Friday the thirteenth, 1936, was truly a bright day for the world of circus as well as the Wallenda family, as that was the day that Carla Wallenda was born.
It only took 6 weeks before Carla was part of the world renown Wallenda high wire act, as her mother, Helen, held little Carla in her arms, while Helen sat on Karl’s shoulders, while he rode a bicycle across the high wire 40 feet above the center ring of the circus.
By the age of 3, Carla shared top billing as the feature of a short subject movie with Lou Jacobs, Ringling Brother Circus feature clown, as Carla traversed the high silver strand as a bone-fide wire walker!
In 1939, when World War II broke out between Germany and England, the Wallenda’s were performing in England; and because Carla was born in Sarasota, Florida her family was allowed to return to the United States. However, her half sister, Jenny, was caught in Berlin and had to spend the duration of the war in Germany.
Carla always loved all aspects of the circus; getting to be in the Spectacular parade at the beginning of each performance and always finding little spots to fill in with various acts.
Wallenda’s left Ringling in 1947 and began the feat that would truly establish their international fame – the 7 man pyramid on the high wire. Of course, Carla had to remain at home during the school year but she constantly badgered her father to become a full time member. A man of his word, Karl told Carla that if she could learn the headstand on the shoulder bar (the bar on the shoulders of two men) she could go full time with the troupe. He didn’t know how determined his daughter was! All Carla did was practice, practice, practice!! 1950 saw Carla performing with the troupe full time; Karl had to keep his word.
Carla was one of the lady’s on the chair on the top of the “7″ for the next 11 years, alone with her aunt Rietta, her sister Jenny, and a couple other girls.
Fortunately, when the tragic fall of the “7″ occurred in Detroit, Michigan, in January, 1962 at the Shrine Circus, Carla was with a second unit in New York.
1963 brought more tradgedy to the Wallenda family as Carla’s Aunt Rietta fell to her death from the sway pole in Omaha, Nebraska. Carla had always adored her red-headed aunt and the dangerous sway pole attraction. After Rietta’s fall, Karl put the pole into the semi and said that the act was retired because it was too dangerous – but Carla had other thoughts – she wanted to follow not in the footsteps of her famous father, Karl, on the wire, but wanted to continue on the sway pole. Her father emphatically said “NO” but Carla was determined and found another pole act rigging for sale and bought it. Karl could see that there was no stopping his daughter, so he allowed her to use Rietta’s pole.
1964 Carla made her debut in St. Louis on the pole. But Carla had always practiced in the daylight, her first show was at night, so when all the lights went out in the stadium to feature Carla, she couldn’t see anything on the ground to spot for her balance – almost another tragedy! But Carla’s fast reaction and her father spotting her on the ground, together they quickly resolved the dilemma and the performance was breath-taking.
Carla was also a part of recreating the “7″ in 1964 in Ft. Worth, Texas. The last performance her father would ever expect to do of his life-long dream.
Carla married Richard “Chico” Guzman and the had Valeria, Carla’s fourth child. Together, Carla and Chico worked several acts, including high wire, the pole and the hanging perch with serveral different circuses throughout the North American continent. 1972, Chico was killed in a freak accident and Carla struck out on her own with her children – Carla on the sway pole and the kids doing a unicycle act.
Carla has continued thrilling audiences in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean, Bermuda and has even set a world record by performing the hanging perch beneath the 7 UP hot air balloon that was televised on the “Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon”. her personal height record is doing the haning perch beneath a helicopter at 400 feet.
Continuing on with the sway pole working at fairs, festivals, and celebration, now 75 years young, Carla still amazes and thrills “children of all ages”. And, somehow, she finds time to locate every yard sale within a 20 mile radius of any event she is at.
Wallenda: Reflects on career:
It’s 1959 and Carla Wallenda, who at 23 years of age was already a seasoned circus performer having started walking wires at age 3, was in Havana, Cuba.
The young aerialist, of the world famous Flying Wallenda lineage, had traveled there with about 100 other performers as part of the Tom Packs Shrine circus.
Packs was best known for being one of the top wrestling promoters of the first half of the 20th century, but with that career behind him had focused his efforts on his traveling circus. Havana had been a regular stop around the holiday season and the show had always been well received, Wallenda recalled.
In 1959, however she and the circus entourage found themselves in the cross-hairs of the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro that was culminating its six year armed revolt by overthrowing dictator Fulgencio Batista.
“They were right in the middle of Havana when Castro took over,” recalled Wallenda, puffing on a cigarette and enjoying a cup of coffee on a lawn chair outside of her trailer at the Auburn Cornfest, where she’s been astonishing the locals with her high wire acrobatics this weekend.
“The soldiers all had big beards and a red arm band. They came out of the hills. They were stuck there for six days. Castro set up his headquarters at what had been our circus site. You couldn’t get food and you didn’t want to drink the water.”
“She’s a combat veteran,” said a smiling Mike Morgan, Carla’s husband of 34 years and performing sidekick. “Carla’s a tough lady.”
Meanwhile, Packs had high tailed it back to the states on a private plane. Luckily, he returned with two huge charter planes to bring his performers back home. “It was a hairy situation,” Morgan said. “The American consulate didn’t know they were on there and they didn’t know if Packs was coming back. Fortunately it worked out.”
Things have been working out exceedingly well for Wallenda, who now at 76 continues to bring her aerial thrill show to small town festivals across the land.
She traveled with big name circus acts like Barnum & Bailey as a child, but these days prefers venues like the Space Coast State Fair in Brevard County and the Auburn Cornfest.
Besides funding problems and the economy have seen state fairs and circus shows dwindle through the years
Skeeter the clown, sometimes known by her given name Tina Bausch when she’s not performing as part of the Culpepper & Merriweather Big Top Circus, said when she started clowning 29 years ago there were 39 American Big Top shows.
Now “there are only 11,” she said.
“People can’t afford it,” Wallenda said, “Great big carnivals often bring with them great big problems. When we performed at the state fair in Detroit years ago, we were told not to leave the grounds at night. It gets pretty rough. I much prefer these family-friendly events were you don’t get the riff-raff”.
Pundits laud our sport heroes’ ability to play games under pressure. Workers complain about stress in the workplace. Then there’s the diminutive Carla Wallenda, a 5-2 dynamo who has high wire heroics in her blood.
If she has a single misstep in her “office,” a 110-foot highly pliable metal sway pole that she climbs to perform mind-boggling-sky-walking-feats, death is the certain outcome, not a lost game or a missed promotion.
She’s a Wallenda, daughter of the flying Wallendas founder Karl Wallenda, and there’s a family tradition that needs to be carried on.
The spectators are clearly more anxiety-ridden then the unflappable performer.
“I love it,” she said. “I’m a seventh generation performer. I go on and my kids (son Rick, 57, Daughter Rietta, 51,) both go on sky walking. How do you explain it? Why do people jump out of helicopters?”
Rietta is named for her aunt, who plummeted to her death in 1963. Father Karl met the same fate in 1978. There have been other performance-related tragedies through the years for the high-flying family. Still, Carla Wallenda then and now remains unbowed.
She might cap her Space Coast State Fair evening performance by performing a headstand on a wire that was 110-feet off the ground sans harness or safety net below.
“People ask me all the
time if I’m worried,” Morgan said. “The only time I’m worried is when Carla gets behind the wheel. When she is up their doing her thing, she’s so graceful and beautiful. You have to see it in person. TV and video clips don’t do it justice.”
The couple lives in Sarasota, Fla., where they met so many years ago.
“Carla was my landlord back then,” said Morgan.
Wallendas bright blue eyes still sparkle and really start to smile when she explains the thrill she gets when the crowd goes wild after yet another one of her acrobatic thrill shows.
“There’s nothing quite like it,” she said
Wallenda, only half-jokingly it seems, plans to perform for at least 24 more years.
“I’m only 76,” she said
The only difference in her performance now compared to her younger years is a situation that is easily remedied.
“I don’t climb the pole as fast as I did 20 years ago,” Wallenda said. “No problem. Mike just plays the Music faster and the crowd doesn’t notice.”
Wallenda will perform shows at the Space Coast State Fair Nov 7-17 at Space Coast Stadium in Viera.