Niagara stuntman from long line of 'Flying Wallendas'
Nik Wallenda looks at the tightrope cable in Niagara Falls, Canada, Wednesday, June 13, 2012. (AP Photo/David Duprey)
Published Friday, June 15, 2012 7:56AM EDT
Stuntman Nik Wallenda has tightrope-walked his way into the hearts and minds of many Canadians only recently, but his daredevil family of Flying Wallendas have been attempting to defy death for more than a century.
The seventh-generation acrobat has garnered international headlines leading up to his history-making crossing of the Niagara Falls gorge on Friday – an homage or sorts to his famous grandfather Karl Wallenda who perfected the art of "sky walking".
The 32-year-old Wallenda has big, suede shoes to fill while carrying on the family business. The Wallenda family first began performing seven generations ago – first as street performers, later as circus trapeze artists and eventually as record-setting tightrope walkers.
Wallenda's parents, Terry and Delilah Troffer (Nik performs with his mother's famous maiden name) both work in the stunt industry. Nik himself proposed to his wife Erendira during a performance in Montreal in 1999.
It is a dizzying family tree, with scores of daredevil cousins, high-wire-walking uncles and aunts and likeminded in-laws mixed throughout.
The ancestral Wallenda family was part of a variety of travelling circuses since the 1780s, travelling through the villages of Europe and performing in city squares for gratuities from the audience.
The Wallendas perfected their craft over the next two generations as they continued street performing in front of small audiences. By the late 1800s they had established a reputation for their skills on the flying trapeze.
The Flying Wallendas
Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the modern-era Flying Wallendas, was born in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1905, and began performing in the family shows at the age of six.
Karl would stack several chairs into a tower before balancing himself in a handstand on the top of the pile.
He briefly worked with highwire walker Louis Weitzmann, picking up tips from the legend and employing them in his own shows with brother, Herman Wallenda, and a young assistant, Helen Kreis, who would later become Karl's wife.
Karl's troupe was spotted by American circus magnate John Ringling during a performance in Cuba and was hired to appear with "The Greatest Show on Earth."
The Great Wallendas debuted their act at New York's Madison Square Gardens in 1928. They performed without a safety net, which had been misplaced in shipping, and received a 15-minute standing ovation, according to family legend.
Karl Wallenda founded his own circus in 1947, headlined by a trapeze performance that featured a seven-person pyramid.
Tragedy struck the Flying Wallendas during a performance on Jan. 30, 1962, when their seven-person pyramid collapsed and three members of the troupe fell to the ground below the high wire. Two performers died, a distant cousin and a son-in-law, while Karl's adopted son Mario was left paralyzed from the waist down.
Jenny Wallenda, Nik's grandmother, temporarily quit the act after her second husband, Dick Faughnan, died in the 1972 pyramid crash. She would return to the family show a year later.
Karl, who suffered a cracked pelvis in the incident, began to focus more on sky walks – the art of walking between buildings along a high wire.
The Wallenda patriarch fell to his death while performing a sky walk in Puerto Rico in 1978. The family maintains the cause of the accident was not age or misstep, but a problem with the rigging.
Karl's brood continues to perform long after his passing, with two sets of grandchildren striking out on their own. Siblings Tino and Delilah (Nik's mother) became the centre of the current Flying Wallendas troupe while their cousins, Rick and Rietta, headline The Great Wallendas.
Nik Wallenda, who began performing with the family as a clown at the age of two, began walking the high wire at four. He still frequently performs as part of the Flying Wallendas circus act but excels as a sky walker.
Nik Wallenda has called crossing the Niagara gorge one of his life's dreams. His next adventure will be crossing the Grand Canyon – a lifelong dream of his great-grandfather Karl's.