"A lot of people think it’s a fictitious family," says Tino Wallenda, a third-generation member and head of the Flying Wallenda troupe. "They’re surprised to learn we ever really existed." But the Sarasota-based family of circus aerialists is as real as its well-known tragedy, when a seven-person pyramid came crashing down Jan. 30, 1962, in Detroit, Mich. "I remember vividly that night," says Tino, who was 11 and attending school in Sarasota at the time. "The phone ringing, the all-night vigil." Ultimately, two members of the family act were killed, another paralyzed.
That didn’t stop Tino from braving the high wire himself the next year, or from resurrecting the pyramid in 1977 for a film that dramatized the accident. And his proudest moment was restaging the pyramid in Detroit in 1998. Today, 53-year-old Tino performs the feat with three of his four children (his youngest, 19-year-old Aurelia, crowns the group). And it’s still performed without a net. "It’s safer," says Tino. "A net gives you a false sense of security."