Wallenda tells Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance his family's story of high-wire artists

jajones1@bradenton.comAugust 9, 2012 

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Wallenda family reunions are strange affairs.

For one thing, there is little need to catch up on what others have been doing.

"We all do the same thing," said Rick Wallenda, 57, of Sarasota.

The family of high-wire daredevils are known for their performances without a net.

Members of the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance listened raptly Wednesday as Wallenda described performances that leave audiences holding their breath, and put hearts in throats.

Rick Wallenda's cousin, Nik Wallenda, walked a tightrope June 15 on live TV over Niagara Falls between Canada and the United States.

That was a triumph. But in 1962, a seven-person chair pyramid collapsed in Detroit, throwing three of the Wallendas to the ground, killing Richard Faughnan

and Dieter Schepp.

Karl, the patriarch of the family -- Rick Wallenda's grandfather -- injured his pelvis. Mario Wallenda was paralyzed and has been in a wheelchair for 50 years.

Then in 1978, Karl Wallenda plunged 10 stories to his death during a walk between two buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He was 73.

There were several reasons for Karl Wallenda's death, including improper installation of the guy wires intended to stabilize the main cable, gusts of wind reaching 40 mph, and Karl Wallenda's declining agility because of injury, Rick Wallenda said.

"The Wallenda story is rooted in triumph and tragedy," Alliance programming chair Steve Hall said.

The Wallendas came from Germany to Cuba and were signed by John Ringling to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1928.

Their U.S. debut with Ringling was in Madison Square Gardens.

The family has lost other members to accident as well, including Willie Wallenda in 1936 in Copenhagen, Denmark, Karl Wallenda's sister-in-law, Rietta, in 1963, and son-in-law Chico Guzman in 1972 after touching a live electric wire.

Rick Wallenda subsequently returned to San Juan and successfully completed the walk that had taken Karl Wallenda's life.

He now wears the ring that Karl Wallenda was wearing during his fatal fall in San Juan.

Rick Wallenda himself has been seriously injured in several falls.

Why do they do it?"I still walk the high wire because I like it," Rick Wallenda said. "I have fun doing what I do."

"In our family we want the positive note, not the negative," he said. "We continue. We don't stop. We can't, it's too much fun."

High-wire performances are 10 percent physical, 90 percent mental, he said.

Quoting an old saying that has an application to any walk of life, Wallenda said that "anyone who falls down seven times and gets up eight will succeed."

Today, Rick Wallenda continues to do small shows and large, including concept shows and skywalks.

In the works is a 2,000-foot walk from one island to another in an undisclosed country, he said.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be reached at 941-745-7021 or tweet @jajones1

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