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Wallenda's integrity threatened by commercialism

If everyone doesn't know this story by now, they should:

In 1978, 73-year-old Karl Wallenda was doing a promotional walk across a wire strung between two towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

When wind gusts reached 30 mph, he was knocked off his footing and couldn't hold on to the wire with his hands. He plunged 121 feet to his death.

In our century's new technology, you can watch it on YouTube.

Any time you want.

I just did purely by accident. I was doing research for this column and the video was over before I even knew what I was looking at.

His son Rick performed the stunt successfully the following year. The quote permanently attached to Rick's endeavor now is this: "Life is being on the wire. Everything else is just waiting."

In 2011, Nik Wallenda performed the stunt with his mother, Delilah.

The most famous Wallenda family calamity of all happened at the State Fair building in Detroit on Jan. 30, 1962.

The family specialty – a seven-person, three-tiered pyramid performed on the high wire without a net (as always) – collapsed when one of those on the bottom lost his hold. Three men fell to the ground. Karl Wallenda's son-in-law Richard Faughnan and nephew Dieter Schepp were killed. Wallenda's adopted son Mario was paralyzed from the waist down.

I never wanted to see Nik Wallenda fall to his death. I still don't when he attempts his walk over Niagara Falls tonight.

I want him, as most of us do, to cross the wire over Niagara Falls and then give ABC-TV's audience afterward a few jaunty wisecracks and maybe an inspirational thought or two. And then go off for a nice snack with family, friends and his crew.

But there is enormous integrity to what the Wallenda family does, and I don't think the tethered version of the stunt that ABC reportedly proposed to soothe sponsors upholds that integrity. What on earth is the point of being a daredevil if you're not actually daring the devil?

What would take up three hours of ABC prime time tonight – beginning at 8 – would be an exploration of stunt heroism capped by a declawed stunt.

If you want to be completely unforgiving, you'd say a tethered Nik Wallenda would be forced to become an elaborate and spectacular parody of a Wallenda.

I'm not a devotee of the circus, to be sure. But there is a certain kind of show business right next to squalor – the New Vaudeville, Extreme Stunts, Circus Flamboyance – that has had an enormous rebirth in the last three decades, and I rejoice in that. I'm a sucker for a lot of it.

When, on NBC's "America's Got Talent," the three celebrity judges had to leave their Austin, Texas, theater seats to go to a field and watch David Smith get shot out of a giant cannon into a net a long way away, there was no "trick" involved. He was actually shot out of a cannon. Bones could have been broken.

Damage – or worse – could have accompanied a miscalculation of any sort. It didn't. It was, therefore, shown on videotape for our couch potato edification.

Years ago, I saw comedian/magician/actor Harry Anderson perform something on the tube that he called "an old geek trick" (he was using the word "geek" in the traditional carny sense to describe carnival performers of acts beyond the pale who might well work for that night's bottle). Anderson rolled up his sleeve, liberally sprayed his forearm with something and, in close-up, shoved a very long and very sharp hatpin through the skin and out again another side.

What we realized almost instantly about Anderson's "old geek trick" is that there's no trick. He sprayed his arm with something that both disinfected and anesthetized feeling temporarily and then, with just superior knowledge of anatomy, stuck a hatpin through the exact point in his arm between skin and muscle. The only damage inflicted, then, were the places the pin pierced the skin. The principal isn't terribly different from putting on a pair of earrings for those previously pierced.

The "trick" with the Wallendas is that there's no trick. There is only technology and professionalism. That's the integrity of the family act, whether it appeals to you or repels you. They work without a net – unlike, of course, David Smith on "America's Got Talent," who required a net for his "Human Cannonball" stunt to land. But on "Talent," he really was shot out of a cannon, just as that sword swallower actually put a blade down his alimentary canal.

What we'll see tonight is extraordinary spectacle because of where it is. ABC wants it rescued from risk. That, though, wouldn't be a hatpin through a forearm but almost a CGI version of it.

I can understand those appalled that people would risk life and limb just for the sake of show business. There are so many jobs that can't help but court danger sometimes – police, firefighter, journalist. They don't do it for show but for a higher purpose.

But then we watch people – literally – make a carnival out of risking life and limb. They do it with a maximum of preparation and professionalism and we're all partaking, whether we like it or not, in a metaphor as profound as any in the world of art or entertainment.

A small nagging voice within might well wonder if there are ways in which we're all on a high wire without a net, even when we feel safest.

That's why we want to see Nik Wallenda defy nature. We want to see him start in one place and get where he's going in one piece.

We want to feel that his very life is on that wire and everything else is just waiting.

But I can't help thinking that what television might do to Nik Wallenda tonight is what developers did with Niagara Falls, Ont. – took something awesome and commercialized it to the point where the pandering and vulgarity of it are a metaphor equal to the splendor of the original attraction.