The Wallenda family had been acrobatic performers in Europe for generations. Ms. Wallenda learned to walk on a tightrope at the same time she learned to walk on the ground. She first performed in public at age 3 and appeared for many years with her family’s troupe in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
“When I came down off stage, there were all these people standing and applauding and throwing money on stage,” she told Florida Today in 2003. “My dad said, ‘Never mind the money — it’s the applause that’s important.’ ”
She grew up with the circus, traveling across North America and around the globe with “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Cousins and in-laws with different last names all performed as “the Wallendas,” who were billed various times as the “The Great Wallendas,” “The Flying Wallendas” and “The World Famous Wallendas.”
From childhood, Ms. Wallenda practiced eight hours a day, mastering a variety of risky aerial routines, along with headstands and splits. Her grandmother taught her that whenever her foot was not touching the ground or a wire cable, it should be elegantly pointed.
Another family tradition was that all acts should be performed without the use of a safety net. The Wallendas, who carried long stabilizing poles for balance, believed a net would lead to sloppiness and complacency — and would diminish the suspense of the audience.
“Our distrust of nets goes back to 1938 when my father’s younger brother, Willie, broke away from the wire act and started his own aerial act,” Ms. Wallenda told the State Journal-Register of Springfield, Ill. “He insisted on using a net and was killed anyway when he fell and bounced out of it.”
In the late 1940s, her father introduced a spectacular new routine called the seven-person pyramid, in which four people walk on the wire; two people stand one level above them, on bars attached to the wire walkers; and a seventh person rides atop the pyramid on a chair balanced on a wire.
Ms. Wallenda became a regular part of the pyramid act at 15, after proving to her father that she could do a headstand on top of the chair, balanced above the six people below her.
Other female performers later took over the top position in the pyramid as Ms. Wallenda developed other aerial specialties, including the iron-jaw suspension, in which she spun at high speed while dangling from a device held between her teeth. She was not part of the pyramid act in 1962, when the Wallendas fell during a performance in Detroit. Two members of the troupe were killed, and Ms. Wallenda’s brother Mario was paralyzed.
A year later, Ms. Wallenda’s aunt Rietta died after falling more than 100 feet while performing on the sway bar — a tall metal pole that flexes as much as 25 feet in any direction.
“Aunt Rietta was my idol,” Ms. Wallenda said in 1994. “I begged my father to let me have that act, but he just thought it was too dangerous. Finally, after I proceeded to try and build one myself, he gave in and gave it to me.”
In 1965, Ms. Wallenda made the sway bar her featured act, climbing as high as 120 feet, while leaning from side to side, holding on and twirling with one hand. At the top of the pole, she would do a headstand.
She gave her final performance in 2017 on Steve Harvey’s “Little Big Shots: Forever Young” television show, leaving the audience and host gasping in disbelief.
“The pole is 85 feet high,” Harvey said. “She’s 81 years old, from the great Wallenda family. Give it up for Carla!”
Carla Ella Wallenda was born Feb. 13, 1936, in Sarasota, where her family maintained a permanent home while not traveling with the circus.
Her father died at 73 in 1978 after falling from a cable suspended between two buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico. That night, Ms. Wallenda and other members of her family went ahead with a scheduled performance.
All four of Ms. Wallenda’s husbands were aerial performers, as were her four children. In later years, she sometimes appeared with her grandchildren, the seventh generation of flying Wallendas. Ms. Wallenda appeared in a 2017 music video by Miley Cyrus, “Younger Now.”
Her marriages to Iginio Bogino and Paul Jordan ended in divorce. Her third husband, Richard Guzman, died during a performance in 1972, when his balancing pole struck an electrical line. Her fourth husband, Mike Morgan, died in 2017 after 39 years of marriage.
All of her children adopted the stage name of Wallenda. A son from her first marriage, Mario, died in 1993. Survivors include another son from her first marriage, Rick Wallenda; a daughter from her second marriage, Rietta Wallenda; a daughter from her third marriage, Valerie Wallenda; nine grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren. (Nik Wallenda, who has walked across tightropes stretched over Niagara Falls, a gorge near the Grand Canyon and between two Chicago skyscrapers, is her great-nephew.)
In more than 70 years of performing without a net, Ms. Wallenda’s most serious injury was a bruised tailbone, after falling about 17 feet.
“Accidents can happen anyplace,” she told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “I have to make a living and this is the only way I know or want to. I’ve done waitress work and hated every minute of it. Why should I go and do a job that I hate?”
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