Saturday, June 16, 2012

Nik Wallenda’s Niagara Falls Tightrope Walk (ABC, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I spent the evening “in” watching a peculiar spectacle on TV: Nik Wallenda’s tightrope walk across Niagara Falls. I had seen this promoted the night before on ABC-TV’s Nightline program, in which it followed a story about silly stunts young people are involved in — including rolling themselves off rooftops in plastic trash barrels, “car surfing” (standing on top of a car and trying to hold on while the car is driven around ordinary streets), the “cinnamon challenge” (swallowing a spoonful of cinnamon and trying to hold it in your mouth for 60 seconds — apparently almost nobody can do it and what usually happens is you end up coughing up a great cloud of cinnamon dust) and other idiotic stunts that are becoming more popular because their practitioners have themselves filmed and the resulting videos are posted on the Internet, where other people can learn about these potentially dangerous pastimes and try them out themselves. (One teenage woman was shown with her head encased in a bizarre white helmet which she apparently has to wear 24/7 because she took a fall while “car surfing” and great chunks of her skull simply broke off; the purpose of the headdress is to hold the artificial replacement pieces in place until the whole thing heals.) It was hard to tell from the Nightline show why the teenagers who shoot each other doing these preposterous stunts deserved opprobrium for their idiocy while Nik Wallenda deserved acknowledgment as a hero for something even crazier — walking across Niagara Falls on a tightrope, which according to the Nightline program he would be the first to do.

Not so, said Charles: a Frenchman named Charles Blondin (his true name was Jean-François Gravelet, and he was mentioned by that name in the Los Angeles Times article announcing that Wallenda was going to do this, which Charles said would be like writing about Harry Houdini but using only his given name, Erich Weiss) had done a walk across Niagara Falls — indeed, he’d done it so many times it practically became a regular entertainment at the site. According to Blondin’s Wikipedia page, “He especially owed his celebrity and fortune to his idea of crossing the Niagara Falls gorge on a tightrope, 1100 feet (335 m) long, 3¼ inches in diameter, 160 feet (50 m) above the water. This he accomplished, first on 30 June 1859, a number of times, always with different theatric variations: blindfolded, in a sack, trundling a wheelbarrow, on stilts, carrying a man (his manager, Harry Colcord) on his back, sitting down midway while he cooked and ate an omelet and standing on a chair with only one chair leg on the rope.” But in 1896 both the U.S. and Canadian governments passed laws forbidding any more daredevil tightrope walks across the falls, and Wallenda had to spend three years just lobbying both governments either to repeal the laws or at least to set them aside for him. (It wasn’t clear which.)

ABC inflated this stunt to a three-hour program (the actual walk took just a shade over 25 minutes) including footage from famous daredevil stunts throughout history (or at least ones for which film existed, which basically meant everything from Evel Knievel on — the rocket on which Knievel tried to leap the Snake River Gorge was shown, though as I recall the stunt was a fizzle: Knievel neither made it nor died, and quite frankly those were set up in the pre-event publicity as the only two dramatically acceptable outcomes; instead he parachuted into the gorge, rather anticlimactically) and backstory on the Wallenda family, which apparently has been doing this sort of thing for seven generations (plus another one to come: Nik Wallenda met his wife while she was performing as an acrobat at the same circus that employed him, and they have two kids and both of them are doing practice tightrope walks in their backyard), including Nik’s legendary grandfather, Karl Wallenda. I remember first hearing about the Wallendas in 1962 when Life magazine showed pictures of the horrible accident in which the Flying Wallendas’ seven-person pyramid on a tightrope collapsed; two Wallendas were killed, a third (Karl’s son) was permanently paralyzed, and Karl himself signed out of the hospital the next day, totally against medical advice and with two broken bones, because he felt he had to do his next performance. Nik Wallenda is a quite attractive, personable blond man (the sort of athletics he’s involved in means he needs to be in excellent physical shape but can’t let himself get too muscular — unnecessary muscles mean extra weight and make it harder to maneuver in the straight line of a tightrope walk).

The publicity mentioned that ABC’s conditions for telecasting the event included that Wallenda must wear a tether — a sort of harness between his body and the rope that was supposed to snag him in case he fell, though he claimed the tether was making the stunt harder, not safer, since he’d never used one and it was throwing off his balance. In the event, Wallenda had to contend with the mist from the falls (apparently the main difference between him and Blondin was he was tightroping not only across the Niagara Falls gorge but over the falls themselves, thereby having to contend with spray, mist and water on his tightrope — he practiced for these conditions by having his practice rope sprayed with a firehose and a wind machine aimed at him but still said afterwards that the real winds from the Falls’ air currents were a lot harder than anything he’d simulated during his practices), water on his rope and the overall atmosphere of the stunt, which included him being wired for sound and occasionally answering a few interview questions during the walk. At one point he said he was praying to Jesus the whole way — and I couldn’t help but note the irony that Wallenda was 33 years old, the generally accepted figure for Jesus’s age when he was crucified. It was a fascinating program; for all the hucksterism it was still a man pushing himself to his limits and doing an heroic thing, showing off what a person can achieve if they just put both their body and their mind to it and have this extraordinary level of commitment.