published Friday, June 15th, 2012

Wallendas have rich history, not without tragedy

In this June 4, 2011 file photo, high-wire acrobats Delilah Wallenda, right, lowers her head as her son Nik Wallenda, left, crosses over her during their high-wire act where the two simultaneously walked across a 300-foot-long wire suspended 100 feet in the air between two towers of the Conrad Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. They were honoring Nik's great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, who tried to perform the same feat in 1978 but fell to his death at age 73. Today Karl’s great grandson, Nick Wallenda, will attempt a high wire walk over Niagara Falls on live television, hoping to write his famous family's name into the 153-year-old legend of daredevils who've "conquered" the natural wonder. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo, File)
In this June 4, 2011 file photo, high-wire acrobats Delilah Wallenda, right, lowers her head as her son Nik Wallenda, left, crosses over her during their high-wire act where the two simultaneously walked across a 300-foot-long wire suspended 100 feet in the air between two towers of the Conrad Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. They were honoring Nik's great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, who tried to perform the same feat in 1978 but fell to his death at age 73. Today Karl’s great grandson, Nick Wallenda, will attempt a high wire walk over Niagara Falls on live television, hoping to write his famous family's name into the 153-year-old legend of daredevils who've "conquered" the natural wonder. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo, File)
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

CAROLYN THOMPSON

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. (AP) — When Nik Wallenda sets out for his tightrope walk over Niagara Falls today, he'll be adding another chapter to his family's storied daredevil history which dates back more than two centuries. Wallenda has said he is disappointed he is being made to wear a tether by the event's sponsor, ABC, since his family has performed over the years without such safety precautions.

Here's a look at the first family of funambulists, along with some of their notable feats and tragedies:

— The Wallendas trace their fearless roots to 1780 Austria-Hungary, when ancestors traveled as a band of acrobats, aerialists, jugglers, animal trainers and trapeze artists.

— John Ringling of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus recruited the Wallendas after seeing them perform in Cuba. In 1928, the family gave its inaugural performance at Madison Square Garden earned a 15-minute standing ovation from an astounded audience, who marveled at them performing without a safety net.

— The signature performance of the group that came to be known in the 1940s as "The Flying Wallendas" was the seven-person chair pyramid: Two pairs of performers walk the wire, each supporting another aerialist on a pole. Those two aerialists, in turn, carry a pole upon which the seventh member of the troupe balances in a chair.

— The chair pyramid went terribly wrong in 1962 when a misstep at the State Fair Coliseum in Detroit sent two men to their deaths and paralyzed a third performer.

— In 1944, the Wallendas were performing at a Hartford, Conn., circus when a fire broke out. All the Wallendas slid down ropes to safety but 168 people died.

— The following year, Rietta Wallenda, sister-in-law of family patriarch Karl Wallenda, fell to her death in Omaha.

— Family patriarch and Nik's great-grandfather Karl Wallenda became a featured performer, doing "sky walks" between buildings and across stadiums including Busch, Veterans, JFK, Three Rivers and the Astrodome.

— Karl Wallenda successfully crossed Tallulah Gorge on a tightrope on July 18, 1970.

— In 1978, Karl Wallenda fell to his death while attempting to walk a cable strung between two hotel towers in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

— Angel Wallenda, who married into the family at age 17, performed with an artificial limb on the high-wire in 1990 after being stricken with cancer and having her right leg amputated below the knee. She died at age 28 in 1996.

— Since first stepping on a wire when he was 2, Nik Wallenda has earned six Guinness records, the latest in October 2008. That's when, 20 stories over the streets of Newark, N.J., he traveled the longest distance and the greatest height by bicycle on a wire, riding 150 feet.

— In 2011, Nik and his mother Delilah honored his late great-grandfather by walking Karl's last route at the same time, a feat that included Nik stepping over his mother in the middle of the wire.

— Fourteen family members perform today in various troupes.

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