Her first professional appearance on a high wire placed little Carla not only in the spotlight with her parents, Karl and Helen Wallenda, but also on film with the great Lou Jacob. The Warner Brothers newsreel *, titled Hi Wire Lay Off with Lou Jacob and Little Carla, appeared in cinemas in 1939. Little Carla walked across the wire under the watchful eyes of Papa Karl, always called Vati, and her nervous mother Helen, affectionately known as Mutti. Karl and Helen, the Papa and Mama of the famed Wallenda troupe, arrived in America in 1928, stunning audiences with The Greatest Show on Earth at Madison Square Garden, April 5, 1928. The audience roared stopping the big show for nearly fifteen minutes documented in Fred Bradna’s biography, The Big Top: My forty years with The Greatest Show on Earth. Little Carla arrived a few years later, February 13, 1936. Ella Bradna offered her guidance as godparent, and Helen Wallenda named her new baby Carla Ella Wallenda.
With her career debut on record, Karl and Helen began intensive training of their young progeny. Carla learned all the aerial routines offered by the Wallenda family at that time including the basics of web, lyre, cloudswing, Roman ladders, perch, iron jaw, and many tricks on the pyramids on the highwire. She also learned to split, headstand, and the delicate art of taking her bow, all while others were fighting a war far away.
Carla’s grandmother, Kunnigunde Grotefent, taught her that when her foot leaves the floor, her toe should be pointed; at the same time other kids learned to handle cutlery. Karl drilled into her sub-consciousness that it is not what you do but how you do it. Helen guided her in wardrobe and make-up. The strength of generational artists poured into her being before she graduated elementary school. The knowledge of many generations trickled down into her life, the integrity of all the Wallenda traditions flowed toward her from Kunnegunde through Karl and Helen, right into Carla’s soul. Carla filled free-time with training for this art form before others rode a bicycle, and Carla learned to ride a bike on the wire too.
She spent her first years on the Ringling show. The Wallenda highwire troupe appeared on the big show until the strike year, then departed for the 39-41 seasons, but returned 42-46. By the time Carla was ten years old she’d spent at least seven years on the train, under the big top, doing spec with the Doll family, eating in the cook tent, and traveling with the Greatest Show on Earth.
At age eleven, when the Wallenda Circus opened their gates for the first time, in Bradenton, FL, April 8, 1947, Carla was finally part of the program, but not on the highwire. Carla’s aunt, Rietta, fondly called Yetty, held the responsibility of topping the seven-person-pyramid, and climbing the one hundred-forty feet high swaypole. Carla appeared in several of the aerial productions, including the aerial moons. The 1947 program also included her recently liberated sister from occupied Germany. Jenny Wallenda joined the family for the first full season after the war. Thereafter the sisters trained together, Carla eleven and Jenny nineteen years old when the show opened.
One fine Florida afternoon four years later, in 1951, Carla returned home from her school, the Out of Door Academy, and Papa surprised her with a challenge. “Carla, do the headstand on the pyramid, and we will take you along in the wire act this season.” Every afternoon her books flew to the corner, and she ran to practice the headstand. Jenny left the troupe two years earlier to join the Ringling Brothers Circus, and marry her sweet-heart, Alberto Zoppe. The Cleveland Grotto Circus first up for Carla and her headstand.
In Cleveland at the Public Hall in downtown, as the story passed down, Carla proudly slipped on the matching costume, and lined up with the rest of the troupe, climbed the ladder, and took her place with The Great Wallendas highwire troupe. Her turn for the headstand arrived, understanders riding bikes; Carla mounted the pyramid. In the middle of the wire she raised her rump into the air, but her feet would not rise from the bar. The understanders, Uncle Herman in the rear position, carried her to the pedestal in that position. Subsequent shows went better, and this writer witnessed many headstands on the pyramid. Carla was the only Wallenda girl to ever accomplish that trick. I saw it many times, but I’ve never seen another female in any Wallenda highwire troupe perform a headstand on the pyramid.
Still in Cleveland a few shows later, everything running smoothly; her turn to top the Seven arrived. Her first opportunity to ride the giant pyramid before her, she sat on the chair, and then stood when the pyramid stopped in the middle of the wire, as her Aunt Yetty had for the previous four years. The original group of under standers from the 1947 season now included some replacements for the 1951 season,
The Wallendas suffered the first loss through death just months before when Philip Kries died in a highway accident near Omaha, Nebraska. His replacement, Tabby Anderson, a recruit hastily trained in Billings, Montana after the accident, now poised in the front position. In fact, three replacements for originals in the Seven took place successively. First, Joe Geiger injured his heel when the descent rope broke in 1949. His replacement, Don Edwards, quickly managed. Then Uncle Philip, and last, the U.S. Army called Uncle Gunther into Korean service. Joe Seitz stepped into position.
Carla’s six under-standers included originals: Uncle Arthur in the rear position, second level Vati, Karl Wallenda in front, and his elder brother Herman in the rear. Carla climbed to the top, sat on the chair, and performed as if she’d been there naturally for decades, standing on the apex of the monolithic pyramid. She said the headstand was a much harder trick. There is no doubt of that fact since she is the only woman ever to accomplish it in the Wallenda troupe.
Carla participated in the Seven through the fifties, alternating with others. Aunt Yetty retired from the highwire in 1953. Yetty and Arthur toured with her swaypole and frequently on the same bill as The Great Wallendas highwire troupe. Patsy Jordan, Jenny Wallenda, and even Helen Wallenda all mounted the pyramid alternately during that decade.
Once, in Mexico City, Carla told me, “Eddie Herrigan froze up so we couldn’t do the Seven. All the performers from the Ringling show were in the building that night, so Papa asked Uncle Herman if we should do the two high on the chair on bikes. Uncle Herman said okay, and so did I. Before that night I only practiced the trick.” She climbed to her fathers’ shoulders while he stood on the chair, a trick previously accomplished only by her Aunt Yetty and her mother.
Over the years she lost count of how many understanders she worked with. “I think once I counted and it was seventeen.” Everyone from Norbu to John Jordan carried her across the wire in that pyramid. The names of these people are not forgotten **, but rarely remembered.
Carla and her husband, Paul Jordan, left the Wallenda troupe to form their own act at the end of the 1961 season. The Jordan Troupe contracted with Rudy Brothers Circus for the 1962 season. That winter they also appeared in nightclubs, and theaters in New York City with smaller acts on their menu of offerings.
The 1962 season began for The Great Wallendas with the Seven at the mighty Moslem Temple Shrine Circus in Detroit, but the Seven stopped there. January 30, 1962, is the night of tragedy that no one forgets, least of all Carla. Sister Jenny and Jana Schepp took the alternating responsibility of topping the Seven. That night Jana mounted, and along with her brother Deiter never made it to the platform. Jana survived, but Deiter did not, nor did Jenny’s husband, Dick Faughnan. That ended an era for The Great Wallendas highwire troupe. Everyone continued as a new chapter opened.
Barely fifteen months after the Detroit accident, Aunt Yetty fell from her swaypole in Omaha, Nebraska, near where her brother was killed thirteen years earlier. She was killed that night. Carla assumed the pole act for the 1965 season, and rejoined The Great Wallendas highwire act to the end of that decade. The pole became her solo act.
Carla left the Wallenda troupe again at the end of the 1969 season. She and her husband, Richard Guzman, continued with the pole and a hanging perch. The pole towered at one hundred ten feet, slightly lower than Aunt Yetty’s pole. She appeared with a few circuses, but outdoor attractions such as fairs and festivals began to request the massive pole for their events. Fewer circuses appeared outdoors, and her massive swaypole stood as high as the double-ferris-wheel creating an astounding visual attraction for events.
Sadly, in July 1972, her husband was killed while helping Vati with a Skywalk in Wheeling, WVA. Carla continued the tradition meeting the challenges of erecting the pole for events relying on her sons, Ricky and Mario, and others sent from Vati to help move the rigging. Carla went beyond traditional boundaries with her swaypole. The 84 Lumber Company began opening new stores across the country. Grand opening events included lumber jacks, and Carla Wallenda on the pole. Carla added a new market for her towering pole, and still sought other opportunities to exceed traditional limitations. On one occasion Carla and Mike Morgan presented the hanging perch act beneath a hot air balloon adding to her list of accomplishments.
As a child, Carla practiced with many other performers as she grew into this special performer. Mornings involved hustling into the building or tent to find someone practicing. Carla watched and sometimes participated with other acts in their rehearsals. It rounded her experience as a performer, and paid high dividends. Many times in her career some act needed someone to fill in for a sick or injured person. Papa “Vati” Wallenda offered Carla as a substitute for anyone needing temporary help. Carla tells stories of flying with Billy Woods and Bob Porter, aerial ladders with Papa Perof, cradle with the Aregonies, bareback riding with the Bostok-Bogino troupe and Alberto Zoppe, risley with the Bogino troupe, trampoline with the Jordan’s and George Hubler, teeterboard with Jordan’s and Dubsky’s, elephants with Arci Scott and Walt King, perchpole with Wicon and Melita, and Peaches and Simrus Revue, she’s done dogs and pigeons, Roman Ladders, cloudswing, productions in web, carousel, loop-to-loop, swinging ladders, moons, assisted in acts too; juggling with Bogino, one finger with Bob Johnson, magic with Charlie Cox, Baudie’s leopards, and the list goes on. Carla performed stunts to promote shows, hanging traps, and loops on fire-ladders and cranes in parades, and hospitals, once even in a leper colony. Carla performed in shows for Al Dobritch, Frank Wirth, Tom Packs, Barnes and Carruthers, Dori Miller, Orin Davenport, three times with E.K. Fernandez in Hawaii, Clyde Beatty, Dubsky Brothers and Jordan, Atayde Brothers and Bell Brothers in Mexico, Santos Y Artigas and Circo Imperial in Cuba, including the year of the Castro revolution and getting stranded for five days as a result, and once for the Duetschland Halle in Berlin. Carla also worked with family on the Wallenda Circus when Vati produced and later with her son, Ricky. Beyond circuses she worked with the Hurricane Hell Drivers in fairs, at corporate parties, parks, grand openings for malls, hotels, and lumber yards, or intermission at drive-in theaters. On television she appeared with Ed Sullivan, the Hollywood Palace, Seal Test Big Top, the Bozo Show, the Jerry Lewis Telethon, and others in television documentaries, in night clubs like the Latin Quarter in New York City, and the Palace Theater. Carla also produced her own show; The Carla Wallenda Aerial Thrill Show for fairs, festivals, and parks. The show was a first of its kind, completely self-contained with lighting and sound. Occasionally Carla expanded the show to a two hour thriller including The Great Wallendas highwire troupe for larger events such as in Kingston, Jamaica, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Even this did not satisfy her thirst to shatter limitations.
Most recently Carla appeared with her son, Ricky, in his highwire act at the Broward County Fair, November 26, 2010, along with twelve year-old Bri, thus marking another first as youngest and eldest walked the wire together. She held her 76th consecutive season on the road for the 2012 season, seventy-seven years after her first professional appearance with Lou Jacob in 1939, and presented her signature headstand atop the towering swaypole at one-hundred-ten feet in the air. Carla is the world-record oldest active aerialist, and longest unbroken streak celebrating sixty-two consecutive seasons—six decades, more than half a century—as an aerialist. The long-standing tradition of the Wallenda family continued until she retired at the age of 81 with a 77 year career. I challenge you to find one other person with as many accomplishments.
*Film available from The Authentic Wallenda Archives
**A complete list of these individuals available from The Authentic Wallenda Archives