Little Bits of History

Flying Wallendas

Posted in History by patriciahysell on March 22, 2011

Karl Wallenda

March 22, 1978: Karl Wallenda dies from a fall. Karl was part of The Great Wallendas and was 73 years old at the time of his death. He was born in Magdeburg, Germany. He had been performing with his family since he was six. The Wallendas were already famous in Europe, especially noted for their four-man pyramid and cycling on a high wire when they came to the US in 1928. They joined the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Circus and their debut was held at Madison Square Garden. They performed there without a net because it had been lost in transit. They were met with a standing ovation.

They were performing in Akron, Ohio when they fell from the high wire. No one was injured. The next day, a newspaper reported “The Wallendas fell so gracefully that it seemed as if they were flying.” Their name changed to The Flying Wallendas after this. In 1944, they were performing with the circus in Hartford, Connecticut when a fire started and killed 168 people in a disaster called the Hartford Circus Fire. None of the Wallendas suffered injury.

In the following years, Karl developed a seven-person chair pyramid. They performed the act successfully for years. In 1962, while performing in Detroit, the front man on the wire faltered and the pyramid collapsed. Two men were killed when they fell to the ground. Karl himself injured his pelvis and his adopted son, Mario, was paralyzed from the waist down. Another Wallenda fell to her death in 1963 and Karl’s son-in-law was killed when he touched a live electric wire while holding metal rigging in 1972.

Karl continued to perform, sometimes with smaller groups and sometimes solo. He successfully crossed the Tallulah Gorge in Georgia in 1970. On this day, Karl was attempting to walk a wire between the two towers of the ten-story Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The wire was struck 121 feet above the pavement. Winds were gusting at 30 mph and Karl fell to the ground below. Other family members state the tragedy could have been averted, but several of the guide ropes along the wire were not properly connected for the windy conditions. Other family members continue to perform and The Flying Wallendas remain active.

“Life is being on the wire; everything else is just waiting.” Karl Wallenda

“I am scared easily, here is a list of my adrenaline – production: 1: small children, 2: policemen, 3: high places, 4: that my next movie will not be as good as the last one.” – Alfred Hitchcock

“Wanting to do it was much more powerful than the fright.” – Charlotte Gainsbourg

“Bravery is the capacity to perform properly even when scared half to death.” – Omar N. Bradley

Also on this day:
Laser – In 1960, the laser was patented.
Clint Malarchuk – In 1989, Malarchuk was critically injured on the ice.

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8 Responses

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  1. GYSC said, on March 22, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    What a tale! I wish I had not clicked over to the Malarchuk post, nasty!

    • Sherry said, on February 25, 2014 at 11:05 pm

      Don’t go and find the video of Malarchuk’s accident, then!

  2. patriciahysell said, on March 23, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    Clint’s story was just as amazing in its way as Karl’s. People are so complex.

  3. Viperbuck said, on March 24, 2011 at 11:33 am

    I was 8 years old in 1972 when I witnessed the accident that killed Richard “Chico” Guzman, Karl Wallenda’s son-in-law. A friend’s grandparents had taken my friend and myself to the circus in Wheeling, WV which is where the accident occurred. My memory of the event is spotty although I vividly remember the flash of light and shower of sparks. Unfortunately, further information about the accident has proven hard to track down.

    • Ty Hennen said, on June 15, 2012 at 1:33 pm

      I was there also, at the old Wheeling Island stadium. I too can remember the sparks and flash.
      I was 14 and we left soon after it had happened. It’s wild to find someone else on here that witnessed that event.

  4. mdw said, on June 24, 2013 at 9:14 am

    I was there as well, I was twelve years old. I hadn’t thought about it until yesterday when Nik Wallenda did his walk over the Grand Canyon. Interesting to find others who were there.

  5. v richardson said, on June 24, 2013 at 3:25 pm

    I am a resident of Wheeling. We went to the circus every year.I was 14 when that happened and I remember it breifly,it seemed all the lights went down immediately afterwards and we went home not quite sure what had happened. I cannot find anything about it.

  6. This is so interesting and so timely! I’m all for loving nature in a different way-perhaps all the people who were watched it will now decide to vacation at one of our lovely national parks!


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