When aerialist Karl Wallenda was in London recently, he gazed out of his hotel window overlooking Tower Bridge. “I thought, ‘Oh, I would love to walk there and see the view,’ ” says the 71-year-old patriarch of the great Flying Wallenda family. It was a thought encouraged by the promoters of the Circus World Championships, a four-day extravaganza of riders and acrobats which will be seen on American TV next year.
And so a 5/8-inch-thick wire, 350 feet long, was strung between two corners of the hotel, 100 feet above the pavement. Before gawking chambermaids and passersby, Wallenda ventured out carrying a 24-foot balancing pole. “It was in the morning and pretty dark,” he recalls. “The wire was like a piece of rubber. And it was very windy—that’s the worst enemy I have.” Twice he appeared to stumble. Undaunted, the German-born Wallenda stopped in the middle of the wire and stood on his head. Then he walked up the final slope and back into the safety of a hotel room. “Why do I do it?” he says. “For the excitement, the admiration, of course. For the marvelous sense of living for the moment.”
Great-grandfather Wallenda (six of his kin work as aerialists) celebrated the eight-minute journey by downing a martini that was waiting for him on the window ledge. He chased it with champagne. “I always drink dry martinis,” Wallenda says, “after I perform.”
Karl’s first big wire walk took place back in 1921 over the blue Danube near Budapest. “I was born in the business,” he says. “It’s my life.” In 1970 he walked across a 750-foot-deep gorge in northeast Georgia, one of his most spectacular feats. He had his “worst experience” in Detroit in 1962, in a circus accident which killed two members of his family. A resident of Sarasota, Fla., he still wire-walks about a dozen times a year at $10,000 a trip. Karl scoffs at retirement. “When the good Lord gives me a sign to stop, I’ll stop.”