Nik Wallenda, who will have the world watching when he walks a wire across Niagara Falls on Friday, hails from a long line of circus performers known for their death-defying stunts.
@Body copy rag:While the 1978 wire-walking death of family patriarch Karl Wallenda – Nik's great-grandfather – is recalled by many, less is known about the other Wallendas who lived their lives atop the wire.
The Flying Wallendas are a family of spectacular highs and tragic lows. They are uncommon and irregular, making a living through popular and outrageous stunts. But they also have had squabbles, struggles and disappointments that mirror the regular folks who follow their careers and wonder why they do what they do.
The circus act began with Karl Wallenda's great-grandfather, who in the 1700s led a group of street jugglers in Bavaria and later Germany. Like his brother Herman Wallenda, Karl learned the trade at a young age, launching his own high-wire act by 1922 after a short stint working in a coal mine.
The family hit its big break when John Ringling saw the act in 1927 and signed it to his "Greatest Show on Earth," drawing rave reviews a year later in its Madison Square Garden debut.
Over the coming decades, the Wallendas experienced their greatest notoriety – and worst tragedies – by performing the seven-person pyramid, which featured three rows of wire-walkers balanced atop each other.
The pyramid made the Wallendas a household name, but it also killed two members of the troupe and paralyzed Karl's son Mario Wallenda when the pyramid collapsed during a 1962 performance in Detroit. Karl Wallenda, hanging from the wire by his legs, managed to save a young performer when he grabbed and held her by her hair.
A year later, Wallenda performer Yetta Grotofent fell face-first to her death from a 50-foot pole. Richard Guzman, a son-in-law of Karl Wallenda, met his death in 1972 after an electric shock sent him falling 50 feet to the ground.
Of course, the most famous Wallenda death was that of Karl Wallenda. Walking atop a wire in Puerto Rico in 1978, the 73-year-old wobbled, started to fall and grabbed the wire briefly. But he couldn't hold on, plummeting 120 feet to the concrete below.
"I told him it was so windy, and I asked him why he wanted to do it," Wallenda's wife, Helen, recalled years later. "He said, ‘Because I gave them my word.' "
Some said that was the way Karl Wallenda would have wanted to leave the world.
"I don't ever want to die in a bed," he told his wife.
From all the accidents, a signature Wallenda trait emerged: Even in tragedy, the show must go on. Gunther Wallenda, who survived the deadly Detroit fall, vowed the next day to continue that weekend's shows.
Generations of Wallendas, including Nik's parents Terry Troffer and Delilah Wallenda, also followed in Karl Wallenda's footsteps.
While not all family members have become daredevils, dozens have courted national attention with their daring acts. They live for the spotlight. Early press accounts of Karl Wallenda's thirst for publicity draw a striking resemblance to his great-grandson, who last month in Niagara Falls held daily press briefings with reporters from across the globe.
They are wired a bit differently than most, seeing wire-walking not only as an occupation but a passion and a cause. As Karl Wallenda once said, and Nik often repeats, "Life is on the wire. Everything else is standing still."
That spirit is what drove Delilah Wallenda and her son Nik back to the spot where her grandfather was killed. The pair last year walked between the same Puerto Rico hotels where Karl Wallenda fell to his death. When they met halfway across the wire, Delilah bent down and Nik stepped over her.
"It's probably the most emotional walk I've ever done in my life," Nik Wallenda said last week.
Before the walk, Nik Wallenda was interviewed by the same reporter who interviewed Karl Wallenda before his fatal attempt. When he made it to the spot where his great-grandfather fell, he kneeled on the wire, looked to the heavens and blew his famous relative a kiss. "It's kind of setting people straight, telling people, ‘Yes, we've lost family members, but we're still here.' "
Delilah Wallenda performed atop a high-wire with brother Tino Wallenda in the 1970s and 1980s, and later with her husband, whom she met while he was a member of Karl Wallenda's crew.
The couple made sure their son was properly trained when he decided to embark on his own wire-walking career.
"Any parent would have a [reservation] of, ‘I don't know if I want my kids doing this.' But it's tough, because it's what they love to do."
The family isn't all flash and spectacle. At times, they have struggled to make their way in America. Though fame has come easily, fortune has been harder to grasp, and Karl Wallenda performed some of his stunts because he needed the money. Nik Wallenda has said he could be losing money on the Niagara Falls stunt.
Divorce and disagreements have split some segments of the family to this day. Karl Wallenda was married twice, and it has been reported that factions of the family, despite living close together in Sarasota, Fla., aren't on the best of terms. Different branches of the family attempt to perform under the Wallenda name, though Nik has garnered the most publicity.
"A lot of that comes from the competitiveness of the family," Wallenda said. "We have the same issues like anyone else."
Though the family's most publicized deaths occurred from falls atop a high-wire, they also have perished from suicides, car accidents, cancer and AIDS.
Steven Wallenda, Karl's grandnephew, was hit by a car in 1976 and was later jailed after a domestic dispute with his estranged wife, Angel Wallenda. Angel lost a leg to cancer and died of the disease in 1996 at age 28.
Three years earlier, Mario B. Wallenda, Karl's grandson, died of AIDS in his Sarasota, Fla., home. He was 36. The HIV virus was discovered after he collapsed following a performance in Canada.
"We're normal people," Nik Wallenda said. "Just like a roofing company passes it on from one generation to another. It's just that our line of work is very unique."
Wallenda's wife, Erendira Wallenda, can actually boast a more impressive lineage than her husband. Her mother's family contains eight generations of circus performers, while her father's has seven. Nik Wallenda proposed to his wife – who performs her own stunts – atop a high wire in Montreal.
Surprisingly, Wallenda doesn't encourage his children to follow his path. He wants all three, ages 14, 11 and 9, to become doctors or lawyers. Children of his cousins can carry on the family daredevil tradition, he said.
The entire family will be watching when Wallenda steps out onto the wire Friday. When his German relatives came to the falls to see his practice sessions, they handed Wallenda a photo from the 1940s of Karl visiting Niagara Falls.
He sees the walk as a tribute to the long legacy of his family's stunts. But his grandmother says Karl Wallenda, if he were around to see it, would have reacted to it like a true Wallenda.
"She said, ‘He'd want to steal it from [me]. He'd want to be the one to walk.' "
GRAPHIC: QUICK HITS ABOUT ‘NIK'
Name: Nikolas "Nik" Aaron?Wallenda
Born: Jan. 24, 1979 (age 33)
Height: 5 feet, 11 inches
Weight: 195 lbs
Hometown: Sarasota, Fla.
Wife: Erendira Wallenda, an eighth-generation circus performer.
Parents: Mother Delilah Wallenda, wire-walker and granddaughter of Karl Wallenda, and father Terry Troffer, his safety manager.
Children: Yanni, 14, Amadaos, ?11 and Evita, 9.
Food: Eats fruit, an energy bar and drinks plenty of water before each wire-walk.
Routine:Before the walk, focuses, prays and chats with supporters.
Also: Typically walks with cameras attached to balancing pole and headset to talk to safety team.