Paralyzed in tightrope accident, a Flying Wallenda tries to make a comeback after 40 years

Tuesday, January 18th 2005, 8:27 am

By: News On 6

SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) _ Mario Wallenda says he doesn't remember anything about that day in January 1962 when he tumbled from a tightrope in Detroit, an accident that left him a paraplegic.

The adopted son of Karl Wallenda, patriarch of the famous Flying Wallenda family of acrobats, Mario was 21 when he had to leave the circus life. But he still ached to walk the high wire again.

Now retired after decades working at a contact lens lab, Wallenda is looking to get back on the tightrope _ in a specially built two-wheeled electric ``sky cycle.''

``I'm 64, and hopefully I have awhile,'' Wallenda said recently, outside the modest home he built on land his father bought in the 1940s, when Sarasota was the epicenter of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. ``I just can't sit around the house and not do anything.''

Wallenda and his nephew, Tino Wallenda, developed the stunt for the 1996 Special Olympics in Atlanta. But liability concerns got in the way and it never happened.

Later, in 2001, they contacted Guinness World Records, which taped Mario Wallenda's stunt 40 feet above the parking lot of a Sarasota church. But, for whatever reasons, the segment never aired in the United States.

Though he has always missed show business, and he could use the money to supplement his Social Security income, Wallenda mostly just wants something to do that makes him feel alive and productive again.

For decades, the Flying Wallendas toured the country, entertaining crowds with their high-wire performances, juggling and other acts.

Having trained on the tightrope since he was a toddler, Wallenda dropped out of school at 14 to perform with the family. He eventually became an anchor of the famous Wallenda seven-person pyramid.

Lately, though, the family has had difficulty finding audiences for Wallenda and his electric ``sky cycle,'' which allows him to drive on the wire using switches on a long balancing pole.

Hoping to generate some publicity again, Wallenda got the sky cycle out of his garage recently, and performed the stunt last month. He made it 72 feet across the wire but didn't feel comfortable in the chair this time. He is undeterred, though, and eager to try again.

Linda Wallenda thinks her husband has a death wish.

``I know why he wants to do it, but I think he's nuts,'' she said.

Wallenda denies his wife's accusation. ``I don't have a death wish, contrary to what people think.''

Wallenda's sister, Jenny, added: ``Nobody wants to see someone who was hurt like that go up there and maybe get hurt again.'' But, continuing, ``I think people should see it.''

The famous traveling circus troupe never used a net because Karl Wallenda said it provided a false sense of security. In 1978, the family's patriarch, at age 73, fell to his death while walking a tightrope stretched between two hotels in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Mario Wellenda was performing at the Shrine Circus when he was injured. One of the Wallenda's four anchormen shifted a balancing pole in his hands, causing the pyramid to tumble.

Mario's cousin, Deiter Schepp, and another member, Richard Faughnan, were killed. The fourth anchorman remained standing, as Karl Wallenda and his brother, Herman, fell to the wire from the second level and held on. Schepp's sister, Jana, who was on a chair, grabbed Karl, who held on until a net could be rushed in _ more than 32 feet below.

Mario Wallenda remembers only waking up in the hospital, unable to use his legs.

Now, using his legendary surname as a draw, he's hoping to do the sky cycle stunt a few times a year, let the applause wash over him again and make a little money.

``The accident happened when he was very young, and it killed his career in the circus,'' said Tino Wallenda, who heads one of several branches of the family still performing. ``To come back and do it would be a great victory.''

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