By Charlie Gillis - Thursday, December 6, 2012 - 0 Comments
From space to the Marianas trench to Niagara Falls, 2012 had daredevils galore
A fine balance
More than restoring grandeur to the family name, Nik Wallenda established himself as the world’s pre-eminent daredevil on June 15 with his high-wire walk across Niagara Falls—a feat that summoned the attraction’s legacy of stunts and showmen even if the 33-year-old was not really at risk of falling.
Wallenda, a member of the centuries-old Flying Wallendas circus family, was forced by jittery U.S. network executives to wear a safety harness lest he fall to his death on live TV. But his 550-m journey was a success in every way, drawing 20 million North American viewers at its peak and launching Nik Wallenda as an international brand. “From here on,” he said before he left town, “Niagara Falls will be a huge part of who I am.” Three months later, he obtained the necessary permits to walk across the Grand Canyon. This time, there won’t be any harness.
What’s powered by plutonium, weighs one tonne, and can vaporize a rock from 10 m away? Curiosity, the most advanced robot ever built, landed on Mars Aug. 6 after blasting off from Earth almost nine months earlier. In a few short months, NASA’s minivan-sized explorer has changed our understanding of Mars, beaming back gorgeous, high-resolution, colour images to reveal an alien world that looks startlingly like our own. The robot has already found evidence that water once flowed on Mars, and where there’s water, there can be life. This rover’s mission has just begun, and Curiosity knows no bounds. Continue…
By Charlie Gillis - Monday, June 18, 2012 at 5:59 PM - 0 Comments
Charlie Gillis catches up with the tightrope walker on his way home
Nik Wallenda might be a lot closer to his next big feat on a high-wire than earlier thought.
The tightrope artist told Maclean’s today that he hopes to cross the Grand Canyon “within a year,” suggesting he’s keen to build on Friday’s historic crossing of Niagara Falls with more breathtaking spectacles.
“I’ve got all the permits in place and it looks like the time frame on that might be moving up,” the 33-year-old said shortly before boarding a flight in Buffalo for Branson, Mo., where he’s performing with his family troupe.
Wallenda has long mused about being the first to walk the desert chasm on a high wire, and began the process more than a year ago to obtain permission from the Navajo Nation to cross on reservation land in Arizona (access in Grand Canyon National Park would be much harder to obtain). Twelve months, though, is a much shorter time frame than the three or four years he’d suggested not long after stepping off the wire in Niagara Falls, Ont.
As daunting as the logistical challenges in Niagara were, those in canyon country will be much greater. The area where he hopes to cross has no electricity or paved roads, and is about 80 km from the nearest city, Flagstaff, Ariz. Exactly how wide the canyon will be at the spot he chooses isn’t yet known. But could be as much as double the 550 metres he walked over Niagara Falls.
And that was no calk walk–even before he stepped onto the cable.
Two weeks before the performance, reports surfaced in the U.S. suggesting the event might be cancelled due to non-payment for permits he needed from New York State Parks. Wallenda’s managers were furious, saying they’d lived up to an agreed-upon timetable of payments totalling $225,000 U.S. They said they showed documentation to the Parks department indicating money from ABC, holder of broadcast rights to the walk, had been wired and would be available within days.
Nevertheless, Maclean’s has learned, David Simone, one of Wallenda’s managers with DSW Entertainment, withdrew $75,000 from his personal account in order to pay the bill and squelch the negative publicity.
The challenges on the Canadian side were mild by comparison. After initially resisting Wallenda’s proposal, the Niagara Parks Commission appeared fully on board by the day of the walk, adroitly managing a crowd of about 100,000 arrayed along the Niagara Parkway.
Janice Thomson, the commission’s chair and public face of its early opposition, described the walk as a resounding success that served to showcase the river’s natural beauty with an international television audience. Wallenda met all of his financial deadlines on time, in full, she added.
“He told me at the beginning of the event, ‘I promise you at the end of this we’ll smile at each other, and we’ll be able to give each other a hug,’” Thomson recalled. “He was right. Actually, we hugged three times on Saturday.”
Wallenda, too, wound up with few regrets, citing the safety tether ABC required him to wear as the only fly in the ointment. While he hinted in pre-walk interviews that he might dump the line, Wallenda conceded today doing so could have led to contractual problems with the U.S. network, not to mention accusations that he’d broken his word.
“Of course I wish I didn’t have to wear it, and trust me, I struggled with it,” he said. “I did think about whether I should take it off. But I gave my word and I’m a man of my word. I think it was pretty obvious in the end that I didn’t need it.”
TV viewers were certainly willing to look past it. ABC telecast was America’s most-watched non-sports summertime broadcast in six years, drawing 13.1 million sets of eyes between 10:30 and 11 p.m. The penetration in Canada was even greater. CTV’s two-hour special averaged 3.9 million viewers, peaking at a whopping 6.8 million at 10:41 p.m. That’s a summertime record for non-sports specials.
So Wallenda flew out of Buffalo this afternoon with a smile on his face. While he doesn’t yet know whether he broke even in his $1.3 million Niagara adventure, it’s been an incomparable investment in his venerable—and nicely restored—family name.
“From here on,” he said, “Niagara Falls will be a huge part of who I am.”
By Charlie Gillis - Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 11:32 AM - 0 Comments
After crossing Niagara Falls last evening, the world’s most famous wire-walker dug deep to describe what he’d experienced
If you’ve been to Niagara Falls, chances are you’ve stood mesmerized by the drift of water over that ledge. You know the river’s wild history of barrel riders, inner-tubers and ill-fated tourists. I’ll bet you considered–if only half-consciously–that instant of suspension.
What is it to be at the brink?
This morning, Nik Wallenda has an answer. With a 10-step sprint and a flurry of fist-pumps, the world most famous wire-walker finished crossing the Falls last night where nobody has, and dug deep to describe what he’d experienced.
“Really, it takes your breath away. It’s just unreal,” he said. “It’s unique out there–big surprise. But, normally, I can focus on the cable underneath me. If it moves, my body follows it. But if I looked down at the cable, there was water moving everywhere. If I looked up, there was heavy mist blowing in my face. It was a weird sensation.”
By macleans.ca - Friday, June 15, 2012 at 1:55 PM - 0 Comments
Charlie Gillis on the Flying Wallenda’s 45-minute walk into history: ‘To hell with the tether. He never needed it’
Charlie Gillis has been following Nik Wallenda’s preparation to walk a high-wire suspended above Niagara Falls from the beginning. And he’s kept us to speed ever since. During Wallenda’s walk over the Falls on Friday night, he kept us updated in real-time. Here’s how it went down:
By Charlie Gillis - Thursday, June 14, 2012 at 5:43 PM - 0 Comments
Charlie Gillis makes way for the Falls where he’ll be live-blogging a Flying Wallenda’s walk from one side to the other
Chalk one up for the forces of fun.
As of this morning, a 550-metre steel cable runs the breadth of the Niagara Falls, and Nik Wallenda is limbering up for his long-anticipated walk. I’ll be there, filing updates through Friday, and live-blogging the event itself. Don’t leave this to ABC. Join us as you watch.
If Wallenda succeeds, it will go down as a bureaucratic, as well as physical, feat. He and his agent, Winston Simone, have persuaded—in rough order—the New York legislature; the City of Niagara Falls, Ont.; the City of Niagara Falls, N.Y.; the Niagara Falls Parks Commission; the New York State Parks Police; the Niagara Falls, Ont. police; the Niagara Parks police service; the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; the Canada Border Services Agency and Transport Canada to get access to the gorge and permission to cross from the United States to Canada.
That’s not an exhaustive list. You could throw on the Ontario Ministry of Tourism & Culture, because the parks commission needed a little prodding from Queen’s Park to waive its century-old prohibition on stunting at the Falls. And with four days to go before the big night, Wallenda’s team learned that the helicopter company they’d hired to fly a rope across the gorge lacked a necessary dispensation under NAFTA. They needed that rope to pull the cable across.
Yes, that’s NAFTA, as in the North American Free Trade Agreement.
You can see, then, why Wallenda, 33, was sounding a bit chippy by the time he started to rehearse. Indeed, he’d all but lost his patience when ABC, which begins its live special at 9 p.m. (he’ll hit the wire around 10:25 p.m.), demanded that he wear a tether that would keep him from plunging into the chasm should he slip off the wire. He’s been griping about it ever since, suggesting not-so-subtly during the past few days he’ll ditch the cord. Personally, I can’t see him flouting a network paying him a rumoured $500,000. But that’s the showman in Wallenda: he knows how to make you watch.
Back when he went public with this idea, Maclean’s paid Wallenda a visit in southern Missouri, where he and his family troupe were performing at a theme park, and watching them push home for me why this seemed like a great idea—or at least, an idea whose time had come. The act is truly an anachronism, a kind of live-action artifact that makes you long for the days before Bachelorette and Call of Duty. Back when real people risked their actual well-being so the rest of us could feel a bit more alive.
To me, that’s what the Falls’ history of dare-devilling means. Yes, the scene had grown lurid by the mid-19th century. But the river’s guardians did a good job fixing that and—not to go all Seabiscuit here—but things have gotten tough. Not just in Niagara, but right across the eastern industrial belt. Tourism’s down. Jobs are scarce. The economy sucks.
If there was ever a moment to resurrect the Falls lost grandeur, to unashamedly sell the spot with a brash act of showmanship, this is it. Slide to the edge of your seats, folks. A Flying Wallenda is about to step on the wire.
By macleans.ca - Tuesday, May 29, 2012 at 1:42 PM - 0 Comments
Video: Nik Wallenda prepares for his record-breaking Niagara Falls high wire attempt
Maclean’s Charlie Gillis wrote recently about Nik Wallenda’s record-breaking attempt cross Niagara Falls on a high wire. This video, featuring excerpts from his exclusive interview, highlights reveals the tension—and the tradition—behind the attempt.
By Charlie Gillis - Friday, May 25, 2012 at 10:22 AM - 0 Comments
On June 15, Nik Wallenda will walk where no one has ever gone: over the maw of Niagara Falls
With a cold dew descending and the roar of falling water in the distance, Nik Wallenda stands with one foot on the wire and a look of apprehension on his face. It’s 11:30 p.m., and he has snuck out after dinner to take his first steps on a 455-m cable strung outside the Seneca Casino & Hotel in Niagara Falls, N.Y., where he will rehearse his historic walk across North America’s best-known landmark.
A taut length of rope is to Wallenda what a blank canvas is to an artist. But on this night he should have stayed indoors. His engineering team had just 24 hours to rig this steel behemoth—five centimetres in diameter, six tonnes on the spool—across three empty parking lots beside the hotel, and they’ve not yet identified its quirks. At one end, near where it is anchored to the earth, the cable hangs just two metres above the ground. From there, it traverses a falling grade across asphalt, gravel and a pedestrian bridge toward a crane that holds the other end some 20 m above the pavement.
Wallenda has walked enough wires to understand that no fresh rigging is perfect. But after a meal of steak and crispy shrimp (sans alcoholic accompaniment), his daredevil urge has overtaken him, and the 33-year-old has scrambled onto the roof of a friend’s pickup truck from whence he can board the cable near its low end. To his dismay, the thing begins twisting like licorice beneath his sock-clad feet. “I don’t like this,” he murmurs. He steps off, draws a breath and gets back on, arms extended for balance. One teetery step, then two. Back onto the truck. “Nope,” he says crisply. “I don’t like this at all.”
By Charlie Gillis - Wednesday, February 15, 2012 at 3:40 PM - 0 Comments
‘There’s no question the whole world will be watching’
In an abrupt turnabout, the Niagara Parks Commission voted today to negotiate an agreement allowing Wallenda to perform the feat as early as this June. Three months ago, the provincially appointed panel had refused to even hear Wallenda’s proposal, citing a longstanding ban on stunting at the falls.
“I feel like I’m on top of the world,” Wallenda told reporters following the commission meeting at the Whirlpool Golf Course, which is part of the grounds overseen by the NPC. “I’ve done walks that are longer and higher. But this is Niagara Falls. There’s no question the whole world will be watching.” Continue…
By Charlie Gillis - Thursday, December 8, 2011 at 4:08 PM - 3 Comments
Never mind high-wire artists, the Niagara Parks Commission upholds all kinds of mouldy regulations
The Niagara Parks Commission surprised no one yesterday when it denied high-wire artist Nik Wallenda clearance to walk a cable strung across Niagara Falls. The 10-member panel appeared to have made up its mind long before Wallenda, an enterprising 32-year-old, and heir to the Flying Wallendas circus legacy, got a measly 10 minutes to make his case.
The 126-year-old panel has long prohibited what it calls “stunting.” Evidently there can be no exceptions. If we understand chair Janice Thomson correctly, indulging Wallenda is the first step onto a slippery slope that leads to requests from other tightrope walkers, balloonists, river swimmers, kayakers and assorted thrill-seekers seeking a taste of notoriety. Continue…
By Charlie Gillis - Tuesday, November 29, 2011 at 8:05 AM - 0 Comments
Nik Wallenda claims his high-wire act would bring $20.5 million worth of tourism spending to Niagara
High-wire artist Nik Wallenda made his case last week to perform a tightrope walk across Niagara Falls, saying it would bring $20.5 million worth of tourism spending to the region, plus a $122-million “legacy impact” over the next five years. But his appearance before the Niagara Parks Commission—which has control of the iconic gorge on the Canadian side—underlined the conundrum he now faces: how do you sell the commercial benefits of an event to people dedicated to ﬁghting commercialization?
The commission was formed 126 years ago to curb the hucksterism and stunting that had come to sully the whole Niagara experience. Today, the board interprets its role as rigidly as when hawkers demanded five cents to view the falls through a peephole. “It’s sensationalism,” acting chair Janice Thomson told Maclean’s last summer of Wallenda’s proposal. “That’s not what the falls is supposed to be about.”
Wallenda, an heir to the Flying Wallendas circus dynasty, argues the spectacle will emphasize the falls’ natural beauty as much as his derring-do. Still, his pitch is, at bottom, one of financial benefit to a region buffeted by sagging U.S. tourism. He has submitted a study predicting 125,000 spectators would come to view the walk from the Canadian side, while a stunning 411 million would tune in on television—fully 320 million of them overseas. “What you’ve got is a prime-time event that will last two hours, with one of the wonders of the world as a backdrop,” says Michael Harker, senior partner of Enigma Research, the Toronto-based firm that did the study. “There are host venues around the world that would pay for something like this.” Commissioners responded coolly to the proposal, but have agreed to consider it over the next three weeks.
By Charlie Gillis - Friday, August 5, 2011 at 9:00 AM - 1 Comment
A Flying Wallenda’s fight to walk across Niagara Falls
High above the stage, under the glare of a spotlight and 800 sets of unblinking eyes, Nik Wallenda’s mother is perched on a chair. The chair looks like it might have been borrowed from a farmhouse kitchen, and it is teetering on a metal bar fitted at each end with padded brackets; the bar, in turn, rests on the shoulders of her son and a 21-year-old Canadian named Jonah Finkelstein.
Wallenda and Finkelstein, meanwhile, are seated on bicycles with rubber-free wheels, which balance precariously on a length of cable strung between heavily anchored towers of steel. The whole ensemble soars about two storeys high, with nothing but the cable between themselves and the floor. This is the so-called “Chair Pyramid,” the crowning manoeuvre of the Fabulous Wallendas’ thrice daily show at the Missouri theme park Silver Dollar City, and a trick as familiar to the team as brushing their teeth.
But today something seems to be going wrong. As his mother lifts one foot to the seat of her chair, the balance bar Wallenda holds to maintain stability bobs erratically. Wallenda’s movements grow increasingly frantic, and as the spectre of calamity grips the crowd, his voice fills the room: “Watch it, Mom!” Then, as quickly as it started, the crisis has passed: the men regain their balance and Delilah Wallenda—58 years old, grandmother of four—tucks her feet underneath her and stands upright on the chair. She holds the pose a few seconds, then sits back down as the men pedal to a platform at the end of the wire. A round of thunderous applause.
Later, still drying perspiration from his bristly orange hair, Wallenda cops to a secret: “I tell my mom to ‘watch it’ in every show. When I look like I’m off balance? Moving my bar like crazy? All to build drama.” Asked whether he might regret pulling back the curtain quite so far, Wallenda nonchalantly shrugs. “People understand that we’re entertainers. That’s where our skills come in, and believe it or not, it’s the hard part of what we do.”