I'm up in the spotlight, oh does it feel right
The altitude seems to really get to me.
I'm up on the tightwire
Linked by life and the funeral pyre
Putting on a show for you to see.
-- Leon Russell
1859 and 1860 must have been some wild times to have lived along the banks of the Niagara River. Alexander Graham Bell's fingers hadn't yet done the walking to the telephone, Marconi was still a few decades away from inventing radio, Edison still hadn't begun work on the Kinetoscope, which would lead to the advent of moving pictures, and televisions, home computers and the World Wide Web were still ideas not yet dared to be dreamed.
But man had invented the highwire. And still other men had been called to the allure of walking the wire and had embraced the inherent danger as if it was their birthright -- or, maybe more, as if it was their God-chosen destiny.
In the months that framed the years of 1859-60, two men, Jean Francois Gravelet (the Great Blondin) and William Leonard Hunt (Signor Farini), staged a one-upmanship aerial battle using the mighty Niagara as a bold and foreboding backdrop.
The two men were the stars of their day. Part Evel Knievel, part Errol Flynn, the duo was both dashing and daring, and their daunting feats made Niagara Falls the place to be for thrills and excitement.
Their tightrope duel had all of the drama and ebb and flow of an Ali/Frazier title fight. When Blondin crossed the wire on a bicycle, Farini countered by crossing with a sack over his body. When Farini carted a washing machine on the wire, lowered a bucket 200 feet for river water and cleaned the handkerchiefs of a number of female admirers, Blondin answered by carrying a stove onto the wire and cooking and eating an omelet.
The knockout punch in this epic battle was delivered by Blondin, when he tossed his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back and carried the reluctant promoter across the lower gorge.
Their battles spawned dozens of copycat funambulists. Seemingly every industrialized country had its own “Blondin.” In Sydney, Australia, five different aerialists plied their trade in the 1880s under the name “Blondin.”
At Niagara, wire-walker after wire-walker came and tested their mortality against the mighty Niagara River rapids. Maria Spelterina became the first and only woman to dare the wire here, and she added her own panache by crossing, at separate times, backwards, with her vision blocked by a bag over her head, and, most famously, with peach baskets strapped to her feet.
Of all of the people to challenge the tightrope at Niagara, only one, Stephen Peer, paid for it with his life. While Peer was a trained wire-walker who had made multiple successful crossings, he died while attempting to navigate the wire at night while wearing street shoes. It is also believed that he was intoxicated at the time, so it can be argued that his death comes with an alcohol-fueled asterisk.
It's important to know the highwire history at Niagara, because we are about to go “back to the future,” as the parks and governing bodies on both sides of the falls of Niagara have permitted Nik Wallenda the honor of becoming the first funambulist to perform here since James Hardy walked the wire in 1896.
It was no easy feat getting approval for the stunt either. After Roger Trevino of Niagara Falls Redevelopment ran into Wallenda in Orlando, Fla., and asked him if he'd like to conquer Niagara, it took a yeoman effort led by state Sen. George Maziarz to convince Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign off on the crossing. After much deliberation, the Canadian government followed suit, and the skywalk was on.
No date has been announced yet, as Wallenda and his management team are still negotiating with networks for a major television special. The smart money is on the last two weeks of September, though mid-June remains as a dark horse possibility, with the walk occurring on a Friday.
When Wallenda did a similar wire-walk in Pittsburgh, some 125,000 people watched from the ground below. Estimates are that double that number, nearly a quarter-million people, would turn up to see him cross Niagara Falls from Goat Island to Table Rock. It is conceivable that a billion people worldwide would watch the crossing on television or the Internet.
It would be the biggest thing to hit Niagara since, well, Blondin and Farini. It will pump millions into the local economies on both sides of the border and will renew interest in Niagara's daredevil past and the raw power of the world's most famous waterfalls.
That's why it was great to see such a unified and broad-range turnout at the Niagara County Center for Economic Development last week as the seeds were sown to form a Nik Wallenda task force to ensure that Niagara Falls, N.Y., is ready to handle what is sure to be the biggest event of the new century.
Along with Maziarz, Assemblyman John Ceretto has worked hard to make the crossing a reality, and they were joined in detailing the Wallenda plan by NTCC Chairman John Percy, NFTA Chairman Henry Sloma and State Parks Regional Director Mark Thomas. Only Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster was absent from the list of speakers on the official agenda.
Also in the room were representatives of the area's chambers of commerce, business associations, tourism agencies and the business community. It was a unified effort rarely seen here, and it shows how much the people of this community are behind Wallenda and what his walk means to the economic health of the region.
Sure, there are naysayers. They say the stunt is too dangerous. They worry what will happen if something goes wrong with children watching.
Supporters argue that there is inherent risk in getting up each day and getting behind the wheel of your car. They say Wallenda comes from a long line of the world's greatest acrobats and wire-walkers, and he has a training regimen second to none. They say his attention to every detail will make him ready to handle the challenges of crossing Niagara Falls on the highwire.
Speaking of training, it was also announced that Wallenda will train at a practice site on the American side of the falls. His training sessions are expected to draw thousands and be a great economic boon to the area in the weeks leading up to the crossing.
This summer, Nik Wallenda will challenge fate by walking the tightrope high above Niagara Falls. The world's eyes will be on our city, and the opportunity to seize the moment and show them that the Renaissance has begun in the Cataract City is one that we can't let slip away.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||March 27 2012|