Every once in a while, something catches the world's eye. That's what's going to happen this summer in Niagara Falls, when a 33-year-old daredevil from a long line of death-defying, high-wire performers will put his act on perhaps the grandest stage of all and attempt to walk 1,800 feet across the Niagara Gorge on a two-inch thick wire rope.
Back in 1953, the majestic falls were the backdrop for another grand spectacle, a film starring a little-known blonde actress by the name of Marilyn Monroe. The movie "Niagara," starring Monroe and the falls, became a box-office hit, and the world took notice of both the star and the incredible sight and sound of the world wonder.
Niagara Falls had captured the world's eye, and soon visitors from around the globe flocked to see the falls again, and the tourism numbers soared in the years following the film's release.
Nik Wallenda, the seventh-generation high-wire performer who will dare the mighty falls this summer, is hoping his spectacular wire-walk over the falls will do for the world wonder what Marilyn's movie did nearly 60 years ago. He told me so a few days ago when we talked about his upcoming feat in a telephone interview.
"I want it to be a great event for the entire area," Wallenda said, "and like Marilyn did, bring the spotlight back to the falls, so that the world remembers, and people say, we would like to see that in person."
Wallenda has performed many jaw-dropping stunts in his career, like when he walked and then bicycled across a suspended high-wire more than 13 stories above ground, off the roof of the Prudential Center in downtown Newark during a "Today" show segment on Oct. 15, 2008, a world record for longest and highest bicycle on a high-wire. But the great-grandson of Karl Wallenda, founder of the daredevil circus act known as the Flying Wallendas, knows that what he is planning to do this summer, in his mind, "will be one of the biggest events in history. People don't understand how big, with the Internet and television, bigger than Marilyn." He's right, by just about any measure you care to use.
While he was born long after Marilyn and the falls struck gold with "Niagara," he is well aware of film's enormous success in boosting tourism with the whole world watching.
This time, an even greater tourism bonanza is likely. An estimated 600 million to a billion people seeing the iconic walk within 24 hours of its completion, with many watching the nighttime crossing live, with Wallenda and his 24-foot balancing pole bathed in floodlights as he leaves Goat Island, descends the wire rope into the mist across the gorge, and rises through the mist to complete his journey to the Canadian side near the site of Table Rock.
Is this the biggest challenge he's ever faced? Wallenda says yes, saying "the government challenges have been the biggest I've ever experienced, getting two governments to agree on something. It's just short of involving the UN. Pick a date, back and forth, and of course television." In fact, as of this writing, the date is still not fixed, although Wallenda says it will be either June or mid-August to mid-September, nothing in between. He hopes it will be settled this week with final approval from New York State Parks.
Wallenda will begin his two-week training for the walk soon, probably at the Seneca Niagara Casino, and it will be open to the public. Niagara Falls and the surrounding communities will need to firm up their plans for the heavy influx of tourists expected for the event, but there should be no excuses for a city that depends so heavily on tourism to not be able to accommodate the crowds that are expected. Remember, the world will be watching, and it is an opportunity for Niagara Falls to paint a picture of a city so eager and able to entertain tourists that people will realize that a visit to the falls should be on their bucket list.
Tom Kerr, a partner in Cataract Tours, says all the tour companies are gearing up to make the Wallenda chapter one of the greatest in the city's history.
"How can you not start to feel the earth move a bit when something like this happens?" said Kerr. "We're all hoping for great success for all, for Wallenda, for the city, and for the local economy. That's what everybody wants to see."
People across the area are starting to feel the excitement of Wallenda's impact, and many hope it coincides with other signs that Niagara Falls is getting ready to make a turnaround and become a city on the rise, not one that evokes pity for its lack of success.
Rick Calipari, a Niagara Falls native who is now a deputy comptroller for the city of Buffalo, is hopeful Wallenda's walk into history will help fuel the city's rebirth.
"I am getting excited," he told me last week. "The city has had many tough years since I was a boy and urban renewal leveled all of Falls Street, where we used to go to shop and for entertainment. I think this is an opportunity for Niagara Falls to shine. I think events bring people, and with the economic development that's taking place, there's a sense of something positive happening. Let's hope this is the start of something and will help expand the tourism base."
And so, Rick, are you going to watch the event?
"I won't miss the walk for anything in the world. I wish him Godspeed and want him to succeed and come back and do it again."
Even the president of the Buffalo Common Council has an opinion, commending Wallenda's courage and hoping the event will be an economic catalyst for all.
"It will be great for Niagara Falls," Rich Fontana told the Niagara Falls Reporter, "and our economies are surely linked, and both cities should benefit."
For Nik Wallenda, the hard part is still all the politicking, the never-ending phone work, 10 to 12 hours a day. He's in and out of the Falls frequently from his Florida home, where he lives with his wife and three children, but he seems to be wearing it all well.
"I was around 6 years old when I visited the Falls for the first time," he told me, "and I decided on that first visit that I wanted to walk across. Now my boyhood dream is coming to life, and my family is happy and excited."
No matter the obstacles and all the hurdles he has had to negotiate, Wallenda never gave up on his dream. Soon, the whole world will see the historic crossing, and there's no doubt the world will take notice. Like Marilyn Monroe did so long ago, Nik Wallenda will do again. Niagara will be in the world's eye once more.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||April 17 2012|