All eyes were on the sky for Monday’s solar eclipse. But there was another reason to look skyward at the Kentucky State Fair: The Flying Wallendas. If you’ve seen their show at the fair, or any of their performances around the world, you may have noticed one heart-stopping thing missing from their setup: a safety net. Fairly Curious listener Sara Ceresa wanted to know why, so I decided to find out.
“I don’t want to say that there’s no danger involved, because there’s always the potential for something to happen,” Tino Wallenda says. “There’s been the occasional tragedy in my family, but there’s always a reason for it.”
That family has been performing in circuses for about 200 years — 100 of it on tightropes. They hold multiple world records, including highest eight-person tightrope pyramid, highest blindfolded tightrope walk, and longest “iron-jaw hang” (clinging to a trapeze by your teeth). A Wallenda was the first person to walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon, and Niagara Falls (both on live television).
And they never work with a safety net.
“Using a net has a tendency to make you practice less,” Tino Wallenda says, “and you may be a little more daring than you should be.”
Plus, a net is not a guarantee of safety. “I’ve known four people in my life, either landed in a net or missed the net, and died,” Tino says. “Four people.”
The Show Must Go On
Given their livelihood, it’s not surprising that the family has seen its share of tragedy. The most serious accident in Wallenda history happened at a Shriner Circus in Detroit in 1962. The Wallendas were performing their celebrated 7-person chair pyramid, where four acrobats stand on the tightrope with a bar connecting them by the shoulders, two others stand atop the bar, and a seventh sits or stands in a chair on top of the middle two.
During this trick, a performer faltered and the whole pyramid crumbled. Two troupe members were killed, one paralyzed, and others suffered a crushed pelvis and head injury — despite the presence of a hastily-lifted safety net.
Founder Karl Wallenda subscribed to the philosophy that the show must go on. So the Wallendas who were still able to performed the next night, and the family would continue to perform the 7-person pyramid from time to time. Karl continued working on the high wire until he fell to his death during a performance in Puerto Rico in 1978, still performing at age 73.
A New Generation
In the iteration of the Flying Wallendas appearing at the Kentucky State Fair, it’s Karl’s grandson, Tino, who’s the patriarch. He says he’s been walking the tightrope for 60 years, and he’s almost 67.
During the show, Tino proudly introduces his children and co-stars, Aurelia and Alex, and daughter-in-law, Claire. Risking your own life is one thing, but what’s it like to watch your children perform in the air?
“As a parent, and as a grandfather, my eye is very sharp on every movement that they make,” he says. “And when they get a little bit overconfident, a little bit careless, or they start doing something that I don’t think they should, that does cause concern to me.” He said “reprimand” is too strong a word, but he does coach them and make sure they’re not taking unnecessary chances.
Tino himself has had what he describes as “mishaps,” where he’s faltered, but caught himself on the wire. “I’ve cracked my ribs at least four times,” he says. And now that he’s getting older, he modifies his performance a bit.
“I’m kind of in the fall or the winter of my performing life,” he says. “I used to do a lot of freehand stuff, without a balancing pole, skipping rope and that kind of stuff.” Now he uses a balancing pole in every performance. “But it doesn’t mean it’s any less daring!”
The daring nature of their performances was palpable at the fair. Audience members gasped and covered their eyes throughout the show. Tino says it’s that sense of vicarious danger that keeps people riveted.
“Especially in this kind of a situation where they’re right up close,” Tino explains, “they actually sense being up there on the tightrope with us.”
You can see the Flying Wallendas in action every day at 12:30, 3:30, and 6:30 at the Kentucky State Fair.
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