By staff February 1, 2006

"Life is on the wire. The rest is just waiting." -Karl Wallenda

By Peter B. Gallagher

It was a sunny, breezy, eerie, Florida autumn afternoon out on Longboat Key. Sweat-stain hot but sweater cool, depending on where I was standing. In the low western sky, Venus was shining in the daytime. On earth, seagulls were walking around on Bay Isles Road, pecking at the tarmac that winds through the city's park-like municipal complex. Sparkling in the sunshine, high above the birds, a slender strand of taut, five-eighths-inch rope wire stretched between two makeshift towers about 50 feet apart. I didn't see any safety net. Just gulls and popcorn kernels on the hard pavement two and a half stories beneath the wire.

Fall was in the air. And it was affecting the town's festive 50th anniversary celebration. A professional juggler kept dropping batons. A tall stilt-Uncle Sam with a clown's nose slipped on a snow-cone slick and, wobbling like a drunken stork, nearly toppled onto a lady in a wheelchair. On one of several stages that were set up, the speakers cut out as local townfolk holding scripts "acted" out a humorous political play about the Key before an audience in folding chairs who sat there politely, unable to hear a single word.

Through the festive crowd, a slight, unassuming man in a polo shirt and jeans slowly strolled, circling the towers connecting the high wire. With the piercing eyes of a nuclear power-plant inspector, he tapped guy wires, pinched screws, kicked stakes and stared skyward. Not even the occasional disconcerting pop from a cursing balloon man nearby seemed to distract Tino Wallenda.

I thought the vibe just didn't seem right today for tightrope walking. But Tino actually seemed to be licking his chops in anticipation. "Isn't it a great day!" exclaimed the world's bravest man, who was scheduled soon to take his whole family up on that thin string, with bicycles and chairs and poles-and no net.

No big deal. "Every movement is planned exactly," said Tino, with an aplomb so disarming I felt a chill down my spine. "And we don't plan to fall."

The Flying Wallendas don't even worry about it. Since it's not going to happen, why have a contingency plan? Tino smiled at the logic of it all. We looked skyward, and I imagined all these folks on that skinny strand. I daydreamed Tino was doing a headstand and Uncle Sam bumped into the tower and the wire began shaking. Tino's legs began to kick wildly and...

Pop! I swung around in fear. Another bad balloon. I cursed the balloon man and turned back around, breathing hard, my brow sweaty-cool in the wind.

Tino? He was still looking up, calm and collected. Focused. Smiling. The sun was bright. The air was brisk. "Great weather," he said. "I love the fall."

"In American circus history, Wallenda is one of the most famous, if not the most famous name. Their accomplishments are legendary and their feats are unmatched. And Sarasota has always been their home. There are so many circus people in this area that around here, you could be next to a Wallenda at the supermarket and never know." -Pedro Reis

Pedro Reis, a trapeze artist, and his wife, Dolly Jacobs, aerialist supreme and daughter of clown icon Lou Jacobs, are among scores of circus folks who have called Sarasota home since John Ringling moved the winter headquarters for his "Greatest Show On Earth" here in 1927. The couple runs Circus Sarasota, a nonprofit educational organization committed to the preservation of the circus art form. During the month of February, nearly every day, Reis and Jacobs present a five-star international circus right in the "Circus Capital of the World." This year, the Flying Wallendas will headline, with a promise to perform their legendary Seven-Person Pyramid, regarded by most as the most dangerous stunt in the genre.

"What the Wallendas do-the discipline they exhibit and their skill on the high wire-is awesome. Today's troupe is one of the greatest in history," says Reis. "They perform all over the world, but very rarely in their home town."

And this performance could be not only a rare but an historic opportunity for Sarasotans to see the legendary pyramid. "Circus Sarasota might be the last time the Flying Wallendas perform the Seven," says Tino. "My daughter Aurelia, who is on the very top, is getting married. My other daughter, Alita, and son-in-law are taking off for a year after this show. This could well be the last Seven for a long, long time, maybe for good."

"It's different when we perform here," admits Aurelia Wallenda, often the pretty girl sitting on a chair at the top of a pyramid of humans and poles. "Our friends are here, people who know the intricacies of what we are doing. If we miss a step, the normal crowd would never know, but here there are experts that watch every little move. It can make you nervous."

Nervous? A Wallenda? No way. This is a family built on nerves of titanium, whose patriarch freely admitted he felt better walking a tightrope than anywhere else. Karl "The Great" Wallenda is the best-known wire walker in history-his name a household word from the moment he moved his acrobatic Bohemian-German family to the United States in 1928.

John Ringling saw the Great Wallenda and family performing their unique pyramids in Cuba and hired them for his touring circus. At their first U.S. performance, in Madison Square Garden, the Wallendas earned a 15-minute standing ovation, the longest-known applause, to this day, in circus history. Helen Wallenda, who died in 1996, told the story many times in speeches about her life: "Karl called it his greatest moment. We ran like the dickens out of the ring. I thought, 'Well, there goes our American debut-they booed us out.' In Europe and in Latin America, if they whistle, you better beat it... We ran for our lives to the dressing room. They wouldn't even stop shouting for the next act to begin.

"I'll always remember Karl sitting in a chair, his cap off, his head in his hands. I hid behind a curtain. Then they came in and made us go out again. Everybody was standing and clapping. It was enormous."

The acrobats performed that day without a safety net, which had not arrived from Havana in time for the show-hijacked, some believe, by upset Cuban circus officials. "It is one of the things we are known for," says Tino Wallenda. "My grandfather did not like using the net. He always said you can get hurt or die with a net as well. His brother Willi died after bouncing out of the net" in 1940, in Goteborg, Sweden.

Major stars from the outset, the Great Wallendas headlined Ringling's circus for much of the '30s and '40s. In 1936, the whole extended Wallenda clan moved to Sarasota for good, with Karl and his aerialist wife, Helen, taking residence in a two-story home at 1644 Arlington St. (no longer owned by the family, but listed on the National Historic Register).

In 1941 Karl performed one of his very first "skywalks"-super tightrope walks between tall buildings, over stadiums, in forbidding natural areas-anywhere a cable could be strung. On a slack wire, he skipped over "shark-filled" New Pass on a wire strung between Longboat Key and Anna Maria Island, pausing midway to restore the circulation in his arms by doing a headstand! The feat promoted a planned bridge between the two islands. The escalation of World War II and the disappearance of some shady dealmakers killed the bridge; photos of Wallenda's walk-viewed by 17,000 local citizens-can be seen on the walls inside the Longboat Key City Hall. Curiously, the photos identify him as "The Great Arturo."

"We had a guy called The Great Arturo with us, but that is definitely Karl," says Artur Wallenda, Karl's only surviving brother and a Sarasota resident. "Maybe Arturo was going to do it and he didn't show."

In the late '40s, Karl attempted to put his own circus on the road--headlining the fabulously dangerous Seven-Person Pyramid he had designed-but the venture went bankrupt. Karl spent 20 years paying off his creditors, many of them local. Unable to pay his performers in cash, he parceled out property from more than 30 acres he had purchased in western Sarasota County, in an area still known as Henrietta's Place.

"Today, almost everyone who lives out here is associated with the circus, a lot of descendants from that original property my grandfather gave out," says Tino, who lives in the area, along with his mother, Jenny, uncle Mario, great-uncle Artur, aunt Carla, sister Delilah, cousin Rietta and numerous other Wallenda troupe members from current and past shows.

You can tell Tino's house: It's the one with the high wire out in the back yard, where "the Seven" is rehearsed. Rainy days, cold days, windy days, they are up there. "There was a wire in my grandfather's back yard," remembers Tino. "He was up there all the time."

Karl spent so much time on the wire, wife Helen used to say, "Sometimes he was too tired to climb down."

"We all grew up in Sarasota. We have always loved it here. This is home," says Tino. "As a kid, you don't look at it like, wow, there are your parents and your grandparents up on that wire and they aren't like the other kids' parents. Back in those days especially, there were a lot of circus kids in the Sarasota schools. It wasn't that unusual. We all just looked forward to the day we could join our family in the show."

Tino does allow for the advantage of growing up in the one city in America where circus performers were plentiful outside the ring. "It really works both ways," says Tino. "The circus is certainly a very rich part of the heritage of Sarasota. And we've always been the best promoters of Sarasota. Everywhere we go, people always want to know where we're from, where we live. We tell them Sarasota, Florida-it's a wonderful, beautiful place, beautiful beaches, museums, and we bring that message with us everywhere we go."

The Wallendas were associated with two of the greatest tragedies in American circus history. On July 6, 1944, in Hartford, Conn., a fire broke out in the Ringling Brothers' Big Top while the Wallendas were on the high wire. The troupe quickly climbed to the ground, where flames had engulfed the grandstands; they were credited with saving dozens of lives. One hundred sixty-eight men, women and children died in what is still the worst circus disaster in history.

On Jan. 30, 1962, after more than 15 years performing the triple-tiered Seven without incident, the Wallendas fell in Detroit during the Shrine Circus. Dieter Schepp, Karl's nephew on the bottom tier, lost his footing and the pyramid toppled. Schepp and Richard Faughman, Karl's son-in-law, were killed. Mario Wallenda, Karl's son, was paralyzed. Gunther Wallenda remained upright, Karl and Herman Wallenda grabbed the wire, and Karl snared Jana Schepp-Dieter's sister, who had been sitting in a chair at the top of the pyramid-as she fell. Karl Wallenda held on to her until rescue.

"Oh, I can remember the night it happened, all the tears and anguish," says Tino. (Faughman was his stepfather; Schepp his mother's cousin). "My sister and I were in Sarasota with my grandmother, going to school. I remember the funeral, the headlines. It was all a surrealistic experience for a 12-year-old boy. Later, I realized it was circus history."

The Seven was mothballed. Karl Wallenda only permitted his family to attempt the maneuver two more times: once the next year in Fort Worth, "to show that the family could keep going and the show must go on. My grandfather was very conscious of being in the public eye, and he did not want the name Wallenda to be associated with a failure," says Tino. "He wanted to show that life must go on. That is the heart of the performer, to keep on going."

In 1977 Karl permitted a re-creation of the feat for a network television movie, shot in Sarasota, about the family-and the fall-starring Lloyd Bridges and Cathy Rigby. During rehearsals, while showing Bridges a maneuver, Karl fell 20 feet and nearly broke his neck; he was unable to appear in the movie (he was replaced by Tino, and at times other Wallendas, as stunt doubles, wearing blond wigs). The Seven was performed more than 300 times during the filming of the movie, without incident.

The collapse of the Seven followed the 1950 death of Karl's brother Phillip, killed on a Nebraska roadside while changing a flat tire, and his niece, Yetti, who died when equipment malfunctioned during an aerial "loop" act in a 1960 Mexico City show. Gunther, the only one left standing on the wire after the "Fall," retired from the act the next year and returned to Sarasota; there, he graduated from high school and college and became a popular history and geography teacher, training high-wire performers at the Sailor Circus, a Sarasota school fund raiser, until his death in 1996.

A year after the Seven, Karl's sister-in-law, Rietta, fell 50 feet to her death from a sway pole in Nebraska. In 1972, Karl's son-in-law, Richard, was electrocuted on the wire when a pole he took from Karl brushed a power line. Then, in a promotional feat for a circus starring his nieces, in March 1978, "the unthinkable happened," says Tino, who was leading a separate troupe of Wallendas in the Dakotas at the time.

In a tragedy viewed by thousands on the ground and many millions in oft-repeated newsreels, Karl fell 120 feet during a windy skywalk between buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico. This man who had back-flipped on the mast of a seagoing schooner, who had remained on the wire during an earthquake in South America, the indestructible Great Wallenda, was gone. At the age of 73, he had no plans to retire, and, the circus people say, would have preferred to die this way.

While many blamed a brisk wind for causing the master to lose his footing, it was actually improperly secured guy wires, according to grandson Tino: "We knew it that night watching it on TV. People felt he could have saved himself if he had just dropped the pole. But he would never do that. He taught us never to drop the pole. It was the end of an era. There will never be another like him."

It was one of the largest funerals in Sarasota circus history, attended by many of the elite stars of Wallenda's golden generation: Emmett Kelly, Ernie "Blinko the Clown" Burch, band leader Merle Evans, the entire Zacchini family. Eulogized were both the daredevil Great Wallenda and the Sarasota humanitarian angel Karl Wallenda, who was involved in hundreds of charity benefits-many as chairman-for Sarasota causes.

At the end of the graveside service, after every mourner left, workers scurried to flip the casket, so Karl's head would be toward the stone. It was the great Wallenda's last stunt, and his photo, in a glorious lavender suit, hands grasped around a balance pole, is emblazoned on the tombstone, on the north side of Manasota Cemetery, in the Wallendas' crowded Aerialists Supreme family plot.

"The reality of these tragedies is that they tell us to be safer, to learn the pitfalls and avoid them, to make sure that we are more rehearsed than we were before. Modern times, modern equipment don't make it easier. The danger is still there." -Tino Wallenda

Following Karl's death, the family split into numerous performing troupes. The traveling circus era had all but vanished, and the market had seemingly evaporated for high-wire walkers. "We were struggling. There didn't seem to be enough money out there to keep us going," remembers Tino. "The Seven was always in the back of our minds. But there weren't a lot of venues to afford it."

In 1998 the Wallendas were approached by the Shrine Circus to re-create The Seven at the same Detroit arena where the tragedy had occurred 35 years before. They agreed. "We did not do it to exorcise demons, but to further the legacy of the family in the circus world," says Tino, who led his family to perform 38 Sevens that week in Detroit, without incident, to standing ovations.

Bolstered by the publicity from the rebirth of the Seven, the various Wallenda troupes and combinations have been going strong ever since. Under the name Flying Wallendas, Tino and family have continued the Seven, performing it at the International Monte Carlo Circus Festival, where they were presented with the prestigious Silver Clown-the circus Oscar-in 2004.

In 2001 the Wallendas created an eight- and then a 10-person pyramid at the Tabernacle church parking lot in Sarasota, to secure their spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Mario Wallenda also set a world record that day, for becoming the first paraplegic to ride a "wheelchair" across a tightrope. (He's still the only known person to do it.) One of the most recognizable figures in Sarasota, Mario has been confined to a wheelchair since he was paralyzed in the 1962 Detroit fall. He was born in New Orleans ("Because that is where the show was at the time") and has lived in Sarasota all of his 64 years. "Where the hell else am I going to go?" he says in his distinctive ebullient, sarcastic way.

Mario rarely ventures out to watch his family perform, but it has nothing to do with the 1962 fall. "Hell, that was 43 years ago. I don't think about that," he says, a true Wallenda, discarding the sting of death. "I know every move they are going to make. When I see them screw up, it's upsetting. I watch the show like a performer, not a fan."

He admits, however, that the roar of that crowd from decades ago still boils in his blood. He spent months perfecting the Sky Cycle: a two-wheeled device that would allow a strapped-in paraplegic to "walk" the high wire. (His wife has called it "Mario's psycho cycle.") Cameras recorded Mario's trip across the wire for the Guinness TV show, but the segment never aired.

"I was in hog heaven; then they didn't put it on the air. That's the problem-these promoters feel that people aren't interested in watching a cripple perform," says Mario. "I wanted to go over Niagara Falls, roll across the Grand Canyon, the Snake River, you name it, but no one is interested. They never come to me. Hell, I wish they would. I'm ready to roll."

Mario almost pulled the feat off as part of a condo promotion, agreeing to transverse a wire across Midnight Pass. "We had it all set, the $5,000 down and everything. But we couldn't get the permit," says Mario, incredulous, rising in his seat as if to leap out of the chair. "They were worried about liability. Liability? There is no liability. Hell, I wouldn't do it if I thought I would fall!"

"The circus has had its ups and downs in Sarasota. There have been times when we were more popular and other times less. There have been times the curator of the Ringling Museum wanted to phase out the circus and other times when they wanted to build it up." -Tino Wallenda

Sixth-generation wire walker Tino Wallenda's father is the legendary Alberto Zoppe, a bareback-horse-riding daredevil whose specialty was a backwards somersault from horse to horse. As a two-year-old, Tino rode his father's shoulders as he circled the ring standing astride two galloping horses. When Zoppe divorced Jenny Wallenda, a custody battle ended when Jenny snatched four-year-old Tino during a circus where both families were performing, and brought him back to Sarasota-a traumatic event Tino describes in detail in his book Walking the Straight and Narrow.

Among the many Wallendas, it is Tino who has chosen to follow his grandfather's careful footsteps. He carries the same air of humility as did Karl: "My grandfather told me, 'The only stars are in heaven.' Yet he was very well known and respected throughout the world. I hope to uphold his standards as much as I can."

For years now, Tino has been performing skywalks between buildings, over rivers and a waterfall, in cities from Las Vegas to South Africa. His highest walk was 179 feet; longest: 1,250 feet. Tino also holds Karl's normal positions (the bottom tier, rear position of the Seven) and is middle shoulder bar for the Four-Person, Three-Level Pyramid.

As one would expect-and hope-Tino and family maintain a close connection with God and religion. As a longtime member of Sarasota's Tabernacle church, he says it is there that he renourishes his balance and strengthens the intense commitment necessary to climb onto that high wire, day after day, to risk his life and the lives of his family. This includes all of his five children. "They are each given a choice, and all have wanted to perform."

Tino's wife, Olinka, an aerialist from Czechoslovakia, holds a Guinness world record for a unique high-wire walk she performed upside down, suspended only by her toes. She and Tino produce a Christian-oriented circus called Circus Maranatha, which provides thrills with a message. Tino estimates he spends half his time as a regular performer in former Cleveland pro-football star Bill Glass' "Weekend of Champions" prison ministry, as part of an all-star cast that includes ex-jewel thief and convicted murderer Jack "Murph the Surf" Murphy.

With the help of inmates, Tino constructs a high wire, carries up a chair, sits down and speaks to the prisoners below. He does the same thing to the faithful at various churches around the country.

His message: "When I am on the wire, I lock my eyes on a fixed, unmoving point at the other end. That is my goal at the end of the wire, and that gives me balance. In the same way, in life we must focus on Jesus Christ to give us balance. No distraction from our goal. Walk the straight and narrow. In a nutshell, that's basically what I talk about."

"I am more comfortable on the high wire than I am driving a car. Not a lot of heavy traffic on the high wire." -Tino Wallenda

I am not sure that is exactly true. You take five people, two bikes and a bunch of poles and there is really no room to pass. Understandably, on Longboat Key, we saw a scaled-down version of the Wallendas' big top show. We would not see the Seven. The Four was very adequate, believe me.

When it was time for the Flying Wallendas, the crowd gathered from across the municipal complex to look up. Voices spoke around me, in spellbound tones. But none of us ever looked down. "How high is that?" said one lady's voice.

"High enough to die," said a man.

After a short introduction, Tino roared with a flair, "We'd like to take you high in the air with the Flying Wallendas."

The show itself was a frightening blur of hand-wringing angst on the part of the audience and disciplined, measured movements by the performers. They stood upon the wire and brought out bicycles. Headstands. A chair. Items that don't seem to jibe with a wire. When Tino's daughter stood on his shoulders as he rode a bike across the wire, all reality left my brain.

Finally a small pyramid. The young girl climbed metal and bodies to reach the top. "Please, please don't do that," someone yelled. "Please!" But she did, and then did an elegant split, stretching her legs apart on a thin pole as the bicyclists pedaled her off the wire to the platform. This wasn't magic. It was real. "Hell, we couldn't even do that on land!" an elderly man bellowed. It broke the ice. We all laughed heartily. There was a standing ovation. Then the crowd swarmed the handsome troupe and clamored for autographs.

In the distance, Mario rolled away. The back of his chair features a Bush-Cheney '04 label and a "Save A Cow, Eat A Vegetarian" bumper sticker.

"You are a legend." A clown grabbed Tino's hand for a rousing shake.

"Oh, thank you, it was nothing," said Tino. He actually said that!

Right. I guess it was nothing, really, for a guy who has walked over man-eating sharks and cages of lions and looked down 18 stories. Piece of cake. My spine was still tingling, and Tino wasn't even breathing hard. He was looking at his watch, concerned with taking down the towers so the road could be opened back up to traffic. The shaky Uncle Sam with a clown nose walked by, and Tino didn't even flinch.

Me, I couldn't keep my eyes off that wire, hanging there alone, its death defying ended for the afternoon, the thrill of the crowd extended forever.

Peter B. Gallagher is a former reporter for the St. Petersburg Times. His most recent SARASOTA Magazine story was "The Rise and Fall of Chief Jim Billie" in January 2005.

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