Family that had been acrobats and trapeze artistes for three generations. At six, Karl was performing in the family show. Five years later he was doing stunts in beer halls. His best act was stacking three chairs and doing a handstand on the back of the top chair.
In the early 1920S Karl met a high-wire walker named Louis Weitzmann who taught him to walk the wire. Weitzmann designed an audience heart-stopper that would use Karl’s handstand prowess. With a balancing pole, Weitzmann would walk to the centre of the wire. Karl would follow, with a hand on Weitzmann’s shoulder for balance. Weitzmann would bend low at the knees. Karl would climb up his back to a handstand position on his shoulders, and Weitzmann would then stand erect. The stunt and its variations were quickly booked throughout central Europe.
Two years or so later Karl formed his own troupe with his older brother, Herman, and a young woman. She was the high-mounter who balanced on Karl’s shoulders or on a bar yoked between Herman and Karl as they walked across the wire. When she left the act, Karl advertised for a replacement. The only reply was from Helen Kreis, a teenager who turned out to be a natural on the wire.
In 1927 The Great Wallendas were invited to perform in Havana. The highlight of their show was a three-tier act : Herman and a young man named Joe Geiger were the first tier—the under-slanders; Karl stood on a chair on the pole yoked between them, with Helen mounted on his shoulders. John Ringling, the American circus impresario, saw the performance and offered Karl a contract with “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Karl signed.
ONE audience-thrilling feature of The Great Wallendas’ act was the absence of a net under the 4o-foothigh wire. While a flying-trapeze act must use a net because missed catches are not unusual, Karl believed that a net was dangerous for The Great Wallendas.
Flyers practise falling and know how to land on their backs to help avoid injury. But it was impossible for a four-person act to practise falling. Bodies would strike bodies on the net, and the cascade of balancing bars, bicycles and a chair could kill or injure. The net offered no security. It was better to rely on skill and quick thinking.
KARL was 23 when his troupe opened in New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1928. As the Wallendas stepped out on the three-quarter-inch wire in their deerskin slippers, the band music muted and salesmen stopped hawking their wares. After the 15-minute performance, the audience broke into loud applause, foot-stamping and whistling. The troupe was dismayed. In central Europe such a display was the same as being booed. They took a quick bow and fled.
The noise continued until the ring-master told Karl, “We can’t go on with the next act until you take your bows.” “But the whistling?” Karl asked. “That’s appreciation,” the ring-master explained.
KARL always tried to give the audiences a new feat. In one, Helen perched without, a bar on Karl’s shoulders as he stood on a chair balanced on a bar across the shoulders of two men on bicycles. In another, Herman stood on a bar yoked between two under-standers and Karl did a handstand on his shoulders. But the act that established the Wallendas as truly special was the seven-person pyramid. Conceived by Karl in 1947, it was to bring triumph and tragedy.
The pyramid consisted of four under-standers, the first and second pairs yoked together by shoulder bars. Karl and Herman, also yoked, were the second level of the pyramid, balanced on the two first-tier bars. Then a top-mounter, either Helen or her younger sister, sat and stood in a chair balanced on the second-tier bar.
The troupe started practising on a wire three feet high, then 12 feet and finally at about 4° feet. Karl ‘harped continually on precautions. “Never drop the pole. Make it a part of your body. It is your security. If you drop the pole you endanger your life and the lives of everybody else on the wire.”
“On the wire you concentrate,” Karl repeated. Concentration enabled the seven-person pyramid to stave off the unexpected. Once, the So wire suddenly slackened about six inches. All the balancing poles seesawed precariously, but everyone kept his erect position and the pyramid held firm. In outdoor performances the pyramid survived cloudbursts and gusts of wind.