OBITUARY : Gunther Wallenda

D. Nevil
Thursday 18 April 1996 23:02

Gunther Wallenda was one of the few male members of his world- renowned circus family, the Great Wallendas, to die a natural death in old age. He was 68 and died from a heart attack.

His uncle Willi was the first to die, killed while performing his highwire act in Gothenburg, Sweden, when his bicycle was blown off the highwire as he performed a solo act at an outdoors winter date. Willi had previously worked with the Bertram Mills Circus in Britain for three years in the early 1930s. In a terrible and horrifying accident in Detroit at a Shrine Circus on 30 January 1962, two members of the Wallenda troupe, Dieter Shepp and Richard Faughnan, were killed, and Mario, the adopted son of Gunther's uncle Karl, was paralysed for life. Karl and Gunther's father Herman managed to cling on to the wire as they fell, saving the fall of the girl in the act, Jane Shepp, while miraculously one member of the act, Gunther Wallenda, then aged 34, retained his balance and remained standing on the wire amid the falling bodies.

Another Wallenda, Yetty, succumbed to a spectacular fall from a 50ft- high swaypole in Omaha, Nebraska. And Karl Wallenda, the obsessive leader of the troupe for many years, continued working alone, gaining international fame from his spectacular walk across a wire above the Tallaulah Falls Gorge in 1970, appearing at the 1977 Circus World Championships in London despite breaking his neck only weeks before whilst making a television film based on his life in Florida. When asked how long he intended to go on working, he shrugged: "As long as the good Lord lets me."

He met his Maker, probably in the way he would have wished to, falling from a height of 120 feet, swept off the wire by wind while trying to walk a 300ft gap between two hotels in San Juan, on 22 March 1978, a tragedy which gained front-page coverage in every newspaper of the world. He was undoubtedly the single most famous highwire exponent since the gabled Blondin who crossed Niagara Falls on a highwire.

Karl's brother Herman, Gunther's father, acceded to his wife's plans and retired from the dangerous profession in 1969 when he was just 62, dying peacefully in 1985, aged 83. He had partnered his brother for over 40 years.

During the phenomenal career of the Great Wallendas, they received rave reviews around the world, and their triumphs and disasters were reported in nearly every languag. Karl Wallenda is regarded as the greatest innovator of highwire routines in the almost 230-year history of the modern circus.

Originally from Germany, where at one time they had their own circus, three generations of Wallendas had travelled Europe with their acts before Karl, Herman and Willi ventured to Cuba for a 12-week engagement, leaving Herman's wife Lucile and the infant Gunther in Germany. In Havana, America's leading circus magnate John Ringling spotted the family, booking it immediately for "The Greatest Show on Earth".

Opening in New York in March 1928, they proved a sensational success, and apart from a winter season in London with Bertram Mills Circus in 1930-31 and a summer season at the Blackpool Tower Circus in 1939 (from which , as war broke out, they fled back to America), they were associated with the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus until the end of 1946.

Billboard, the US show-business "bible", described the Wallendas' number as "beyond the faintest doubt, the greatest, most thrilling act". While in Europe with Mills and at Blackpool, they also fitten in engagements at the famous Cirque d'Hiver in Paris, and in 1933, during a Christmas lay-off from Ringling, appeared before the German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, at the exquisite Wintergarten Theater in Berlin, followed by appearances in Barcelona, and Leipzig's Krystal Palast theatre. Thanks also to the annual winter break of Ringling, the troupe was able to return to Mills in London for the 1935-36 season, working as "The Five Carlos". By this time, Gunther had already been initiated into the aerial exploits of the family; he had taken his first tenuous steps on the highwire at the age of five.

When the Nazis began their offensives in the late summer of 1939, the Wallendas had wisely left Britain and returned to America, shortly after becoming American citizens. While working for Ringling-Barnum in the ensuing years, the Wallendas were embroiled in a tragedy not of their own making, the disastrous circus fire in Hartford, Connecticut, on 6 July 1944. The Great Wallendas were actually midway through their act when flames were spotted licking up the sidewalls and the canvas of the Big Top. As the band broke into "The Stars and Stripes Forever" to signal an emergency, the troupe, which by now numbered Gunther in its content, made a hasty descent, and none was injured save for Helen, Karl's wife, who was trampled in the panic which followed. Gunther was among those who braved the flames to rescue helpless members of the public but at the end of the disastrous day 168 were dead, and 400 seriously maimed, in the most horrendous circus tragedy of all time.

The Great Wallendas left the Ringling show at the end of the 1946 season, and for a short while uncle Karl produced his own circus, the Wallenda Circus; due to lack of business and bad weather, it lasted only weeks. Thereafter, they travelled North and South America with other circuses, and in 1955 survived an earthquake in Nicaragua, which struck at the moment that Gunther Wallenda placed his bike on the wire to cycle across. In 1961 they were with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros Circus, the world's largest tented show, where on 24 May that year, Monaco's Prince Rainier and his young Princess, Grace, marvelled at the Wallendas' performance.

Since as early as 1938, Karl Wallenda had been dreaming of a new trick, the ultimate feat on the high wire, a seven-person pyramid, involving four "understanders", holding two more, in turn supporting the top person, all without a safety net. They perfected an act (and practised but never publicly performed one with eight people) which was, until quite recently, never duplicated by any troupe except the Bob Gerry Troupe at Olympia, London, at the Bertram Mills show in 1952-53, but this group used a safety net.

Tragedy struck the Great Wallendas at the Shrine Circus in Detroit's State Fair Coliseum on 30 January 1962, when the pyramid faltered and fell, killing two and miming a third member of the act, and injuring three more. Only Gunther Wallenda remained unharmed, still standing on the wire with his long balance-pole, and able to assist in the rescue of the three troupe members clinging precariously to the wire. Gunther displayed his courage and sang- froid the very next day, performing in an improvised act with his father and Gene Mendez, high above the spot where his fellow troupe members had died.

The Great Wallendas continued, in true "show must go on" traditions, minus their dead companions. A re-enactment of the "seven pyramid" trick was mooted for a television documentary by NBC, and for an appearance in Forth Worth, Texas. But on 5 November 1969, while rehearsing at their winter quarters in Sarasota, Florida, the wire slipped while anchored to a tree, the troupe falling some 12 feet. None was seriously injured but Gunther received gashes to his head and chin, and lost all his front teeth. There was rumoured dissension among the Wallenda family and Gunther, who had recently remarried (his first wife, the Mexican Margarita Caudillo, having died from injuries incurred in 1959 during her own aerial act), quit the troupe on the spot.

He astonished his fellow artistes and the Wallenda family by then taking a high-school degree, going to the University of South Florida and becoming a geography and history teacher in Sarasota. But he continued to train other highwire walkers, and for some years was on the training staff of the Sarasota Sailor Circus, teaching his long-acquired skills to budding professional and amateur wire-walkers.

Gunther Wallenda, highwire artiste: born 1927; died Sarasota, Florida 16 March 1996.

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