Daredevil Wallenda puts on a high-wire show
Performer follows in family footsteps to cross Inner Harbor on a 1-inch cable
Tightrope walker Nik Wallenda is walking over the harbor to mark the opening of the new Ripley's Museum. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun / May 9, 2012)
Daredevil Nik Wallenda made it nearly all the way across a wire over the Inner Harbor, stepping steadily and deliberately, when he stopped to kneel and pump his fist in the air. He was walking 300 feet across, up to 82 feet in the air, in a stunt to mark the imminent opening of a Ripley's Believe It or Not museum.
The rapt crowd, cell phone cameras in the air, sighed with relief. But their celebration — and Wallenda's, too — was premature.
The crowd gasped as Wallenda slipped in his final steps, catching himself on his shin. But he recovered, making his way down from the crane high above the murky harbor.
"I made it," Wallenda said, after sending out a tweet and calling his wife, in that order. "My heart jumped into my throat," he said of the slip.
The tight-wire-walking spectacle wowed tourists, downtown workers and daredevils alike for the first time in Baltimore since 1973, when Wallenda's great-grandfather performed a similar feat five years before falling from a wire to his death. It drew hundreds, some passersby, others who arrived early with cameras and binoculars in hand to see the sight.
"It was fabulous," said Anne Belcher, who came to watch. Belcher and other spectators debated whether Wallenda's slip was genuine or just part of the show. The crowd erupted in gasps a few times, once when Wallenda tilted the long pole he used for balance nearly all the way to one side, and it oohed and aahed when he stopped halfway to kneel and wave.
"He kept us very involved in it," Belcher said.
Ripley's officials built up strong anticipation beforehand, clearing the waterfront promenade underneath the wire about half an hour before Wallenda's 5:15 p.m. show. A man in a red pinstripe suit with a red bowler tossed flaming torches, swallowed swords and primed the crowd like a circus announcer.
Spectators cheered when Wallenda climbed over the balcony railing, and he wasted no time getting his bearings as he began stepping forward. He wore leather moccasins made by his mother for tight-wire walking. The wire visibly swayed at some points, braced only by a barge and four guide wires.
It stretched from a second-floor balcony above what will be the entrance to Ripley's 32nd "Odditorium," set to open June 1, sloping upward to a barge near the stern of the Constellation. Wallenda was the first, he claimed, to cross a wire braced on one end to a barge, something that he said made the wire "a little more unstable than I'm used to."
He called his slip "a wake-up call" – this was his last performance before one planned for June 15 in which he will walk a wire across the front of Niagara Falls.
Ripley's asked Wallenda to do the performance, and he said he was eager, given that his great-grandfather, Karl Wallenda, crossed the Inner Harbor to mark the opening of the fourth annual Baltimore City Fair in 1973. Nik Wallenda didn't cross the same route as his ancestor, but he called the performance meaningful nonetheless.
"He is the one I look up to, my inspiration," Wallenda said.
Spectators said they were impressed with the feat. For some, it wasn't just about the stunt, but also about what it meant for Harborplace.
"I love the idea of a Ripley's coming to town," said Patrick Turner, a city developer whose Turner Development Group is seeking to transform the Westport neighborhood. The museum joins Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and other new eateries at Harborplace to open this spring, and a McCormick World of Flavors spice store expected to open this year.
"Look at the crowd it brought out," said Jim Seay, CEO of Baltimore amusement ride company Premier Rides. "What a great way to kick off the summer season."
But for others, it was all about Wallenda's death-defying acts.
Kim Alexander, a math teacher at Windsor Hills Elementary/Middle School with a keen interest in high wire acts, arrived early to grab a spot on the pavilion balcony overlooking the wire. She said she plans to show her students photos and videos of Wallenda on Thursday, along with her signed copy of "The Man Who Walked Between the Towers," a children's book by Mordicai Gerstein that tells the story of French aerialist Philippe Petit.
"I think it's fascinating," Alexander said. "To have a family tradition where you have a chance to die …"
Erica Saben, director of Charm City Movement Arts, brought about a dozen of her students who are training to walk on tight wires. The group, based in Canton, is planning a field trip to Wallenda's Niagara Falls walk. On Wednesday, members were eager to get the word out on their group and find new students in the Inner Harbor watching the event.
For Meghan Rimelspach, a master's student at the Johns Hopkins University, the spectacle was not a new one, but thrilling nonetheless — she has traveled to Wallenda family performances more than a dozen times across the eastern part of the country.
"I've been a Wallenda fan for like 29 years," the 29-year-old said.
The performance wasn't as daring as others she had seen involving multiple performers and acrobatics, she said, but the wire bounced more than normal.
"This is the best day ever," she said.