Karl Wallenda

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Karl Wallenda
File:Karl Wallenda in Sarasota, Florida.jpg
Wallenda in Sarasota, Florida
Born (1905-01-21)January 21, 1905
Magdeburg, German Empire
Died March 22, 1978(1978-03-22) (aged 73)
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Nationality German-American
Occupation Daredevil, Circus Performer
Relatives Nik Wallenda (great-grandson)

Karl Wallenda (January 21, 1905 – March 22, 1978) was a German-American high wire artist and founder of The Flying Wallendas, a daredevil circus act which performed dangerous stunts, often without a safety net. He was the great-grandfather of current performer Nik Wallenda.

Personal life

Wallenda, born in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1905, began performing with his family at age six.[1]

The Great Wallendas

File:The Flying Wallendas Sarasota, Florida.jpg
Karl is second from the left in this photo, ca. 1965

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.[2] Wallenda was killed in a high wire accident just 38 days after it was first broadcast.[3]

Daredevil stunts

File:Tower at site of Wallenda's crossing of Tallulah Gorge.JPG
Site marker at Tallulah Gorge State Park

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.[4]


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. Due to high winds, he fell to his death during the attempt.[5][6] A film crew from WAPA-TV in San Juan taped the fall, and the video, featuring anchorman Guillermo José Torres' narration of the fall, circled the world.[citation needed]

Family members

Nik Wallenda, Karl's great-grandson, continues the family tradition of performing stunts on highwire without a safety net, while at times wearing a safety harness.

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.'"
  • A more elegant version of this quote is attributed to Wallenda by sociologist Erving Goffman in his 1967 essay 'Where the Action is': "To be on the wire is life; the rest is 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's books Gerald's Game and The Tommyknockers.
  • 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 1995 audio album "Blister Soul", by the Vigilantes of Love.[7]
  • British guitarist and composer Mike Walker wrote 'Wallenda's last stand' for The Impossible Gentleman's self titled album on Basho records

See also


  1. The Flying Wallendas web site
  2. The New York Times movie review
  3. The Great Wallendas at the Internet Movie Database
  4. "Wallenda attempts high-wire walk over Kings Island". The Columbus Dispatch. July 5, 2008. Retrieved 30 January 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Gomstyn, Alice; Deutsch, Gail; Lopez, Ed (June 14, 2012). "Wallenda Family Legacy: Nik Wallenda's Long Line of Amazing Ancestors". ABC News. Retrieved June 25, 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Cox, Billy (June 21, 2011). "Nik Wallenda stars in 'Life on a Wire'". Herald-Tribune. Retrieved 27 December 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Parting Shot – an artist-endorsed Web site dedicated to the music of Bill Mallonee

External links