The great entertainer who accepted constant presence of death
- Credit: Mirrorpix via Getty Images
CHARLIE CONNELLY on the life of tightrope walker Karl Wallenda, a man tailed by tragedy.
A pretty good crowd for a Tuesday, Karl Wallenda thought. Some 7,000 people had filled the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit that night in January 1962 to see the Great Wallendas and the show was going well as it reached its climax. The human pyramid had been his idea, just after the war when people were crying out for thrills and entertainment. First performed in 1947, the sight of the three-tier, seven-person human tower making its way steadily across a wire 40 feet above the ground had drawn gasps and applause for 15 years now. Four men on the wire balanced poles between them on their shoulders, two more men stood on those poles. Standing on a chair balanced on the pole between their shoulders was a glamorous young woman. All of them smiling. Always smiling.
No safety net, of course. While it added a breath-catching sense of danger for the audience, for Wallenda a safety net risked making the wire artists complacent. Nothing focuses the mind like the close presence of death, he thought, and being a Great Wallenda meant embracing death twice a day, every day, three times on Saturdays.
That Detroit evening in 1962 marked the debut performance of Dieter Schepp, 23, Karl’s nephew via his first wife whom he’d managed to bring out of East Germany with his 17-year-old niece Jana, who topped the pyramid. A new member brought an extra frisson to the performance but Karl thought any first night nerves would only help Dieter focus. He’d trained him. He knew he was ready.
Out they went, the pyramid of seven Great Wallendas, slowly, steadily making their way into the void, relaxed and perfectly balanced, each certain of every step, pacing in perfect synchronicity, in control of every limb, muscle and sinew. Out on the wire Karl Wallenda was never more aware of his own body. He could even feel the stitching in the silk of his red shoes, all on the inside because you couldn’t risk a thread catching on the wire. It was almost like meditation, this literal centring, except most meditation isn’t done in stage clothes 40ft up on a steel wire in front of thousands, smiling, always smiling.
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Karl was 57. His brother Herman, three years older, was ahead of him. The siblings stood on the shoulders of Schepp, Karl’s son-in-law Richard Faughnan, nephew Gunther and 22-year-old adopted son Mario. Above Karl and Herman on her chair was Jana. Faughnan’s wife waited on the platform towards which the septet made their stately way but could see something was wrong. There was alarm in Dieter’s eyes. His balance pole had slipped to the end of his fingers and he was struggling to control it. “I can’t hold on,” he said, then tried to jerk the pole back into a firmer grip. The sudden movement raced through all seven wire walkers. The pyramid disintegrated into a blur of falling bodies.
Scheff and Faughnan were killed. Mario Wallenda was seriously injured and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Through sheer reflexes Karl Wallenda, three years shy of his seventh decade, had managed to wrap his legs around the wire as he fell and somehow caught Jana as she plunged past him, flinging his arms around her legs and holding on until a makeshift safety net was rushed beneath them. He still suffered a hairline fracture of the pelvis; Jana suffered minor head injuries.
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The following night’s performance, which still went ahead, was the first show Karl Wallenda had ever missed. Doctors told him he needed to rest for at least a fortnight but every minute that show had gone on without him was more excruciating to him than any physical pain. Two days after the accident he was back on the wire, 40ft up, doing handstands on Herman’s shoulders and smiling, always smiling.
“It has to be that way,” he said when he came down. “Up there I can concentrate on my work, down here I see two people dead.”
In later years Wallenda expanded on his reaction, saying that if the accident convinced him of anything it was that he should never, ever look down.
“There is a picture in my mind of the ring down there,” he said a decade later, “and the boys, they are broken and still, and around them there are the balance poles and bars and the chair. That picture is in my mind and I never lose it. If I look down just once I know I will see it again. Those boys. If I look, I go mad. So, I don't look.”
You could almost say tragedy tailed Karl Wallenda, but when you spend decades of your working life in the sky on a thin steel wire tragedy is inevitable. A few months after the Detroit accident Wallenda’s sister-in-law Henrietta was killed falling from the top of a 50ft pole during a show in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1972 in Wheeling, West Virginia, Wallenda completed a high wire crossing and handed his pole to son-in-law Chico Guzman. The pole touched a live electrical cable and the shock caused Guzman to fall 60ft to his death.
In November 1963 the Wallendas attempted the seven-person pyramid for the first time since the accident for the benefit of a television crew at their winter base in Sarasota, Florida. The wire, just 12ft in the air for the cameras, snapped, injuring six of the troupe including Karl. They never attempted the pyramid again.
Sometimes the tragedy wasn’t even theirs. During a 1944 show in a circus big top at Hartford, Connecticut, fire broke out during the Wallendas’ act and while the performers managed to escape 168 people died in the inferno. Yet nothing would stop Wallenda from performing. When asked about his return to the wires two days after Detroit, he considered it his duty.
“We showed the public that the world must go on,” he said. “If something happens everyone must go back to their own work, they can’t come to a standstill. We showed them what their own lives must be like.”
It might have been the coal mine that sent him into the sky. Magdeburg-born Wallenda was in his early teens when he began working as miner in Silesia just after the First World War, long, claustrophobic shifts deep underground beneath incalculable tons of rock. He’d come from a family of entertainers dating back to the 18th century and as a boy had performed balancing acts in beer halls for change, so when he saw a newspaper advertisement seeking a man who could do handstands he knew those airless days in fetid subterranean darkness were over. Arriving in Breslau to meet Louis Weitzman, who had placed the ad, Wallenda learned the handstands would be performed on Weitzman’s shoulders while crossing a high wire. That didn’t matter. It wasn’t the coal mine.
Within months the ambitious Wallenda was riding a bicycle along a high wire, while at 17 he cycled along a cable strung between two church steeples with his brother Herman on his shoulders. When Herman became too heavy Karl took on Martha Schepp as his ‘topper’, who would become his first wife. With Herman and another brother, Joseph, in 1922 the quartet became the Great Wallendas, forging such a reputation that in 1928 the Ringling Brothers brought them to America where they were an immediate hit and stayed for the rest of their lives.
In later years Wallenda talked often of retirement but the pull of sky walking was always too strong. That sense of balance, the centring, the leaving everything behind on the pedestal to step into the void, life without it would be meaningless. As he’d told an acquaintance questioning his return after the 1962 tragedy, “the rest of life is just time to fill in between doing the act”.
At the age of 65 he walked 1,000ft across the 700ft deep Tallulah Gorge in Georgia, pausing twice to perform headstands, and six years later walked 200ft in the air across a packed baseball stadium in Philadelphia. “I feel better up there than I do down here,” he said afterwards. “It’s my whole life.”
At the age of 73, walking between two buildings to publicise a show in Puerto Rico, a combination of a slack wire and an unexpected gust of wind saw him teeter, crouch, and fall 70ft to the street below. Newspapers published photographs of his final moments on the wire, grimacing as he struggled to retain his balance according to the captions. He wasn’t grimacing. Even at the end, ever the performer, Karl Wallenda was smiling. Always smiling.
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