A member of the famed Wallenda aerial family, Carla dazzles the audience with her feats atop the "sway pole.''
By MELANIE AVE
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 9, 2000
PINELLAS PARK -- In many ways, Carla Wallenda is a typical grandma. She loves to cook and scout for yard sales. But unlike most grandmas, she also likes to walk high wires, swing from a trapeze and hang atop a 70-foot-tall pole.
She's a 5-foot-2-inch "high-flying grandmother with nerves of steel" -- a phrase coined by her husband -- and she's performing this weekend at a fund-raising carnival for Pinellas Park Middle School student clubs.
Daughter of the famed Karl Wallenda, who founded "The Great Wallendas" circus acrobatic troupe, Carla Wallenda will perform aerial routines from a seven-story-tall steel pole that can sway 25-feet in any direction. She is tentatively scheduled to perform at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. today at the school, 6940 70th Ave. N.
Wallenda, 64, has been performing on the sway pole for 36 years and uses no safety net, said her husband, Mike Morgan. She will swing from the pole and hang upside down. Her aunt died while performing on the pole in 1963.
Afterward, Karl Wallenda put the act away "because it was too dangerous," Morgan said. But as an admirer of her deceased aunt and the pole act, Carla Wallenda begged her father to let her try it. He finally agreed, and she's been doing the pole act at circuses, carnivals and fairs ever since, her husband said.
"It's a career," Morgan said. "A lifestyle. It's a challenge. You not only get the good feeling of performing, but also of challenging yourself to succeed."
Several of Wallenda's family members have died or been injured while performing circus stunts.
Karl Wallenda, who once said, "Being on the tightrope is living; everything else is waiting," fell to his death in 1978 at the age of 73. In 1962, Carla Wallenda's brother was paralyzed and a cousin and brother-in-law died after falling from a seven-man high wire act in Detroit.
The seven-man pyramid was once a trademark of the Wallendas. But after the 1962 accident, they all but cut it out of their performances.
Carla Wallenda has never thought about stopping her circus acts because of the deaths or injuries of family members, her husband said. "She says many people lose family members in car accidents, but they still get in a car and drive," Morgan said.
"It's like driving a car, you've got to have respect for what you're doing," he said. "She has total control and respect for what she's doing. She's not an idiot or a fool."
Carnival organizer Harriet Waller, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Pinellas Park, said she watched Wallenda's initial performance Thursday and believes many spectators will be amazed.
"It was scary to me," she said. "She was high, high on the pole performing. Very high. But people here really liked it."
Wallenda has been performing since about age 3. And while the travels for the Pensacola grandmother of eight have slowed in recent years, she still performs frequently.
Morgan said Wallenda relishes the reaction of children who come to watch her stunts.
"The young kids ooh and ahh and they want to come over and talk to her," he said. "Carla just loves performing. It's her therapy to go up on the pole. She goes on up the pole and when she comes down, her troubles are gone.
"Not only that, but she also spots yard sales. When she comes down, she's like come on, let's go to a yard sale."
The carnival continues today from noon to 6 p.m. Admission is free, but tickets are required for the midway rides.
Part of the proceeds will benefit the school's student clubs such as student council, National Junior Honor Society, band boosters, multicultural society, technology club and cheerleading.