10 Amazing Circus Families


The Flying Wallendas

The Flying Wallendas perform a four-person pyramid in the 1940s. © Corbis
The Flying Wallendas perform a four-person pyramid in the 1940s. © Corbis

Many people are familiar with the Flying Wallendas, not surprising, since family members regularly perform newsworthy acts. To wit, Nik Wallenda's 2014 partially blindfolded tightrope walk between two Chicago skyscrapers, 600 feet (182 meters) in the air [source: Grinberg].

The family got its start in the late 18th century, operating a mini-circus in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Family members performed as acrobats, clowns, aerialists, jugglers and animal trainers. Fast-forward to the 20th century: Descendant Karl Wallenda and his family, then known as the Great Wallendas, starred in America's Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The family soon gained notoriety after creating a seven-person chair pyramid performed on the high wire without safety harnesses or a net [source: Wallenda].

The Wallendas performed their pyramid trick for more than a decade until 1962, when, tragically, the pyramid collapsed. Two people died and Karl's son, Mario, was paralyzed. After patriarch Karl died at age 73 from a fall off the wire, the family became as well known for its tragedies as its triumphs. But the Wallendas persevered. In 2001, they snagged a Guinness World Record by creating the world's first and only 10-person pyramid on the tightrope. The name "Flying Wallendas," incidentally, came from a newspaper headline in the mid-20th century that, ironically, described four family members' graceful fall from the wire; in that case they were unhurt [source: Wallenda].