Rope walking was prevalent in many cultures all over the Eastern hemisphere for centuries, but didn’t make it across the Atlantic until the first American circus in 1793.
Decades later, in 1859, Jean François Gravelet of France, known more famously as Charles Blondin, elevated rope walking to a high art when he made the first daring crossing of Niagara Falls on a 1000 foot long (305m), 270 ft high (82m), 3-inch hemp cord. It is estimated that Blondin made over 300 crossings of this incredible line….and he did it in style. With every crossing, he would put on a slightly different show--just because he could. He also understood the appeal of the morbid to the masses, and revelled when gamblers began to take bets on whether he would plunge to a watery death.
Once, he crossed it blindfolded. Another time he stopped midway to sit down and enjoy a beer that he hauled up on a rope from the Maid of the Mist tour boat below him. He crossed it while pushing a wheelbarrow, walking on stilts, riding a bicycle, and standing on a chair with only one of its legs balanced on the rope. He crossed at night, using a locomotive headlight affixed to either side of the cable to illuminate the way. He crossed carrying a table and chair, stopping in the middle to try to sit down and prop up his legs. The chair tumbled into the water and Blondin nearly followed, but was able to recover. He sat down on the cable and ate a piece of cake, washed down with champagne. On one his most famous crossings, he carried a stove and utensils on his back, walked to the center of the cable, started a fire, and cooked an omelette! When it was ready, he lowered the breakfast to passengers on the deck of the Maid of the Mist. He even carried his manager on his back! Blondin reportedly gave his manager these instructions: “Look up, Harry.… you are no longer Colcord, you are Blondin. Until I clear this place, be a part of me, mind, body, and soul. If I sway, sway with me. Do not attempt to do any balancing yourself. If you do we will both go to our death.”
For years after, many wirewalkers tried to outdo his performances. In 1860, the Great Farini (William Leonard Hunt), one of the most celebrated acrobats in Europe at the time, duplicated many of Blondin’s stunts including carrying a man on his back, crossing with a sack over his entire body, doing somersaults, and hanging from his feet. His greatest achievement was crossing the Falls with a washing machine strapped to his back. He stopped midpoint to wash several handkerchiefs that he then autographed and gave out to his waiting admirers. (Damn, he’s smooth!) In 1876, Maria Spelterini, a circus performer from the age of 3, became the first woman to walk a wire over Niagara Falls. She is most well known for crossing while her hands and feet were manacled, crossing with a paper bag over her head, and crossing with peach baskets on her feet.
The difference between Blondin’s and Farini and Spelterini’s crossings were what they walked on: Blondin walked on a hemp rope, whereas Farini and Spelterini walked on highwires. Technically, rope walking was the only way to perform aerial acts until the mid 1800s when steel cable was invented. Until then, the terms “tightrope”, “ropewalker,” and “rope dancer” were correct because artists used ropes tensioned between two points. Yet “tightrope” today is a very misused word. What most people mean when they refer to a “tightrope” walker is actually a “highwire” walker, as the “tightroper” is actually walking on a steel, cable wire. These cables are anchored not only at each end, but also with guy wires (cavalletti wires), attached at intervals along the wire, to stabilize the line and prevent most of the side-to-side movement.
Actual rope walking was much more difficult and dangerous than highwire walking. Furthermore, wires allowed performers to accomplish much more technically difficult tricks than they could on a rope, thus most circus performers switched to this style of rigging and walking. This was the beginning of the highwire era.
Highwire walking only grew more and more popular after that. From 1905 (when he was 39 years old) to 1948, Ivy Baldwin, a daredevil balloonist and funambulist, set up a permanent 635 foot long wire, 582 feet high above South Boulder Creek in Eldorado Canyon in Colorado. He performed his act 86 times over the course of the 43 years it was up. His crossings took six and a half minutes, and he always wore cloth shoes with rosin soles and carried a 26-foot balancing pole. There were several occasions where the crowd feared he would fall to his death: Once, he was temporarily blinded and had to be guided across by the voices of his assistants. Another time, wind gusts of a quick-moving storm caught him in the center of his act, and he hung by his knees for a half an hour until the storm subsided. Baldwin walked that line for the last time on his 82nd birthday. Apparently, he had wanted to continue doing it year after year, but members in his family essentially “grounded” him from continuing. The highwire was left up until 1974 when it was taken down so as not to tempt adventurous youth.
The name Wallenda is perhaps the most recognizable family name in the circus world. Karl Wallenda, the founder of the group, was an incredible and iconic wire walker. By the age of 16, he was doing handstands on the shoulders of a German wire walker 40 feet in the air. The Wallendas have been performing in circuses worldwide for many generations, some accounts claim a circus history as far back as 1780. The family's American circus history began in 1928 when Karl Wallenda and his troupe of high wire artist arrived in the United States to perform with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. In 1948, the Flying Wallendas debuted their most famous stunt-- one of the most dangerous and thrilling acts ever performed in modern circuses--the seven-person chair pyramid. In recent years, the Wallenda family has split into several troupes, with some continuing to entertain crowds around the world.
One of the most recognized members of the family is Nik Wallenda. On October 15, 2008, Nik broke the world record for the highest and longest bike ride on a high wire live on NBC's Today. On June 15, 2012, he also became the first aerialist to walk directly over Niagara Falls (The previous crossings were made above the water near the location of the current Rainbow Bridge). Wallenda described the legal battle as the biggest challenge of his career and "probably more remarkable" than the walk itself. (Six previous high-profile wire walkers had failed in their attempts to gain approval to walk the Falls since 1971).The line was 2200 feet long (671m) and he crossed at the river’s widest point.
To train for that feat, he walked wires over water near his him in Florida while a caravan of airboats swarmed around him, blasting him with winds up to 78 mph to approximate the winds and spray of the falls. Due to the location, the wire could not use supports and had to be custom made. As a result, the wire was able to sway significantly in the breeze, making the crossing more difficult than it would have otherwise been. It was the first time in Wallenda's career that he performed without guy wire stabilizers. The wire he performed on was two inches (five centimeters) in diameter, significantly wider than the 5/8 of an inch wire Wallenda typically uses, and weighed roughly 8.5 tons (7,700 kg).The extra width was necessary to make the cable strong enough to withstand the tension required.
On June 23, 2013, Wallenda became the first aerialist to walk over the Little Colorado River Gorge at the Grand Canyon. The event was broadcast live on the Discovery Channel, with a ten second delay….just in case. The line was approximately 1,400 feet (430m) long and 1,500 feet (460 m) high, making it the highest walk of his career (about 7 times the height of the Niagara crossing). He walked it in 22 minutes, 54 seconds, using a 2-inch-thick (5.1 cm) wire and carrying a 30-foot long (9.1m) balancing pole weighing 43 pounds (20 kg). Wallenda faced a series of obstacles as he crossed including a slippery wire, dust in his eyes, and wind, ultimately claiming that the walk was unusually stressful and more difficult than he had anticipated. On November 2, 2014, Nik successfully crossed a wire between two Chicago skyscrapers and set two new Guinness World Records: one for walking the steepest tightrope incline between two buildings (19 degrees) and the other for the highest tightrope walk while blindfolded.
Another extremely well known name in the realm of rope walkers is the great Philippe Petit. In 1971, Petit rigged a line between the towers of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris and walked as priests were being ordained inside. On August 7, 1974, Petit became a household name when he executed his most famous stunt--what many called the “artistic crime of the century”-- walking a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. This walk took him nearly six years of planning, during which time he had to learn everything he could about the buildings and their construction, how to accommodate such issues as the swaying of the high towers due to wind (which was part of their design), how to rig a 200 ft (61m) steel cable across the 138 ft (42m) gap between towers (at a height of 1,368 ft (417m)), how to gain entry with his partners to scout and rig, and how to get heavy equipment to the rooftops. To gain entry, they made fake IDs based on one from a worker in the building and claimed they were construction workers. They carefully studied clothing that the construction workers wore and the tools they used. They observed the routines of employees--the times they arrived and left--to determine when they would have roof access. Petit pretended to be a journalist so that he could gain permission to interview the workers on the roof to collect even more observations.Since the buildings were still in construction, they even rented a helicopter to scout the rooftops and take photos. Using these photos, drawings, and observations, Petit meticulously constructed a scale model of the towers in order to design the needed rigging to prepare for the wire walk.
When the day finally came, he performed or 45 minutes, making eight passes along the wire, 1,350 ft (411m) above the ground. When NYPD officers learned of his stunt, they came up to the roofs of both buildings to try to persuade him to get off the wire, but Petit only got off when it started to rain. There was extensive news coverage and public appreciation of his walk, and the district attorney even dropped all formal charges of trespassing in exchange for giving a free aerial show to children in Central Park. “He executed the perfect crime and the world loved him for it,” confessed Guy F. Tozzoli, president of the World Trade Center Association. Mordicai Gerstein, the man who wrote the children’s book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, may have described it best when he wrote, “Petit looked not at the towers, but at the space between them.” His walk was credited with bringing the Twin Towers much needed attention and affection as they initially had been unpopular due to their ‘ugly and utilitarian’ design; the building owners gave him a lifetime pass to the Twin Towers' Observation Deck and let him autograph a steel beam close to where he began his walk. Some years after that in 1989, mayor Jacques Chirac of France invited him to walk an inclined wire strung from the ground at the Place du Trocadéro to the second level of the Eiffel Tower, crossing the Seine, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.
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