Karl Wallenda (January 21, 1905 – March 22, 1978) was the founder of The Flying Wallendas, an internationally known daredevil circus act remembered for performing death-defying stunts, often without a safety net.
The Great Wallendas
The Great Wallendas were noted throughout Europe for their four-man pyramid and cycling on the high wire. The act moved to the United States in 1928, performing as freelancers. In 1947 they developed the unequaled three-tier 7-Man Pyramid. Karl Wallenda had the idea since 1938 but it took until 1946, when he and his brother Hermann developed it and had the right acrobats for it. The Great Wallendas, a 1978 made-for-TV movie starring Karl Wallenda, depicts the act's comeback after a fatal accident involving several family members during a performance. Wallenda was killed in a high wire accident just 38 days after it was first broadcast.
On July 18, 1970, a 65-year-old Wallenda performed a high-wire walk, also known as a skywalk, across the Tallulah Gorge, a gorge formed by the Tallulah River in Georgia. An estimated 30,000 people watched Wallenda perform two headstands as he crossed the quarter-mile-wide gap.
In 1974, at 69 years old, he broke a world skywalk distance record of 1,800 feet (550 m) at Kings Island, a record that stood until July 4, 2008, when his great grandson, Nik Wallenda, completed a 2,000-foot skywalk (610 m) at the same location.
Despite being involved in several tragedies in his family's acts, Wallenda continued with his stunts. In 1978, at age 73, Wallenda attempted a walk between the two towers of the ten-story Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on a wire stretched 121 ft (37 metres) above the pavement, but fell to his death when winds exceeded 30 mph (48 kilometres per hour). The Wallenda family attributed the tragedy to misconnected guide ropes and not the windy conditions. A film crew from WAPA-TV in San Juan taped the fall, and the video, featuring anchorman Guillermo Jose Torres' narration of the fall, circled the world.
Nik Wallenda, a direct descendant of Karl Wallenda, continues the family tradition of performing stunts on highwire without a safety net. On October 15, 2008, during a live broadcast of Today on NBC, Nik Wallenda walked and then bicycled across a suspended highwire twelve stories from the ground off the roof of the Prudential Center in Downtown Newark, New Jersey for a Guinness Book of Records World Record for longest and highest bicycle on a highwire. On June 4, 2011, he completed the high-wire crossing that killed his great-grandfather, citing Karl Wallenda as his "biggest hero in life." On June 15, 2012, Nik Wallenda began the 1,800-foot journey over Niagara Falls from the United States to Canada, but was forced to use a safety harness by ABC. The act lasted roughly 25 minutes with him completing the crossing at 10:41:32 PM EDT.
In popular culture
- Salsa singer Marvin Santiago made constant references to Wallenda's death in a few of his songs, mostly as side comments.
- Puerto Rican Reggaeton/Rap group Calle 13 make reference to Wallenda in their song Cabe-ce-o
- The death of Wallenda's sister-in-law Rietta Wallenda is referred to in Season 3 of the AMC program Mad Men, in the episode "Love Among the Ruins".
- Wallenda's quote was used in the Movie Rounders "Like Papa Wallenda said, 'Life is on the wire, the rest is just waiting.'"
- Athens, Georgia band Drive By Truckers references the Wallendas in their song The Flying Wallendas on their 2010 CD The Big To-Do.
- Karl Wallenda is mentioned in Tom Robbins book Villa Incognito as well as in Stephen King book Gerald's Game.
- Folk/Alternative singer/songwriter Bill Mallonee includes references to the Great Wallenda stepping out over Tallulah Gorge in his song "Balaam's Ass" from the recording Blister Soul  by the Vigilantes of Love.
- The Flying Wallendas web site
- The New York Times movie review
- The Great Wallendas at the Internet Movie Database
- "Wallenda attempts high-wire walk over Kings Island". The Columbus Dispatch. July 5, 2008. Retrieved 30 January 2012.
- Cox, Billy (June 21, 2011). "Nik Wallenda stars in 'Life on a Wire'". Herald-Tribune. Retrieved 27 December 2012.
- "Wallenda slides but rides in record stunt - TODAY News - TODAY.com". Today.msnbc.msn.com. October 15, 2008. Retrieved October 16, 2012.
- Daniel, Kelly (June 4, 2011). "Nik Wallenda walks high-wire path that killed great-grandfather". Cable News Network. Retrieved June 4, 2011.
- nurun.com (May 22, 2012). "ABC demands harness for Wallenda | Local | News | St. Catharines Standard". Stcatharinesstandard.ca. Retrieved October 16, 2012.
- Parting Shot – an artist endorsed website dedicated to the music of Bill Mallonee