BY LINDA MONDOUX
Jean-François Gravelot, a.k.a. The Great Blondin, made history on June 30, 1859, when he crossed the Niagara gorge on a tightrope, thrilling the crowd of onlookers when he executed a back somersault before coming ashore on the Canadian side.
The 31-year-old would repeat the death-defying feat several more times, adding new drama and danger to his performance, just in case the crowd got bored. Once, he crossed the rope on a bicycle. He also walked blindfolded and pushed a wheelbarrow. To kick it up a notch, he made the trip with his hands and feet manacled. And just for laughs, he cooked an omelette in the centre of the tightrope. His crowning glory was the day he carried his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back across the gorge.
William Leonard Hunt, the Port Hope, Ont., resident known as Signor Farini, followed in The Great Blondin’s footsteps. His most bizarre tightrope crossing was on Sept. 5, 1860, when he strapped a washing machine to his back, walked to the centre of the rope and balanced the machine there so he could do a wash, drawing water from the river below with the help of a pail and rope. When the clothes were washed, rung out and hung up to dry, Farini strapped the washer back on and returned to safety.
Seven years later, Maria Spelterina, the only woman to cross the Niagara gorge on a tightrope, performed the feat in style while upping the bizarre factor. Wearing peach baskets on her feet, the 23-year-old Italian walked backwards and put a paper bag over her head. That crossing was in 1867 and she survived to tell the tale.
Two years later, Andrew Jenkins rode a velocipede across a rope strung up over the Niagara gorge.
It would be almost 20 years before Stephen Peer, a Niagara Falls man, made his tightrope crossings of the gorge. Unfortunately, his body was found on the rocks below a few days after one of his walks in 1887. Authorities assumed he fell while trying to walk the tightrope in the dark, wearing only his street shoes. Not a good idea.
Samuel Dixon and Clifford Calverley also made the crossing in 1890 and 1892, respectively, but the daredevil feat was considered somewhat tacky and ho-hum by that time. Still, James Hardy took his turn on a highwire over the gorge in 1896. He was the youngest — at age 21 — to attempt the crossing. His performance was also the last one permitted in Niagara Falls.
Safety harness shocker
Until Nik Wallenda, the 33-year-old seventh-generation daredevil and scion of the world-famous Flying Wallenda family of highwire walkers, badgered the Niagara Parks Commission into reversing a more than century-old ban on stunting for a one-time walk this summer.
Billed as a once-in-a-generation event on June 15, Wallenda plans to become the only person to walk across the Niagara Falls on a highwire. In fact, he plans to walk right into the mist of the Horseshoe Falls, the largest of the falls’ three cataracts, and back out again into the history books. While The Great Blondin and others who followed were said to have walked across the Falls on a tightrope, in reality their ropes and wires were strung across the Niagara gorge some distance downstream from the powerful Falls themselves.
The Wallenda performance, which will be the only event of its kind to be considered for approval by the Niagara Parks Commission for another 20 years, will be televised worldwide in a three-hour prime time special on the ABC network.
So what can the live audience and TV viewers expect on June 15 when Wallenda undertakes “the greatest work of art” in his career by walking a distance of 1,800 feet across the mighty Niagara Falls on a wire rope just two inches in diameter? Will the world watch in horror as the father of three loses his balance in the mist and falls to his death, just like his great-grandfather Karl Wallenda did in 1978 in Puerto Rico?
Fortunately, a plunge to the rocky gorge 220 feet below is about 99.99 per cent out of the question. So take a deep breath, relax and enjoy the scenery. It’s not going to happen because ABC, which has exclusive TV rights to the 40-minute performance, has taken the “death” out of death-defying act by ordering the star of the show to wear a safety harness, something Wallenda — and The Great Blondin et al before him — has never worn on the highwire. Ever.
“It’s disheartening — I wanted to do it without anything,” Wallenda told The Buffalo News
. “To me, it just personally takes away from it.”
“My lawyers are saying, ‘Look, we’ve pushed; we’ve tried,’ ” he added. “If ABC pulls, they’re my biggest financial supporter in this — I can’t financially do it.”
Even with ABC on the scene, Wallenda is on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars. One of the reasons Canadian and American officials on both sides of the Niagara Falls approved the highwire walk was that Wallenda promised he would pay all setup and security costs.
Wallenda must raise $50,000
“We have been able to offset most of these costs, but not all of them,” Wallenda says in his fundraising appeal on the IndieGoGo site. “The unforeseen costs that have popped up last minute are huge.”
Now, Wallenda needs to raise $50,000 to make ends meet. According to his IndieGoGo page
, the money will go toward training, rigging, marketing, travel, safety and “unforeseen issues.”
Donations of $1 and up are being accepted, and will come with rewards, including an exclusive digital photo from the wire; digital photo and autographed poster of the event; public “shout-out” of thanks on Wallenda’s Twitter and Facebook pages; commemorative T-shirt; and space on his website thanking you for the support. So far, the most popular reward is the “$100 autobiography thanks.” For a $100 donation, Wallenda will reward donors with “All of the above, plus I will personally thank you in my autobiography, set to be published in 2013.”
But what if Wallenda doesn’t raise all the money?
“Don’t let this happen, please!,” Wallenda tells the IndieGoGo community. “Any amount will help us cover our costs, but we really need to reach (and hopefully surpass!) our goal in order for this event to truly be a success.”
For a $500 donation, you get “all of the above,” including the book mention, and “a personal letter thanking you for helping me make history.” Want to give $1,000? For that amount, you and three of your friends “can experience the Niagara walk in a private VIP area, and attend a private meet and greet” with Wallenda. A donation of $5,000 will get you and your three friends the VIP seats, the private meeting, plus dinner with Wallenda “at a mutually agreed upon date and time.” Unfortunately, he’ll pay for your food, but not your booze!
If you’re really feeling generous — and think you might be the next Nik Wallenda — a $10,000 donation will get you a backyard wire lesson. Wallenda will set up “a low wire in your backyard and teach the basics in a two-hour private lesson.”
The fundraising program also has room for sponsorship.
“Want a once-in-a-100 years advertising opportunity?” Wallenda writes. “Your company’s logo will be on the shirt I will wear as I perform my walk across the Falls. This will be shown on live TV and seen by hundreds of millions of people around the world. This is an advertising opportunity like no other!”
If this is all starting to sound a little tacky, it is. But with Wallenda under contract to pay his own way, and ABC apparently not paying the star of the show enough to cover his costs, fundraising appears to be the only answer. It doesn’t help that 90 per cent of the excitement has gone out of the event now that Wallenda has been told he must be tethered to the wire or ABC will walk away, leaving the performer with a whopping bill to pay on his own.
Even with the tether, ABC plans to broadcast the walk with a brief time delay to give producers the precious seconds needed to adjust in case something goes wrong (like that Grammy “wardrobe malfunction”). Heaven forbid that the three-hour show should contain even a minute of unscripted drama.
If Wallenda does slip off the rope and is dangling from his safety harness awaiting rescue, don’t be surprised if ABC rushes to commercial. “We are going to take every precaution to make this an exciting and thrilling event that families can feel very comfortable watching with their kids,” said Jeffrey Schneider, an ABC spokesman.
Attack of the peregrine falcons
But harness or no harness, the walk — which is scheduled to start at Goat Island in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and end on the Canadian side at Table Rock, in front of the Horseshoe Falls — will no doubt create a buzz of excitement in Niagara Falls. After all, no one has ever tried to walk through a pounding waterfall while walking on a wire that is bound to get wet and slippery. And remember, the walk will be held at night, with a start time around 10:20 p.m., so an illuminated Wallenda against a dark sky and lit-up Falls can’t help but be dramatic.
And what if winds are high on June 15? What if Wallenda can’t see the angry peregrine falcons attacking him?
Yes, there may be some unscripted excitement lurking around the corner after all. According to Mark and Marion Nash, spokesmen for the Canadian Peregrine Foundation, Wallenda just might get attacked by a pair of falcons nesting near his walk path. The falcons nest in a decommissioned Ontario Power Generation plant in the gorge and will want to keep any would-be predators away from their babies.
“They go 360 kilometres an hour — he could get a two-pound missile attacking at the back of his neck,’’ Marion Nash told the Toronto Star
. The Nashes say they warned the Ministry of Natural Resources of the dangers of Wallenda walking through the falcons’ flight path, but their suggestion to postpone the walk until September, when the babies would be flying on their own and no longer need protection, was disregarded.
If you want to make your way to Niagara Falls to watch the prime time performance — and scan the skies for falcons ready to rip their claws into an unsuspecting Wallenda — there will likely be less of a crowd now that the news is out about the safety harness. Still, tourism officials say they are expecting 120,000 people to watch the walk in person on both sides of the Niagara Falls.
On the Canadian side, the Niagara Parks Commission is planning several events, including a live concert at the Illumination Stage at Queen Victoria Park before Wallenda starts walking across the gorge on his way into the Horseshoe Falls and back. When the crossing is completed, the night will be capped off “in dramatic fashion” with a fireworks display over the Falls.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — June 2012