Kings Island, walking 2,000 feet (610 m) without a net. It is the continental record for that walk.[citation needed]
  • Nikolas and Erendira Wallenda, Karl's great-grandson and his wife now perform with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. He is a seventh generation Wallenda. Erendira comes from the Flying Vasquez family of trapeze artists. They have three children, sons Yanni, Amadaos and daughter Evita Wallenda, who are also learning the family trade. On October 15, 2008, Nik broke the world record for the highest and longest bike ride on a high wire live on NBC's Today.[2] Nik is also looking to cross Niagara Falls on a wire.[3]
  • Alida Wallenda-Cortes, an aerialist performing in the act The Flying Cortes with her husband's family. Her daughter Ysabella is part of the act as well. In 2010, the Flying Cortes were one of the featured acts in the PBS documentary Circus.
  • Lyric Wallenda, currently (2011) performing in the Cirque Polynesia show in Ka'anapali, Maui, Hawai'i.

In film and song[edit]

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.[4]

Rietta Wallenda is mentioned in Mad Men series 3 episode 2.

See also[edit]


External links[edit]