Back to the Archives01.11.05

Flying Wallenda:  Paraplegic readies for a comeback

SARASOTA -- Mario Wallenda says he doesn't remember anything about that day in January 1962 when he tumbled from a tightrope at the fairgrounds coliseum in Detroit, an accident that left him a paraplegic and forced his retirement from the family business.

The adopted son of Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the famous Flying Wallenda family of high-wire performers, Mario was 21 when he wheeled himself away from the circus life. But he still ached inside each time the family packed up and left for another season on the road.

Now 64 and retired after decades working a regular job in a contact lens lab, Wallenda is looking to get back up on the high wire. He and his family figure people would pay to see someone named Wallenda strap himself into a specially built two-wheeled contraption and motor across a tightrope, perhaps stretched across the Grand Canyon or between two skyscrapers.

Wallenda says he's always missed show business, and he could use the money to supplement his meager Social Security income, but mostly he just wants something to do that makes him feel alive and productive again. He's tried woodworking, painting and other pastimes, but nothing engaged him.

"I'm 64, and hopefully I have a while," Wallenda said recently, sitting outside the modest home he built years ago on land his father bought in the 1940s, when Sarasota was the epicenter of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. "I just can't sit around the house and not do anything."

Wallenda and his nephew, Tino, actually developed the stunt for the 1996 Special Olympics in Atlanta. But liability concerns got in the way and it never happened.

Later, in 2001, the Wallendas hooked up with Guinness World Records, which paid for the rigging and taped Mario doing the stunt 40 feet above the parking lot of a Sarasota church. But for whatever reasons, the segment never aired in the United States.

But Wallenda, who took just one practice run before performing for the cameras, got the bug again.

"I'm not going to lie to you. I was saying, 'Oh my God, what the hell am I doing?"' he said. "But once I got going ... it's just a trip to perform in front of a live audience."

Lately, though, his family has had difficulty finding audiences for Wallenda and his electric "sky cycle," which he drives on the wire using switches on a long balancing pole. Apparently people who would book his act are uncomfortable with making a spectacle out of a disabled person, said his sister Jenny, who's been acting as his agent.

"Nobody wants to see someone who was hurt like that go up there and maybe get hurt again," Jenny Wallenda said. "I think people should see it. There are so many people who are paralyzed and are sitting there twiddling their thumbs waiting to die."

Hoping to generate some publicity again, Wallenda got the sky cycle out of his garage again and did the stunt a third time last month.

He made it the 72 feet across the wire but didn't feel comfortable in the chair this time, didn't like the lighting and admittedly was "spooked" the whole way. He is undeterred, though, and anxious to try it again, much to the chagrin of his wife, Linda, who has taken to calling his high-wire vehicle the "psycho cycle."

"I know why he wants to do it, but I think he's nuts," she said.

His wife accuses him of wanting to go out in a blaze of glory like his famous father, who at age 73 fell more than 10 stories to his death while walking a wire stretched between two hotels in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1978.

"She's a towner," he said of his wife, using the circus term for a non-circus person. "She doesn't understand about things like that. ... I don't have a death wish, contrary to what people think."

Mario Wallenda understands. Having trained on the tightrope since he was a toddler, he dropped out of school at 14 to perform with the family. He eventually became an anchor of the famous Wallenda seven-person pyramid in which four men yoked together with shoulder harnesses traversed the wire carrying two more on top, with a woman on a chair at the pinnacle.

The family never used a net because Karl said it provided a false sense of security.

The 1962 accident at the Shrine Circus occurred when Mario Wallenda's cousin Deiter Schepp -- one of the four anchormen -- shifted a balancing pole in his hands, causing the pyramid to tumble.

Schepp and Jenny's husband, Richard Faughnan, were killed. The fourth anchorman remained standing, as Karl and his brother Herman fell to the wire from the second level and held on. Schepp's sister Jana, who was on the chair, grabbed Karl, who held on until a net could be rushed in more than 32 feet below.

Mario Wallenda remembers only waking up in the hospital with useless legs.

Now, using his legendary surname as a draw, he's hoping to do the sky cycle stunt a few times a year, let the applause wash over him again and make a little money.

"The accident happened when he was very young, and it killed his career in the circus," said Tino Wallenda, who heads one of several branches of the family still performing regularly. "To come back and do it would be a great victory."

Associated Press Last update: January 16, 2005