High-flying bloodline featured at fair
ARENAC COUNTY — When 73-year-old Carla Wallenda ascends a 110-foot pole at the Arenac County Fair, some may think she’s crazy, others may think she’s mentally unstable.
But she’s just carrying on a family tradition.
Carla’s parents Karl and Helen Wallenda were part of the renowned circus act “The Flying Wallendas,” which performed with the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus in the first half on the 1900’s, and her parents’ gravity defying high wire feats began influencing her from an early age.
“I was six weeks old when they (parents) carried me across the 60 ft. tall wire,” Carla said. “She (Helen) was sitting on daddy’s shoulders and he was sitting on a bicycle going across the wire.
“I’ve been doing it all my life. I started walking tightropes when I was three. … I used to be the top of the seven-man pyramid (on the high wire),” she added. “I was circus all my life until about 20 years ago. … About 20 years ago we decided we were going to go around to festivals and fairs.”
However, soon after she made the decision with her husband, who announces during her act, to put a stop to the circus lifestyle, Carla says she got a reminder about what she wanted to get away from while playing 10 shows in Texas with the Shrine Circus as a favor.
“You don’t have any time when you’re in the circus,” she said. “You got to drive 1,500 miles in two days.”
But that doesn’t mean her act, which will be performed at the Arenac County Fair several times on Wednesday through Saturday (5 and 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 6 and 10 p.m. Friday; 10 p.m. Saturday), isn’t full of amazing feats.
She says the 110-foot pole is similar to a flagpole and she, weather permitting, scampers up to its highest point.
“The top is very limber, it swings 25 feet to either side and I swing and pose,” Carla said. “I go all the way to the top and stand on my head.”
By performing at such great heights, Carla says she often gets a chance to pull a fast one on the crowd.
“Sometimes I let my foot slip a little to, I call it, try to wake them (audience) up,” she said. “They usually go Ooooh!”
But while the crowd may feel a moment of fear, Carla says striking fear isn’t the only thing she aims to do while performing. She says she loves the applause and appreciation from the fans.
“The adults, they know the Wallenda name, but I’m really impressed with the children and teenagers because they come back to see show after show,” Carla said.
Since she was raised around high wire acts and such, she says has never been afraid of putting on the show high above the ground although fans may be frightened. She added that she also pays close attention to the weather and only does what she knows can be done safely.
However, one has to wonder if at age 73, Carla is thinking about calling it a career in showmanship.
“My husband keeps saying ‘How long are you going to do this?’” Carla said. “I’m only 73, maybe 27 more years.”
And at 73, she says she still keeps herself in performance condition.
“Even in the winter when we’re not working, I put up the 70 foot pole and climb up and down three times a day,” Carla said. “That helps keep me in shape.”
The Florida resident says she got hooked up with the Schmidt family, owners of T.J. Schmidt and CO. Amusements, while working with someone else.
“I was working in Michigan for another man and he knew them. … He sent me to work with them (Schmidt’s),” Carla said. “They’re like family.”
Prior to doing her act at the fair, Terry Schmidt says Carla will be performing at the Auburn Corn Festival, which his company provides amusement rides and midway activities before, one week before the county fair.
This week’s printed edition, available July 8, will also include a side story about the Hartford Circus Fire that occurred on July 6, 1944, a fire in a circus tent that claimed 168 lives in Hartford, Conn. Carla’s parents were performing when the fire broke out, and Carla was one of the fortunate patrons at the circus to make it out unharmed.