CARLA WALLENDA: Active Living Icon
By Space Coast Medicine & Active Living // March 17, 2014
the Wallendas are circus royalty
ABOVE VIDEO: Carla Wallenda, the matriarch of the world famous Wallenda family, is the great aunt of Nik Wallenda, 34, the world’s most incredible daredevil, who walked across the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls on a tightrope, rode a bike on a high wire 260 feet above the ground and hung from a hovering helicopter by his teeth.
Last June, Nik Wallenda accomplished perhaps the greatest athletic performance in history as he walked across 1,400 feet of the Little Colorado River Gorge near the Grand Canyon.
The event was broadcast on live television, and took place on the Navajo reservation near Cameron, outside the boundaries of Grand Canyon National Park.
ABOVE VIDEO: Carla Wallenda talks about her amazing family and career.
CARLA WALLENDA: Active Living Icon
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – There is no question that to stand atop a thin, wavering pole 120 feet up in the air takes guts.
It takes unbridled fearlessness to swing from the top of that pole or to stand on your head way up there, so far away from the safety of the earth. Attempting that feat on a daily basis when you’re 76 years old is nothing short of jaw-dropping amazing.
Carla Wallenda, currently on the second half of her eighth decade, does just that for a living. Wallenda clambers up to the 120-foot pole not once, but several times a day. If the wind was cooperating, she would stand on her head.
Due to popular demand, she has maae a return performance to Brevard several times for the Palm Bay Fair and Space Coast State Fair.
If it wasn’t, she would merely swing from the top with just a handmade grip standing between her and eternity.
At an age when most people worry about tripping in the bathtub, Wallenda is flying high.
Note her last name, though, and you might better understand how she is able to achieve such feats.
Wallenda is circus royalty. The daughter of Karl Wallenda, patriarch of the legendary Flying Wallendas, Carla represents the crème de la crème of daredevil performers. She, like the rest of her family, is incredibly nimble, lion-hearted and willing to accept the high price that is part of defying gravity as a job.
Tightrope Artist By Age 3
Karl Wallenda repeatedly told his family not to worry about their dangerous profession, that when their time came to die, it would come, regardless of whether they were up in the air navigating a bicycle on a ridiculously thin piece of metal wire or sitting in front of the television munching on potato chips.
Karl’s time came March 22, 1978, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as the 73-year-old attempted to walk the wire strung 10 stories high between the towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel. The world took notice and condolences poured in, everywhere from New York City to a remote African village.
To be a Wallenda is to be courageous, even from the start. Karl first introduced his daughter to the high wire when Carla was six weeks old.
“He was on a bike on the wire, and Mom was sitting on his shoulders carrying me,” says Carla.
By the age of three, Carla was already a tightrope artist. She took to the sway pole as a way to honor the memory of her aunt, Rietta, who fell to her death in 1963 from the very same pole Carla now uses.
“I idolized her and the act,” says Carla.
“We were very close. She was my mother’s sister, who married my father’s brother. She had been complaining of neck pain and we think she must have experienced a pinched nerve and just passed out, because she did a head stand and just fell over backwards without even trying to grab onto anything.”
German-born Karl was a no-nonsense father, who expected his clan to follow in his daredevil footsteps. The kids were weaned on wire two feet off the ground.
“When we mastered that, he would tell us that next week we were going to get a raise,” says Carla.
They did, indeed, as the wire kept inching up until it was 30 feet from the ground. “Safety net” was never in the Wallenda vocabulary.
“If you have a net you take stupid chances and you don’t fall off right,” explains Mike Morgan, Carla’s husband of 35 years. “I agree with the family philosophy.”
Itch For Excitement
Mike, with a degree in music, was originally a music teacher and a circus band director. He had an itch for excitement that got scratched only after he had begun practicing the high-wire act with the Wallendas.
When one of the clan took ill just prior to a performance, Morgan was grabbed as a replacement. He hasn’t looked back at music since.
“He didn’t have time to worry about falling, because we just threw him to the lions,” says Carla.
Morgan now tours with Carla, performing on the high wire.
In an old publicity photograph, Carla is the only woman among the cadre of Wallenda men who performed what was the troupe’s most incredible and death-defying of acts, the seven-person pyramid.
She would clamber up the shoulders of her relatives to the very top, the star of the pyramid. It was only by chance that she was not on the pyramid the day in 1962 when one of the men on the wire faltered and the pyramid collapsed, killing two of the Wallenda men and paralyzing Carla’s younger brother.
The Wallendas’ ability to look at tragedy without blinking is almost superhuman. When other people retreat, the Wallendas keep marching. Carla saw her first husband, Richard “Chico” Guzman, get electrocuted in 1972 during a performance.
“There had been some bad weather and the wires had gotten moved around,” she says. “Chico was wearing a metallic tuxedo jacket and the electricity arced out and killed him.”
The death of her first husband, her aunt and her father has not stopped Carla. It was their time, as Karl would have put it.
The world has changed dramatically since the Wallendas graced a 1928 poster for the Madison Square Garden performances of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. The number of venues for stunt performers such as Carla is shrinking.
“The last few years have gotten very difficult,” says Carla. “A lot of the circuses and the state fairs have gone belly up and the others can’t afford big-name entertainment. The others are looking for Broadway-type of productions.”
Carla is now forced to carry liability, not for herself, but rather to cover the audience, should anyone have a heart attack while she is performing.
On the Road
At the end of May, Carla and Mike head to Michigan with three large trucks of equipment, an ice cream wagon and carnival games, plus the trailer that is home-away-from-home for the couple and their rescued terrier mix, Buddy.
They will perform throughout the county fair circuit during the summer months, and when the leaves begin to fall, head back again to Sarasota, where Carla will work as a restaurant server or help a caterer during the winter to make ends meet.
It would be nice to say that a life of healthy living has given Carla the ability to perform astounding feats. It would be nice, but, unfortunately, it would be untrue, for although Wallenda practices on the sway pole daily, but she also smokes, although she’s been trying to cut back.
“I smoke three to five cigarettes a day, just to calm my nerves,” she says.
Because she suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, she takes an extra minute on her way up the sway pole to catch her breath.
“You just can’t climb as fast with emphysema, but once I’m up there, I’m fine,” she explains.
A few years ago, her daughter had to step in and finish Carla’s act after she suffered a heart attack that eventually earned her a stent in her artery.
The life of a traveling circus artist does not lend itself to healthy meals on a regular basis, so Wallenda’s diet is not the best, although she does try to find some fresh veggies to cook while on the road.
To keep herself nimble for the shows, she waits to eat her one large meal until around 10 p.m., after her evening act is done, a time doctors would tell you is definitely not the most conducive to great digestion.
Wallenda practices every day and has no intention of ever retiring.
“When it’s your time, you are going to die, no matter what you’re doing,” says Carla.
Up there on the pole, with birds for neighbors, life is as it should be for Carla Wallenda. “You’ll never find anyone else who loves her job more,” says Mike.