When daredevil Nik Wallenda attempts to become the first person to cross the span of the Niagara Gorge over the Falls, he will be continuing a long family tradition of death-defying feats that stretches back more than 200 years.
Wallenda, 33, whose 550 metre-long highwire walk across the Falls will take place 60 metres above Niagara Gorge, is among the seventh generation of Wallendas involved in the circus trade. He traces his heritage all the way back to the late 18th century, when the Wallenda family would thrill villagers throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire with their acrobatic skills.
In the late 1800s, the Wallenda family was known throughout Europe as masters of the flying trapeze. The more recent family history focuses on the art of funambulism — tightrope walking.
Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the modern Wallendas and Nik's great grandfather, was born in 1905 in Magdeburg, Germany. He was encouraged as a child to join the family show and was especially adept at feats of balance. In the early 1920s, Karl learned the art of tightrope walking.
By 1922, he had established his own act with his older brother Herman, a family friend named Josef Geiger and a young aerialist named Helen Kreis, who would become his wife.
Fame with Ringling Brothers' circus
In 1928, American circus impresario John Ringling caught the Great Wallendas' act in Cuba. By this point, the feature of the act was a three-level, four-person pyramid, with Karl riding a bicycle on a bar suspended by Herman and Geiger, while Helen stood on her husband's shoulders — all done while crossing a tightrope.
Ringling signed the troupe to appear in his Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The act was a staple of the Ringling circus throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The troupe eventually became known as the Flying Wallendas after a newspaper writer reported that it looked as if the Wallendas were flying following a botched tightrope stunt in 1944.
In 1948, the Wallendas debuted their now-famous seven-person pyramid, which featured four men walking the tightrope balancing shoulder bars for two more men to balance on. To top it off, a woman would balance on top of those two men — in a chair.
Dogged by tragedy
The seven-person pyramid was performed without incident for nearly 15 years. In 1962, while performing the feat at a state fair in Detroit, the front man on the pyramid lost his footing and the entire pyramid collapsed. Three of the men, Karl's son-in-law Richard Faughnan, nephew Dieter Schepp and adopted son Mario, fell to the ground. Faughnan and Schepp died, while Mario was paralyzed from the waist down. Karl reportedly saved himself by grabbing the wire with his legs, and he managed to catch Schepp's 17-year-old sister Christiana.
Further tragedy struck in 1963 when Karl's sister-in-law Rietta Wallenda fell to her death during a stunt in Omaha.
In 1972 another son-in-law, Richard Guzman, died after touching a live electric wire during a tightrope crossing between light towers at a stadium in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Despite these events, Karl continued on with the Flying Wallendas act. Even though he successfully performed the seven-person pyramid in 1963 and 1977, he put more focus on his solo performances.
Karl was well known throughout the 1970s for crossing tightropes that spanned a number of American stadia, including Veterans' Stadium in Philadelphia, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and the Astrodome in Houston. He also successfully crossed the Tallulah Gorge in Georgia in 1970 at the age of 65 — performing two headstands along the 366-metre wire at a height of nearly 215 metres.
On March 30, 1978, while attempting to cross between two hotel towers in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Karl Wallenda lost his footing on the wire and fell to his death. The weather had been windy, although the Wallenda family has always maintained that misplaced guy wires were to blame for the 73-year-old patriarch's fall.
The modern Wallendas
Following Karl's death, his descendants carried on the family tradition of death-defying high wire stunts.
There are currently two troupes of Wallendas. The Flying Wallendas are headed by Karl's grandchildren, Tino and Delilah (Nik's mother). The Great Wallendas are led by grandchildren Rick and Rietta. Rick set a tightrope distance record, 610 metres, in 2008 (besting a record previously held by Karl).
The Flying Wallendas, a team that often includes Nik Wallenda, successfully performed the family's trademark seven-person pyramid in 1998 in Detroit. In 2001 it became the first tightrope act to perform a 10-person pyramid for a Guinness World Records TV special.
Nik Wallenda, who began performing with the family dressed as a clown when he was just two years old, has already completed a number of stunning high-wire feats in his career.
The 33-year-old began walking tightropes at the age of four, and made his professional debut at age 13.
In 1998, Nik was part of a seven-person pyramid performance in Detroit.
Kneeling on a highwire in Montreal in 1999, he proposed to circus performer Erendira (who was in the audience). The pair has since developed and starred in a number of daredevil circus acts together through their company Wallendas Inc., and has three children.
In 2001 in Japan, Nik was part of a team that set a world record for an eight-person high-wire pyramid.
In 2008, on NBC's Today Show, he set a world record for the longest and highest bicycle ride on a tightrope. He walked 76 metres along a tightrope suspended from New Jersey's 20-storey Prudential Building, and rode back along the wire on a bicycle.
And in 2011, Nik and his mother Delilah completed the walk between the hotel towers in Puerto Rico that killed Karl Wallenda more than 30 years before — customarily without a safety net.
On his website, Nik writes that his goal is to walk a highwire across the Grand Canyon.