EAST COUNTY — For nearly as long as he can remember, Tino Wallenda has made a point to walk the line.
It’s caused him pain at times, having suffered from broken ribs and having had family and friends fall to their deaths, but it’s also brought great exhilaration.
Wallenda, who lives on the outskirts of East County and attends Lakewood Church on the Ranch, recently received one of the highest local honors possible for circus performers. In a ceremony Jan. 17, he was inducted into the Circus Ring of Fame on St. Armands Circle for his more than 50-year career walking the tightrope.
“I’m honored for sure,” said Wallenda, a soft-spoken man of 59. “There’s a lot of people I know who should be there before me, but it’s very honoring they would consider me.”
The Ring of Fame was established in 1988 as a way to honor individuals and groups who have made significant contributions to the circus.
Other inductees this year were Rudi and Sue Lentz, who had a chimpanzee act; longtime Cole Bros. owner John Pugh; veteran animal-trainer Manuel “Junior” Ruffin; flying-trapeze artist Tony Steele; and the Dime Wilson family, a two-generation clan who has performed as clowns and in aerial-and animal-acts for nearly a century.
Among the 100 plaques already mounted around the Circle are the names of Wallenda’s father, Alberto Zoppe, his mother, Jenny Wallenda, and his grandfather, Karl Wallenda.
The Wallenda legacy
Wallenda’s grandfather was the great Karl Wallenda, possibly the most famous tightrope walker in history. He and his act created the four-person, three-level pyramid, which they brought in 1928 to the U.S. for the first time. Their debut in Madison Square Garden, in New York City, for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, was performed without a net and garnered a 15-minute standing ovation from its audience.
Karl Wallenda and his second wife permanently moved in 1936 to Sarasota from Germany. And 11 years later, the great Wallenda opened his own circus, featuring the seven-man pyramid for the first time. The circus venture itself was not successful, but the seven-man pyramid became the family’s signature act.
Karl’s daughter, Jenny, came to the United States about that time and soon met Wallenda’s father, Alberto Zoppe, of Italy, who was famed for performing a backward summersault from galloping horse to galloping horse. The couple married in 1949.
Their first child died in childbirth, but 10 months later, Wallenda was born. He began learning his father’s circus skills when he was just 2 years old.
When his parents divorced in 1954, Wallenda stayed with his father, happily learning bareback riding. But that changed in 1956, when his parents were both performing in a circus in Texas. Jenny Wallenda took her son and other children, moving them back to Florida.
It was there Wallenda began learning the tightrope under the tutelage of his grandfather when he was just 7 years old. Although his dream had still been to ride horses, it was the tightrope that would become his calling.
He appeared in his first show at age 12 and began performing professionally at age 18.
And since then, the journey has been dazzling at times. Wallenda has traveled the globe with his high-wire routines. On occasion, special promotions have lured him into more daredevil-type acts. His highest walk was a tightrope walk 179 feet above the ground between a crane and a building in Denver.
He and his troupe of Flying Wallendas resurrected his grandfather’s seven-man pyramid, which had not been performed since 1962 when the pyramid collapsed in Detroit, killing two and injuring the others, in 1998.
“It was an exceptional moment to do it again in exactly the same place,” Wallenda said.
And in 2004, his act was featured in Monte Carlo Circus Festival and received the Silver Clown award, which he described as the “Oscars” for the circus.
“If you’ve been there, you’ve arrived,” Wallenda said. “It’s so exhilarating.”
Relationship with the audience
Walking the rope isn’t as much Wallenda’s passion as is performing for the audience. The reaction of the audience is what spurs Wallenda and other performers on, he said.
“That’s what does it for somebody who has a passion for performing,” Wallenda said. “It’s the contact and relationship you build with the audience in those few moments. The audience is the focus of why you are performing. The accomplishment is when you get to the end of the performance and get the approval of the audience.”
Each time Wallenda steps onto the wire, he knows there’s an element of danger, especially having lost his grandfather in 1978 to a fall from the wire.
Still, Wallenda said he’s confident in the skills he’s developed as a performer.
“I’ve been trained,” he said, “It’s a controlled atmosphere, so it’s a highly calculated risk.”
Plus, he’s experienced moment after moment, where God has kept him safe despite his mistakes, he said.
The four times during his career that Wallenda has fallen from the wire — cracking his ribs each time — he’s always fallen to the wire instead of the ground, for example.
“God has protected me many times,” Wallenda said. “There have been too many miracles.”
The high wire also has become a platform from which Wallenda has been able to share his faith over the years. In 1978, he was asked to perform on a Christian television show. Subsequently, the pastor at The Tabernacle church, which he has attended for many years, asked him to perform on the church’s campus.
The event became an annual affair that ultimately led to Wallenda’s involvement in performing at other churches across the country, as well as visiting prisons with the ministry Bill Glass Champions for Life.
“My faith is very much a part of me and hopefully it shows,” Wallenda said. “It’s a great encouragement to me and I realize the talents and abilities I have are a gift from God.”
Although Wallenda’s wife, Olinka, retired from the wire after 25 years of performing, three of his four children — Alida, Aurelia and Alex — are still involved with the show. This year, the Flying Wallendas will perform with the Hanneford Circus of Sarasota.
For more information about the Wallenda family, visit www.wallenda.com.
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].