Tuesday, September 1, 2015         

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Wallenda poised for Niagara Falls tightrope walk

By Tina Susman

Los Angeles Times


NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario >> As high-wire artist Nik Wallenda examined the slender cable suspended across Niagara Falls, Harmina Wikkerink couldn’t hide her disdain for the spectacle about to unfold - Wallenda battling fierce winds, icy spray, glaring lights and perhaps even dive-bombing peregrine falcons as he inches over the roaring water.

“What’s it good for - thrills?” Wikkerink said dismissively as she watched a tittering crowd watch Wallenda prepare for his Friday night feat.

Then, despite herself, Wikkerink lifted her camera and began snapping pictures, admitting gleefully that no matter what you think of Wallenda’s not-so-death-defying act (he’ll wear a tether), it’s hard to look away.

Such is the effect the walk was having this week on even cynical visitors to Niagara Falls, where the 33-year-old with the boyish face and bulging biceps signed autographs and posed for pictures. “I would say it’s the same reaction people have to road kill - morbid fascination,” Sylva Keshishian said dryly, before conceding that if she were near a television, she probably would tune in to watch the event live on ABC.

The network demanded that Wallenda wear a safety device to prevent him from plummeting to his death during prime time. “We just wanted it to be an exciting, family-friendly occasion,” said ABC’s senior vice president for content and development, James Goldston, who admitted that Wallenda wasn’t happy with the rule.

“I’m wearing a tether because they’re making me wear a tether,” Wallenda said firmly at a news conference on the Canadian side of Horseshoe Falls on Wednesday.

At about 2,200 feet wide and 170 feet high, Horseshoe is the biggest and most spectacular of Niagara Falls’ three cascades, and it stretches from the United States, where Wallenda planned to start his walk, to Ontario, where he hoped to end it.

If anyone thought the safety rope would lessen the drama of the event, Wallenda insisted the opposite was true. In fact, the scion of the famous Wallenda clan of high-wire artists, whose great-grandfather Karl Wallenda fell to his death during a 1978 high-wire act in Puerto Rico, is so averse to safety gear that it makes him nervous to wear it.

“I don’t trust it. It’s not the way my mind works,” said Wallenda, who aside from the tether planned to approach this walk the way he does all of his others: by getting plenty of sleep beforehand, praying with his family, and then putting on a pair of shoes specially made by his mother.

The event has been more than a year in the making and required approval from park officials on both sides of Niagara Falls.

“It’s happening. This is going to be the biggest event on the planet!” said Jim Diodati, mayor of Niagara Falls, Ontario. Such hyperbole has fueled Wallenda mania, bringing flashing highway signs warning of Wallenda-related traffic jams and crowds gawking at cranes holding Wallenda’s 2-inch-wide cable taut over the roiling blue water.

Stadium-style lights were focused on the cable, which will sway several inches back and forth in the wind and bounce up and down. Midway through the 40-minute walk, Wallenda is expected to be wrapped in a bone-chilling fog far harsher than the soaking mist that showers visitors to the Falls.

Diodati dismissed the idea that the tether could undermine Wallenda’s achievement. It’s a view not shared by all.

“I expect that both he and the spectators will feel the achievement is sullied in some ways because of the tether,” said David Schmid, an English professor and pop culture expert at the University at Buffalo, New York. Schmid said the safety device points to the dilemma facing network executives as they strive to offer riveting entertainment without horrifying viewers should things go wrong.

“In the same way that we have fat-free milk and decaf coffee, we now have a tethered tightrope walker,” he said. “It’s not quite the same as the real thing.”

Not so, said John Sampson, a stunt expert who has dangled from helicopter skids, smacked into water from 100 feet high, and hurled himself off cliffs and out of buildings. “I wouldn’t walk that thing without a tether,” said Sampson, speaking by phone after an all-night shoot for a Bollywood film.

Even with a tether, tragedy could strike, said Sampson, who grew up on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, listening to the water’s thunderous roar and hearing tales of those who sought fame at the Falls with sometimes fatal consequences. They include the first person to survive a tumble over the Falls in a barrel - Annie Edson Taylor in 1901 - and Jean Francois Gravelot, who walked a narrower section of the Falls on a high-wire in 1859.

Only four people have survived falling over Horseshoe Falls without protective gear.

Still, the question remains: Would anyone watching a potentially fatal feat remain interested if there was less chance of a deadly outcome?

“It’s vicariously exciting,” said Megan Pailler, a psychology professor at the University at Buffalo in New York, whose experts have weighed in on the challenges facing Wallenda, including the thick plume of mist that will soak the cable and the winged threats from territorial peregrine falcons that nest nearby and can swoop in on a target at 200 mph.

“Being hit by a bird moving at that speed would have quite an impact on a man trying to balance on a high wire,” said ornithologist Christopher Hollister.

All the better for viewers, said Pailler, comparing it with watching an action movie. “Your heart rate goes up; there’s a physiological arousal,” she said, adding that the tether actually could bring in more viewers by attracting not only adrenaline fans but those who normally avoid suspense.

“People like watching circus performers,” she pointed out, “and circus performers have safety nets.”

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