- January 14, 2017
Nik Wallenda's friends had some encouraging words Saturday night at the 26th annual induction ceremony for the Circus Ring of Fame, under the big top in Nathan Benderson Park.
There was Gov. Ron DeSantis on the giant video screen, followed by actor-comedian Paul Reubens.
There was Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski and the Rev. Joel Osteen. David Copperfield and Whoopi Goldberg, sent video messages, too.
Between warm cheers from the crowd, their recorded messages were in lock step with the credo of the high-wire walker and newest member of the Ring of Fame: "Don't give up." Gronkowski even compared induction in the Ring of Fame to winning a Super Bowl, "and I know something about winning Super Bowls."
Wallenda's acceptance was the final piece in a glittering event held for the first time inside the big top instead of St. Armands Circle, where the Ring of Fame's more than 140 members are honored with plaques on permanent display.
Circus Ring of Fame chair William Powell told the audience the organization had plenty of time to rethink its plans for the event after cancelling in January, 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The half-dozen circus stars inducted on Saturday had been announced in late 2020.
"While we honor our history, let's not let it get in the way of progress," he said in opening remarks to the two-hour, free-to-attend show that was streamed live on several circus-connected websites. "We are evolving our model. 2021 was a lot of meetings. It led to where were we are today."
Saturday night featured tributes to the inductees, performances by Sailor Circus' Kaylee Dutkiewicz high above the circus ring and Elan Espana, an eighth-generation circus performer who dazzled the crowd with his Diablo juggling. Mayor Erik Arroyo and City Commission member Hagen Brody appeared, declaring Feb. 5 Circus Appreciation Day.
Espana was also awarded the first Generation Next award, emblematic of a rising star in the circus world.
The real stars, however, were the six inductees. In a show hosted by ringmasters Heidi Herriott and Mike Naughton, medals and plaques were awarded to "Galaxy Girl" Tina Winn, longtime trapeze artist and Sailor Circus teacher Willie Edelston, circus producer George Carden, animal act trainers the Richter and Casserlly Families, the circus industry's advance-promotion professionals and Wallenda.
Edelston's son Tom accepted the award for his father who died in 2021. Edelston signed with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as a trapeze artist and performed extensively through the decades for numerous shows. He also volunteered for more than 50 years with Sarasota’s Sailor Circus, teaching the art of performing.
Tom Edelston said it wasn't unusual for former students of his father's to rush up to him in public for a hug and a thank you. Tom said his father once told him that "if you were truly great, others will do your bragging for you."
"Dad, right here with this, you have a lot of people bragging for you," Tom Edelston said of the Ring of Fame plaque and medal. "You're going to have a ring on St. Armands Circle for generations to come. Congratulations, Dad. You do deserve it."
Herriott introduced Wallenda as a performer with a deep connection to early days of the circus. The Wallenda troupe was inducted to the Ring of Fame in 1988.
"They have dominated the headlines for over nine decades, starting with their first appearance with the Ringling Brothers Circus, the Greatest Show on Earth, in 1928," she said. "Today, it's only befitting that we honor the great-grandson of the family patriarch, Karl Wallenda."
Of late, Wallenda has traversed Niagara Falls on a tightrope and in 2019, along with Lijana Wallenda, crossed Times Square 25 stories above the street. In March 2020, Wallenda crossed a volcano in Nicaragua. During the local COVID-19 lockdown, Wallenda orchestrated a series of drive-in thrill shows at Benderson Park and elsewhere in Florida. Winn performed in those shows.
"Reflecting on my career, I was writing some notes and started bawling my eyes out," Wallenda said. "It was a life. I have been so beyond blessed."
He said he owed all of his TV specials and fame to his family legacy.
"Life is being on stage, life is performing in front of a live audience, life is under a big top, in a ring, doing what I was made to do," Wallenda said. "That's life. I think we as performers often take our lives for granted. We take it for granted how blessed we are, to be able to do what we love. Something we are passionate about."