On Sunday evening, two siblings from the famous Flying Wallenda family— a multi-generational, very famous, tragedy-ridden circus dynasty— walked a 1,300 foot tightrope across Times Square on live TV. The multitude of things that could’ve gone wrong, even with both siblings wearing harnesses, was significant. That’s why people tuned in: because of the possibility of something bad happening. It’s ghoulish. It’s morally dubious. Obviously I watched it. Incredibly, the Wallenda stunt managed to be weirder than I expected.
In a way, I guess that’s unsurprising: working in Times Square is pretty much an exercise in weird. Sometimes it’s an errant baby orangutan out for lunch, as glimpsed or hallucinated by my colleague Rich, and sometimes it’s the usual gang of energetic Jesus-shouters, ragged superheroes, and visitors from other states mid-meltdown on the sidewalk, frozen in the glare of a ten-story glitching Coke ad. But also, much more frequently than anybody talks about, it’s a Staged Media Event of some kind, plunked into Times Square to make as much news as possible. (A few weeks ago, for instance, and for no reason I could really discern, there was a yacht out there. Tourists and office-workers gawked at it for a few hours—that sure is a yacht—before it was swarmed by defensive-looking police officers with large guns, who stood grimly on its deck as though they’d just received an imminent pirate threat.)
And the Flying Wallenda tightrope stunt was a Staged Media Event of the old school, a circus come to town and advertised intensively for several weeks before. (I became aware of it because I looked out the window of our conference room a few days ago, muttered, “Is that a fucking tightrope?” and started Googling.) It wasn’t just a tightrope walk: It was a two-hour breathless live program, only about 30 minutes of which was actual tightroping.
Nik and Lijana Wallenda are both seventh-generation members of the family. Nik Wallenda is a well-known daredevil, who’s done things like cross a gorge over the Grand Canyon and across Niagra Falls. He holds a passel of world records, including the longest tightrope crossing by bicycle and the “steepest incline for tightrope walking between two buildings,” the very mention of which makes my vertigo kick in. Lijana performed in Chicago’s Flying Griffin Circus with her husband Tony, and helped set a World Record in 2001 for a four-level, eight-person pyramid performed on a highwire in Japan.
Unfortunately, though, Lijana is best known lately for suffering a devastating injury in 2017, during a rehearsal for another eight-person pyramid, when she and several other performers fell 30 feet. Lijana, the family says, had internal injuries and require extensive reconstructive surgery to her face. (The accident also reportedly generated a lawsuit from another member of the Wallenda family.) It’s not the first time the Wallenda family has suffered a serious tragedy: In 1962, while performing a pyramid in Detroit, two members of the family were killed and one was paralyzed when they fell. The family patriarch, Karl Wallenda, died in 1978 while trying to cross between two apartment buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
For the Times Square stunt, the siblings would be walking a tightrope laid out from 1 Times Square, at 42nd Street, to Two Times Square, at 47th. They would approach each other from opposite ends of the tightrope, passing each other mid-walk, a maneuver that required Lijana to sit down and Nik to delicately hop over her. In the days leading up to the walk, ABC, which televised the stunt, sent out two press releases reminding people that Something Bad Could Happen.
“It’s hard enough crossing Times Square on the ground, try it 25 stories up,” said Karey Burke, president, ABC Entertainment, in the first one. “ABC is the destination for big live events that become cultural moments and Nik and Lijana will surely create one as they complete this never-before-attempted walk.”
I struggled to think of what other Big Live Event That Became a Cultural Moment was being referenced, but, you know, whatever. That press release, and every article that came after, also made sure to mention that this was Lijana Wallenda’s first return to performing after the 2017 accident. (A few also noted that the city had required both Wallendas to wear safety harnesses, presumably because someone dying on live TV, framed by gigantic ad for POM Wonderful, is a bad Visit New York! ad.) ABC News, in covering the event staged by their own network, mysteriously suggested that the production crew “has experienced problems with the rigging process,” a sentence that was never explained and smelled a tiny bit like an attempt to build additional hype.
Here’s what nobody mentioned in all those articles and press releases: This was also a Jesus thing. Prosperity gospel mega-pastor Joel Osteen— best known by many of us for being one of the richest pastors in the country, and for initially failing to open the doors of his megachurch to help hurricane victims— is a friend of the Wallenda family, especially Nik. Osteen was there before Nik’s Grand Canyon walk and he aggressively promoted the Times Square walk on social media. The Christian Post advertised the Times Square walk as a “tightrope walk of faith,” and Osteen materialized to pray with the siblings and their families before they began. (The #HighWirelive hashtag on Twitter immediately filled with reminders that Osteen’s church had failed to aid hurricane victims, which is probably not what ABC had in mind. Osteen’s church did eventually shelter displaced people during Hurricane Harvey after receiving a torrent of public criticism.)
As the Wallendas began their tightrope walks, both of them, wearing microphones, also began some mid-air professions of faith.
“We’re so blessed to be in these positions, thank you Jesus,” Nik Wallenda remarked, inching across the tightrope. “Lord, set them free from their fear, fear that holds so many back.” He added, a moment later, seemingly addressing the TV audience, “There’s something so freeing about being able to do what you know you were made for... Hopefully you guys are encouraged by what you’re doing to step out of your comfort zones and into greater things.”
Lijana, as she walked, half-sang along to devotional music that was playing through her headphones. As the siblings approached the point where they had to pass one another, she sat down, hooked herself to the tightrope, and crouched parallel to the rope to allow Nik to step over her. As she prepared to stand back up on the tightrope —the most challenging part of the whole stunt— she cried, “In the name of Jesus, I’ve got this,” and stood back up. (As she inched towards a particularly distracting ad, she added that she was “grateful for all the pinecones thrown at me during training,” to prep her for distractions.)
In the end, of course, the Wallendas made it across. They embraced. Joel Osteen did a celebratory tweet. Every blog written about this event will, I presume, be circulated internally at ABC to prove the success of this thing.
Do I think this was a good idea? Not especially. Do I think human beings were made to go that high in the air? Absolutely not. Did I appreciate the presence of Joel Osteen? Particularly not. And did I watch every single minute of what, in the end, turned out to be a careful amble by two very prepared people across a big wire? Of course. Circus lore says there’s a sucker born every minute, and baby, I am that sucker.