Dressed in a tan, corduroy blazer, jeans and a bright yellow shirt, Tino Wallenda looked like anyone else when he walked in the door. No one could see the family crest embroidered on the shirt and the words “The Flying Wallendas.”
Wallenda is the 63-year-old grandson of Karl Wallenda, the man who led his family in developing the seven-person pyramid. It was a three-tier performance on the high wire that no other such entertainers were ever able to emulate.
He was in town as a guest of local businessman Ralph McMullen and the First Baptist Church. He was scheduled to entertain that evening at the church’s annual dinner and auction.
The event raises thousands of dollars every year for scholarships.
Karl Wallenda’s famous seven-person pyramid on the high wire became a tragedy for the family when, in 1962 in Detroit, one of the men on the wire faltered and sent the entire pyramid tumbling.
Karl Walenda suffered an injured pelvis, and two men were killed. A third man was paralyzed from the waist down.
“That was my uncle,” Wallenda said Friday shortly after dismounting the small, right-rope rig he was going to entertain on Friday night at the church.
McMullen had met Wallenda when both men worked with Bill Glass during one of his prison ministry programs. Wallenda has entertained at several prison ministry visits.
McMullen asked Wallenda if he would come to the church here and provide the entertainment during the organization’s annual banquet and auction.
Wallenda agreed, and he was in the church’s gymnasium rehearsing when reporters and video cameramen from a Corpus Christi television station and this newspaper stopped in for a visit.
One of the reporters recalled seeing the family perform the seven-person pyramid back in the early 1960s at a Shrine Circus event in Dallas.
“Let me correct you,” Wallenda said. “It had to be 1963, and it was at the Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth because it was the first time our family performed The Seven after the accident in Detroit.”
Wallenda explained that the family performed the unparalleled feat only a two more times, in 1963 and in 1977.
In 1998, at the same venue where they tragic accident had happened 36 years earlier, Tino led the family in performing the dangerous feat.
The event is marked on a picture post card, and the photo shows Tino Wallenda on the wire at the back of the formation, exactly where his grandfather was when the accident happened.
He pulled a slightly bent copy of the card from one pocket, quickly scrawled an autograph on the front of it and handed the card to a reporter.
Only a few of the younger family members still entertain. But the family members can be found in Sarasota, Fla.
Tino said his family moved to that city in the 1928 when they came to this country from Europe; shortly after, John Ringling of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus made it the winter quarters for his show in 1927.
Tino was born there, and he grew up around other circus families.
“We played cowboys and Indians like everyone else. But we also played circus,” he said.
And why not? They had everything they needed to pretend they were performing under the big top. There were trapezes, high wires, performing horses and all the other tools of the trade. Their older family members used the equipment to practice their skills.
Tino said he was walking on a tight rope and high wire long before he started entertaining with the family at the age of seven.
At the church gym Friday, the acrobat reached into his pocket, pulled out a cellular phone and started punching up photos of the family. One of the photos was of his 86-year-old mother walking a tight rope a few inches off the ground.
His mother, Wallenda said, often was the family member who was perched at the top of the seven-person pyramid.
“It’s all about focus,” Wallenda said. “Life, and the show, must go on.”
Gary Kent is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 120, or at reporter@mySouTex.com.