The Flying Wallendas is the name of a family of acrobats and daredevil stars that has been performing since the 1920s. Well-known modern-day wire walker Nik Wallenda is a seventh-generation member of the family. As he embarks on his latest high wire act when he attempts to cross a live volcano in Nicaragua, here’s what you need to know about Nik’s great-grandfather Karl Wallenda and all of his aerialist descendants.
1. The Wallenda Family Performances Date Back to the 1780s
According to the Flying Wallendas’ website, the Wallendas were a family of acrobats, clowns, jugglers, animal trainers and aerialists that were performing in a circus troupe as far back as 1780 in Old Bohemia, which was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire back then. The country known as Bohemia is now part of the modern-day Czech Republic.
The family would travel around, performing in city squares. The website describes the family as “trusting in their talent and skills to provoke thrills and joy, relying on the generosity of the audience to reward them as they passed the hat around.”
By the late 1800s, the family had become particularly famous for their expertise in the flying trapeze. In 1905, Karl Wallenda was born in Magdeburg, Germany. According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Karl’s father Englebert was abusive and eventually abandoned the family, but not before hitting young Karl so hard on the side of the head that he left Karl practically deaf in one ear.
The family struggled after Englebert left. Karl’s sister died in his arms when he was just 7 or 8 years old, and by age 11, he was supporting the family by doing tricks in beer halls, working in a coal mine and performing with a traveling circus.
2. Karl Wallenda Founded the Flying Wallendas in the 1920s
When Karl was around 16 years old, he answered an ad in the paper for an “experienced hand balancer with courage.” The ad led him to Louis Weitzmann, a wire-walker who wanted Karl to walk out to the middle of the wire and do a handstand on Weitzmann’s feet while Weitzmann was lying down on the wire cable. By 1922, Karl felt that he had learned enough from Weitzmann and put together his own act.
Karl recruited his brother Herman, a man named Joseph Geiger, and a woman named Helen Kreis to form his first act; Kreis would eventually become Karl’s second wife. The act began touring in Europe, performing a four-person, three-level pyramid that featured Karl sitting on a chair balanced between the other two men who were on bicycles on a wire 50 feet in the air. Then Helen would climb up and balance on Karl’s shoulders.
Eventually, John Ringling of the famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus saw the Wallendas perform in Cuba and immediately booked them for the circus. The Wallendas, known then as “The Great Wallendas,” debuted in the U.S. in 1928 at Madison Square Garden where they received a 15-minute standing ovation. An interesting aside here is that the Wallendas’ net was misplaced during the travel, so they performed without it — and thereafter, performing without a net became a signature of the Wallenda act.
The Great Wallendas headlined the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus for most of the 1930s and 1940s. Karl struck out on his own in 1947, creating the seven-person chair pyramid that the now-“Flying Wallendas” became known for. It involved four men standing on a wire in two pairs that were harnessed together by shoulder bars. Then on top of them was a second level with two more men harnessed together by shoulder bars. On top was a woman sitting and then standing on a chair. This stunt was a signature of the act until 1962 when tragedy struck the family.
3. Wallenda Family Tragedies
In 1962, while performing in Detroit, the seven-person chair stunt collapsed. Karl and Herman fell to the wire and managed to hold on to Karl’s niece Jana, who had been standing on the chair at the top. But three of the four men who had been on the bottom level fell off the wire 32 feet to the ground; one, Karl’s nephew Gunther, managed to stay on.
Of the three men who fell, two were killed — Karl’s nephew Dieter Schepp and Karl’s son-in-law, Dick Faughnan, who was married to Karl’s daughter, Jenny. Jenny was Nik and Lijana Wallenda’s grandmother and Dick was their grandfather. The third man who fell was Karl’s son Mario, who was left paralyzed by the accident. According to the Herald-Tribune, Jenny blamed her father for her husband’s death because Karl let Dieter, the weakest wire-walker, be part of the stunt that day.
That was the deadliest incident for the Flying Wallendas, but hardly the only one. In 1944, the Wallendas were performing in Hartford, Connecticut, when a fire broke out. While all of the Wallendas managed to get to safety, 168 people were killed from either the fire or from the chaos of the nearly 7000-member audience trying to escape the circus tent.
The Wallenda Family itself has also suffered many other losses from various stunt accidents over the years. In 1963, Karl’s sister-in-law Rietta Grotefent fell 100 feet to her death while performing in Omaha, and in 1972, Karl’s son-in-law Richard “Chico” Guzman was killed during a performance in West Virginia. What happened was that Chico took Karl’s balancing pole right after Karl finished a performance, then the pole accidentally came into contact with a live electrical wire. The shock sent Chico tumbling to more electrical wiring 10 feet below and he subsequently fell another 50 feet to his death.
Then in March 1978, when Karl was 73 years old, he lost his balance attempting to walk between the towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. There were gusts of up to 30 mph and one of them sent him falling 120 feet to his death. His then-17-year-old granddaughter Rietta, named for Karl’s sister-in-law Rietta who died in 1963, was there, not 50 feet from the fall.
4. Karl’s Death Caused a Split in the Family
Karl’s son Mario, the one paralyzed in the 1962 accident, told the Herald-Tribune that once Karl was gone, the family rifts started to widen.
“Once dad got killed, all these feuds started. He made everybody go together, he was the glue that held us together,” said Mario.
The split happened between Karl’s grandson, Tino, who was the son of Jenny Wallenda and her late husband Dick Faughnan, and Terry Troffer, who married into the family when he wed Tino’s sister Delilah. Terry and Delilah are Nik and Lijana Wallenda’s parents.
According to the Herald-Tribune, some family members, including Terry, thought Karl was getting too old to perform. It started when they were practicing a three-man bicycle pyramid and Karl fell because his chair was crooked. That was the dealbreaker for Terry.
It was an obvious mistake and it was a dealbreaker for me,” says Troffer. “I didn’t have the courage to work with him, the trust was gone. I said ‘Karl, I can’t hold the pyramid for you anymore.’ Karl was the greatest, he was a phenomenon. Muhammed Ali was the greatest. But everyone reaches a certain point, and to me it was clear that Karl was at the end of his game.”
Terry and Delilah announced that they would be touring on their own from then on out because they didn’t feel safe performing with Karl. Terry says the split was amicable.
Tino, however, didn’t think Karl was too old to perform and instead called it a “power play” on Terry’s part and calling his grief over Karl an act.
“[Terry] tried to pull a power play with my grandfather and take over the act in 1978. My grandfather fired him. His plan backfired. Now he sheds tears on TV crying that if he had been in Puerto Rico the accident would not have happened,” said Tino.
But Terry maintained that there was no rift and that he has “no interest or desire to know what [his in-laws] are doing.”
Then later, there was a legal battle between Tino and Karl’s grandson Rick, who was one of three children born to Carla Wallenda and Chico Guzman. Rick walked away from the Flying Wallendas in the 1990s after two accidents that left him injured and shaken. He gave both “The Great Wallendas” and “Flying Wallendas” names to Tino and went to college.
But in 2001, the high wire pulled Rick back in and he began performing with Tino again. At that time, Rick wanted to reacquire the performance names he had given to Tino and Tino refused to give them up.
“I don’t want to bring up a lot of negative stuff here,” Tino says. “But I continue to hold [the names]. To a certain extent, I want to hold it because I want to ensure that all the Wallendas are not going to have any repercussions from anybody else by going under the Wallenda banner. And if I own that title then I can also maintain that standard. It’ll go to my kids.”
Finally, when Karl’s daughter Jenny died in 2015, another rift happened when Nik evicted his Aunt Tammy from Jenny’s house and legal proceedings followed. Tammy passed away from a heart attack in 2018.
5. The Flying Wallendas Sixth and Seventh Generations Are Still Performing
Nik Wallenda is arguably the most well-known Wallenda still performing. He married renowned aerialist Erendira Vasquez in 1999 and their three children, Yanni, Amadaos, and Evita, are taking up the family tradition. But there are over a dozen other Wallendas still actively doing high-flying, death-defying stunts all over the world.
On Terry and Delilah’s side of the family tree, there are Nik and his sister Lijana, who walked across Times Square together in 2019. Nik and his mother also reenacted his great-grandfather Karl’s final stunt in San Juan in 2011.
Nik and Lijana also perform with their aunt Rietta — the same Rietta who witnessed Karl’s death when she was 17. In fact, in 2017, Lijana and Rietta sustained serious injuries when the family was performing an eight-person pyramid stunt and the pyramid collapsed. Nik and Lijana’s cousin Blake was one of the performers unhurt in the accident; he is one of Tammy’s four children.
Over on Tino’s side of the family, his daughters Andrea, Aurelia, and Alida and his son, Alesandro, all perform high-flying stunts. And Nik’s Aunt Tammy, half-sister to Tino and Delilah, was a big cat performer. Her kids Quentin and Zorayah appear to be following in her footsteps.
According to a CBS News profile, as of 2012, there were 14 Wallenda family members performing in various troupes.
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