Mark J. Price
Editor’s note: This story was originally published Sept. 15, 2003.
The large crowd looked up in astonishment.
Nearly 40,000 fans had packed the Akron Rubber Bowl to watch a football game on Sept. 15, 1973. The biggest thrill of the evening, though, wouldn’t take place on the field.
Thirty years ago today, the real action was high above.
Tightrope artist Karl Wallenda, king of the high wire, had come to the University of Akron to perform at the 20th annual Acme-Zip Game. He would walk across the stadium on a 600-foot wire suspended 70 feet above the football field.
Without a net.
The German immigrant was patriarch of the Great Wallendas, an act that had thrilled American audiences since its 1928 debut with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Akron held special significance for Wallenda. This is the city where, much to his dismay, the high-wire troupe got saddled with an unwanted nickname.
Something went awry when the Great Wallendas performed June 19, 1930, under a big top at South Main Street and Wilbeth Road. The high wire slipped as Karl Wallenda formed a three-level pyramid with his wife, Helen, brother, Herman, and assistant Josef Geiger.
All four aerialists tumbled through the air, but managed to snag the wire and hang on.
A journalist who witnessed the Akron accident dubbed the aerialists “the Flying Wallendas,” a nickname that stuck.
“ ‘The Flying Wallendas’ was never very popular with my grandfather because flying trapeze acts use the title and we are tightrope artists,” said Karl Wallenda’s grandson, Tino Wallenda, who lives in Sarasota, Fla. “So it is not a name that was promoted by the Wallendas or Ringling.”
Over the years, Karl Wallenda lost several relatives in high-wire accidents. In 1962, his nephew and son-in-law were killed and his son was paralyzed when a seven-person pyramid collapsed in Detroit. In 1972, another son-in-law fell to his death in Wheeling, W.Va.
Still, Wallenda went on with the act. “It is my whole life,” he said. “The rest of life is just time to fill in between doing the act.”
So the 68-year-old Wallenda came to Akron in September 1973. He was paid $2,000 to traverse the Rubber Bowl as the crowd waited for the Akron Zips to play the Butler Bulldogs.
“If the weather’s good enough to play football Saturday night in the Rubber Bowl, it’s good enough to walk across a wire 70 feet above the midfield stripe,” he told a reporter.
Wallenda praised the field’s “clean, pretty and dust-free” Astro-Turf, which had just been installed, but said it was of little consequence to him.
“When you fall, you’re gone,” he said. “I don’t care what you put down there — rocks, water or lions.”
Asked if he ever felt uneasy before a performance, Wallenda didn’t hesitate. “Not a bit,” he said. “I couldn’t do the act if I were. Of course, I’m easier when it’s over. You can never be sure of the wire, and if it is tight enough.”
At 7:05 p.m., Wallenda stepped onto the 3/8-inch cable. He carried a 25-foot balance pole and wore long sleeves, a tie, dress slacks, a tasseled belt and special footwear.
On the field below, two dozen men held the guy ropes taut. Tension was on the wire and in the air.
“The crowd was overflow, but it always was in those days for the Acme-Zip Game,” recalled Richard Jackoboice, former University of Akron band director. “I think they had 40,000 in the stadium, which only seats 36,000.”
Jaybird Drennan, former WSLR DJ, introduced Wallenda to the audience.
“I was the announcer when he walked across the Rubber Bowl I was doing the loudspeaker work for the game and, of course, for the halftime activities,” Drennan said.
He remembers reciting Wallenda’s career highlights and giving a brief history of the Great Wallendas, and then Wallenda began to walk.
“He got up there and he took that long pole and he went hopping right across there,” Drennan said.
Waves of excitement and nervousness swept the crowd as Wallenda slowly moved forward, one foot after the other, along the narrow wire. There were plenty of oohs and aahs.
“Everybody was watching him,” Drennan said. “You know, you build it up and you hold their attention while he’s walking across, and everybody’s kind of holding their breath, not knowing.”
“They were totally spellbound,” Jackoboice agreed. “They really were. It was a pretty spectacular thing.”
Wallenda was a study in concentration, his gaze fixed on a distant point, a slight smile on his lips.
“He teetered once in a while a little bit like he was about to fall,” Drennan said. “I don’t think he had any problem whatsoever … A little bit for effect, I think.”
Halfway across, Wallenda stopped.
The university band, providing circus music under Jackoboice’s direction, went into a drumroll.
The crowd gasped as Wallenda bent over, balanced himself on the pole and stood on his head. He got back up and resumed walking.
“That’s something I always do because the crowd loves it,” Wallenda said later. “When I am on my head, I always have the announcer say I did it to rest my feet.”
The audience breathed easier as Wallenda neared the end. It took him about 12 minutes to travel the length of the tightrope.
“Because of the way it was set up, I was walking right into the crowd,” he said. “I found that a little strange. My balance pole weighs 35 pounds and I was afraid I might hit someone with it as I came in.”
As Wallenda reached the other side, the stadium burst into applause. It was almost anticlimactic when the Akron Zips took the field and trounced the Butler Bulldogs 51-19.
“It was exciting. It really was,” Jackoboice said. “It probably was one of the more effective events of that kind that they ever did in the Rubber Bowl for an Acme-Zip Game.”
Karl Wallenda would come back to Akron only one more time. He performed a high-wire act over the Innerbelt on July 3, 1976, during the city’s celebration of the U.S. bicentennial.
Two years later, he died doing what he loved.
He was walking a high wire between two hotels in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but the guy ropes hadn’t been attached properly and the cable was shaky.
He plunged 10 stories to his death March 22, 1978. He was 73.
Today, Tino Wallenda and his relatives carry on the tightrope tradition, and he has come to embrace the Akron nickname that his grandfather didn’t favor.
He calls his troupe The Flying Wallendas.
“I started using it in the mid-’70s because I realized that it was the one that most of the public knew us as,” he said. “Great Wallendas, Wallenda Family, etc., was not what people knew us as. They knew us as the Flying Wallendas and I decided to capitalize on the familiarity.”
Beacon Journal copy editor Mark J. Price is the author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.