By Suzanne Corbett, Travel/Food Editor
There is still time to get tickets to Circus Flora in St. Louis and see members of one of the most famous families in performance history. This year’s performance titled “The Quest for the Inkeper’s Cask features acrobats, daredevils, aerialists, comedians and more — and tell this wondrous story in a way that only Circus Flora can. For info on this great family event CLICK HERE.
Strength, ability, and training is the foundation for any athletic or acrobat. Until my conversation with Tino Wallenda, the patriarch of the world-renowned Flying Wallendas, I never realized the difference.
“There are certainly athletic abilities to it, but we would call ourselves acrobats instead of athletics because in the context of the circus we’ve done all kinds of things,” Tino said, who with his family are appearing through July 3 at Circus Flora’s 2022 edition, Quest for the Innkeeper’s Cask. “Through the years I’ve been a clown, an acrobat, a juggler, a flyer (trapeze), and performed on galloping horses. Along the way you develop as an acrobatic. Acrobatics and athletics are basally the same thing, but I prefer acrobat.”
Circus has been the Wallenda family profession for over two hundred years, spanning eight generations. Alex, Tino’s son, the seventh generation, welcomed the eight generation to the troupe, one-year old daughter, Elnora, and three-year old Matteo.
“Acrobatic better reflects the lifestyle of being a circus performer,” Alex said. “It’s a life you watch your parents do these amazing things day in and day out and sooner are later you want to get up and somethings yourself. A lot of that starts with playing make believe. You’re up on the high wire doing amazing things yourself – only the high wire is only a foot off the ground. Sooner or later playing becomes practice , then practice for me became my career.”
When asked about his family became specialized on the high wire, Alex said. “Our family has been in the circus for two hundred years. We’ve been walking the hire wire for about the last 100 of those years, which began with my great-grandfather, Karl, who was initially was a hand balancer (handstands). At the time, it was doing the Great Depression (1930s) and work everywhere was scarce. Karl would go to beer hall to beer hall performing hand stands for tips to help support his mother, brothers, and sister. He got into wire walking when he answered a newspaper ad in for a hand balancer. When he answered the ad he was asked to do a handstand on the feet of a tight rope walker while he laid on his back on a 50 feet high wire. My grandfather told him he was insane and left. But times were tough, so he returned and took the job.”
Wallendas soon brought into the act with brothers and sisters, which began the family“I started walking the tight rope when I was seven. That was 65 years ago, Tino said. When I asked about how one dealt with the fear factor, Tino explained it wasn’t about conquering fear.
“Fear is not the word. You get comfortable in the element, and the tight wire is our element. I started like Alex did, and like all my other kids. On a wire two or three feet off the ground. When you get comfortable with that you move up to the next level that might be to ten feet off the ground, then 20 feet, then to the full feet 33 feet. It’s not so much about being fearless because I’m concerned about heights myself. I don’t like standing on the ledge of a building any more than anybody else does. Jumping out of a plane as far as I’m concerned is a crazy thing. I would never do that. But I’m comfortable on the tight rope because I know what I’m doing there.”
During the off season, especially during the pandemic when shows where shut down around the world, the Wallendas work other jobs to provide for their families.
“ In our other life we’re union stagehands part of the year, basally involved in rigging. In our home base in Sarasota, I’ve done all kinds of things in this life to make a living,” Tino said.
“ One of my grandfather’s favorite sayings was in a circus life one day you eat chicken, the next day you eat the feathers. No matter what comes along you must provide for your family.”
As our culture changes, and entertainment trends change, many have wondered if circus will survive. The Wallendas believe circus will always be with us. Noting that circus has been around for thousands of years. It has always molded itself to the culture that surrounds it. What the circus might look like in 20 years, or 50 years may be different than it looks like right now.
“The circus it constantly changing. When our family first started it was basically the immediate family traveling from place to place, setting up their equipment, performing for audiences in the square. Then with shows like Ringling and other shows, bigger is better became the motto. The one ring circus became three ring, then five ring and ten ring,” Alex said. “Now there’s circus like Cirque du Soleil that’s more of a theatric setting, and shows like Circus Flora. But one thing I can say as a performer, we really enjoy is the intimacy that you can have in a one ring circus tent like Circus Flore. You can see what the performers are doing up close. You can see the sweat on their brow and the glint in their eye. It’s a wonderful way to connect.