Karl Wallenda (January 21, 1905 - March 22, 1978) was the founder of the Great Wallendas, an internationally known daredevil circus act famous for performing death-defying stunts without a safety net.
Karl was born in Magdeburg, Germany. The Great Wallendas were noted throughout Europe for their four-man pyramid and cycling on the high wire. The act moved to the U.S. in 1928 and began an association with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Circus. Later they performed as free-lancers. In 1947 they developed the unequaled three-tier seven-man pyramid.
Tragedy was not unknown to the troupe. On January 30, 1962, in Detroit, Wallenda's son-in-law Richard Faughnan and nephew Dieter Schepp were killed and an adopted son Mario was paralyzed from the waist down when the pyramid collapsed. Wallenda's sister-in-law Rietta fell to her death in 1963, and his son-in-law Richard ("Chico") Guzman was killed in 1972 after touching a live wire in the rigging. Karl himself, who at age 73 attempted a walk between two hotels in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on a wire stretched 37 m above the pavement, fell to his death when winds exceeded 48 km/h.
Three members of the family died in 1996:
Helen Kreis (December 11, 1910 - May 9, 1996) was the last surviving member of the original troupe. She joined the Wallendas when she was 16. Helen and Karl Wallenda were married in 1935. Until she retired in 1956, she was balanced at the peak of the seven-person pyramid.
Gunther Wallenda (1927 - March 16, 1996), Karl's nephew, began training on the wire at age five, though he was already part of the act. In 1944, in what became the worst circus tragedy ever, a fire broke out in a circus tent in Hartford, Conn., midway through the Wallendas' act; Gunther helped rescue a number of the spectators. When in 1962 the pyramid fell, Gunther was the only one left standing and was able to help rescue three who were clinging to the wire. That summer the troup went to the theme park The Enchanted Forest of the Adirondacks to regroup and heal. While performing at the Enchanted Forest that summer and the summer of 1963, Gunther fell in love with Sheila Monahan. Sheila was a teacher who worked summers as the secretary to the park's general manager (and her brother-in-law). Sheila and Gunther married in the fall of '63 and settled in Sarasota where Gunther returned to school. He graduated from high school, got a university degree, and became a history and geography teacher. While teaching in Sarasota Gunther continued to train high-wire performers, most notably as part of the Sailor Circus, a Sarasota school fund-raiser.
Angel Wallenda (March 20, 1968 - May 3, 1996) married into the family in 1985, when she was 17, and began training on the wire. Soon, however, she became ill with cancer. In 1987 her right leg had to be amputated, and in 1988 parts of both lungs were removed. Nonetheless, later that year she returned to the act, becoming the only person with an artificial leg ever to walk a high wire. The cancer recurred, though, and she gave her final performance in 1990.