Louis Murillo: Circus aerialist known as ‘The Great Murillo’ who became a key member of The Flying Wallendas


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Louis Murillo, who became known as “The Great Murillo”, was a leading member of the globally renowned Flying Wallendas, a German-American group of circus aerialists who disdained safety nets. He and the troupe were famed for their unique three-tier, seven-person pyramid on the high wire, with a female member – the “top-mounter” – sitting or standing on a chair at the peak.

Contrary to some reports, the Chilean-born American was not involved in the family troupe’s greatest tragedy, at the State Fair Coliseum in Detroit on 30 January 1962, when the pyramid collapsed and three members fell to the ground, leaving two dead and a third paralysed for life. In the true tradition of “the show must go on”, the rest of the family performed the stunt the next night with Murillo drafted in to make up the numbers. “I feel like a dead man on the ground,” troupe leader and patriarch Karl Wallenda told his wife at the time. “I can handle the grief better from up there.”

With Murillo as a stunt double for the actor Lloyd Bridges and Karl Wallenda’s grandchildren joining in, the troupe recreated the seven-person pyramid for the 1978 American television film The Great Wallendas (although they were more often known as the Flying Wallendas), which told of their history and that tragic night. The name Flying Wallendas had originated, like the family itself, in Magdeburg, Germany, and was a play on the name of the Wagner opera Der Fliegende Holländer [“The Flying Dutchman”].

Murillo, often performing as a solo act for the travelling Moslem Shrine Circus, was no stranger to falls. “If you put a net under me, there is no more act,” he often said. “This separates the boys from the men.” In 1964, in the same fateful Detroit venue, he fell 38 feet on to a sawdust-covered concrete floor, suffering a fractured pelvis, concussion, several broken facial bones, a broken arm and other injuries.

He was back on the wire in four months, spurning not only nets but balancing poles as well, specialising in walking up a wire slanted at 45 degrees (a balancing pole had broken most of his front teeth during an earlier fall). He was also known for his high-wire exploits on a bicycle, and even a motorbike.

Luis Murillo (he tended to be billed as Louis after moving to the US) was born in the Chilean capital, Santiago, in 1931. Thousands of Chilean farmers and others had moved there to try to survive the Great Depression which had spread from Wall Street.

A childhood fan of the Santiago football team Colo-Colo, he played football himself and hoped to make that his career until discovering that he had a special gift for balance and a head for heights. He first performed on the high wire in a circus in Colombia before joining Mexico’s famous Atayde Brothers Circus, one of the world’s oldest touring circuses until animal rights protesters forced its closure in October this year after 126 years of bringing wonder to adults and children. Murillo’s success in Mexico, where he was known as “El Gran Murillo”, brought him to the attention of Karl Wallenda, who later took him to the US.

Murillo retired to Florida in the early 1980s while he was in his early fifties, sensing that his life might best be prolonged on the ground. His mentor, Karl Wallenda, had died in 1978, aged 73, after falling while high-wire walking between the twin 10-storey towers of the Condado Plaza hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Karl’s grandchildren still perform worldwide as the Flying Wallendas. In November Nik Wallenda, 35, the seventh generation of the daredevil family, walked a 600-foot high tightrope, while blindfolded, between two Chicago skyscrapers.  

Luis Murillo (Louis Murillo), aerial performer: born Santiago, Chile 2 May 1931; married Raquel; died Saratoga, Florida 8 October 2014.