The Flying Wallenda’s
The Wallenda family is a story of success. Performing in circuses for almost two hundred years, they hold several records as performers on the tightrope, and are one of the most well known and famous circus families in history. As far back as 1830, the Wallenda family was performing in a traveling circus troupe as acrobats, jugglers, clowns, aerialists and animal trainers.
In the late 1800s Tino Wallenda’s maternal great-grandfather Engelbert Wallenda became known for his expertise in the art of flying trapeze. In the late 1920s John Ringling traveled to Cuba to see his grandfather Karl Wallenda perform and signed him to join the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. In the spring of 1928 Karl and the Wallenda troupe arrived in New York. When the safety net didn’t arrive from Cuba, they went on to perform without a safety net to a fifteen-minute standing ovation. Also a circus performer, Tino’s father Alberto Zoppe, was from the circus family that brought the first tented circus to Italy in 1842. Tino’s mother Jenny, and his father Alberto met while they were both performing with the Ringling circus and were married. When Tino was seven years old, he began his circus training under the guidance of his grandfather Karl. Tino and his future wife Olinka met for first time while they were both performing in the Shrine Circus which his grandfather Karl produced. Olinka’s family was from the Bertini Troupe of world-class unicyclists and aerialists. Today, the Wallenda family performs their signature Seven-Person four level pyramid with two generations of Wallendas. On their most recent tour, Tino and his wife Olinka were performing with their son, two daughters, son-in-law, granddaughter and Olinka’ cousin.
The current leader of the Family business, Tino Wallenda, was born into the circus tradition.
In this interview with Ted Clark, Executive Director of NortheasternUniversity’s Center for Family Business, Tino Wallenda discusses their “business”, where decisions really do make the difference between life and death, and how they develop the next generation of performers in this death defying business.
Ted: What are some of the major issues that affect your family business?
Tino: There are so many. There is the economy and increasing costs. There is TV, video games and all the other forms of entertainment that are vying for the minds of not only children but adults. They have all diminished the circus business. It’s also difficult to keep a family together with today’s standards. The salaries in years past were not very big but they have really not increased to the same level that other salaries have in the business world.
Ted: You do a lot of traveling, in this business don’t you? How do you keep the family together when you are on the road for such a long time?
Tino: Yes we travel quite a lot. We’ve been on the road since May and will be on tour until mid October. We’ve been on the road for as much as 11 months at one time. Sometimes its only 2 or 3 months, but if you want to make a living at this, you don’t make it unless you are working so, its sort of “make hay when the sun shines”. As far as keeping the family together it’s mostlya matter of really loving and enjoying the performing. That’s what really keeps us motivated. The business is something that we have to deal with to keep up at a level that we can keep performing.
Ted: Your performance requires a great deal of skill and training and is dangerous, how do you bring the children into the business?
Tino: It’s a slow progression and it starts when they are very small. They start performing in the act almost as soon as they can walk, with at least an appearance in front of the public. My youngest daughter was performing before she was 4 years old in the wire act with us, but for the most part they all started to perform at about 6 or 7 years old..
Ted: Do they have a choice of whether they will enter the business or not?
Tino: At first they don’t have lot of a choice simply because the concept is to get them acclimated to performing, and being in front of the public and developing a desire to hear the applause. As they grow up they may only balance on my hand but sooner or later they start playing on the rigging with us and that develops into practice and then they are full fledged members. As a kid in the Circus we learned through playing. All of my friends did something else, one was maybe flying trapeze another one might be trampoline, somebody else might be an acrobat, so we would all be continually playing circus. It might not be politically incorrect nowadays but, as kids we would play cops and robbers, and cowboys and Indians but Circus World would always be the big thing we played. We would imitate our parents, and our friend’s parents and we would do a whole show. As it was with my kids, play becomes practice, and then there is a responsibility of practicing because you have to hold up your part of the performance.
Ted: Do you bring the children in to the business aspect of the show and talk to them about the finances and the money part of it as well?
Tino: It’s a slow learning process but eventually they have to learn the business aspect because they get to a point where of course they have their own families. While we are a family, there are times where we don’t always perform as a group together. For instance my older daughter Alidaand her husband Robinson, who is from a circus family famous for flying trapeze, also perform off on their own with his family. And then occcaisionally they get together with us in a bigger element like we are here at the Big E to perform our seven person pyramid. But slowly they gain an understanding of the business by being involved in business conversations about contracts, and about the money that we need to make to cover the expenses of going on the road with all of these vehicles that have to travel and the repairs and all of the things that go a long with that.
Ted: When do you get them involved with the business?
Tino: My son is fifteen now and he has started to become involved in some of the other aspects of the business. He is repairing equipment and has for the last two or three years started setting up with me so he knows about the nuts and bolts, which is really the most important thing about performing. The reward is in front of the audience, but there is a whole lot that goes in to it. It’s the equipment, the way it’s handled, maintained and the way it is set up that gives us our safety and the safeguards that you have to have. So he is entering into that realm of it right now.
Ted: Safety and trust must be very important for what you do. How do you develop trust with family members?
Tino: It starts from the very beginning. As a child you learn how to trust your parents. Or maybe you learn how to not trust your parents. But hopefully my kids have learned how to trust their parents. The first times they go up on the high wire I would usually put them on my shoulders and carry them across. All of the danger is built in to my talents and abilities and how I react and so I am assured of that, and they are confident in me, so I’m able to take them across. As that goes on, then they start to do things on their own at a low level on the wire, not on the wire thirty feet in the air, but down on a practice wire which is anywhere from about five to ten feet off the ground. They practice, practice, practice until they get it beyond what some people might think is perfect. And you build a trust in one another, you build a trust in yourself, you build a trust in your talents and abilities. That’s the base of it.
Ted: Are you doing anything to build the next generation to take over the business?
Tino: It is a gradual progression. I’m going to be here for a little longer I think. The way it happened with me was I was under my grandfathers’ tutelage. I was his protégé for a number of years and then I was essentially, because of certain developments, thrust into having to be in charge. But I had been brought to a point where I knew how to work, how we worked with one another, and I knew some of the business. But sooner or later you have to put your feet, you know, step out into the deep water. If my son is to take over, it will be a gradual release into his hands as he starts handling more and more of the business.
Ted: Do you have regular family meetings, business meetings to talk about the business?
Tino: No. No, we don’t. We are together (laughing) so much that it’s a continual meeting all the time. We talk over dinner, we talk just sitting around, we talk about different people in the act and the things that we might need to do, things that concern us about individuals, things that concern us about the workplace.