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Carla Wallenda, of the Flying Wallandas high-wire act, dies at 85

Her son, Rick Wallenda, said on social media she died Saturday in Sarasota, Florida, of natural causes.
Carla Wallenda
Carla Wallenda of the Great Wallendas at the Hollywood Palace on February 29, 1964Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Carla Wallenda, a member of The Flying Wallendas high-wire act and the last surviving child of the famed troupe's founder, has died at the age of 85.

Her son, Rick Wallenda, said on social media she died Saturday in Sarasota, Florida, of natural causes. She was the daughter of Karl Wallenda, who had founded the troupe in Germany before moving to the United States in 1928 to great acclaim. She was the aunt of aerialist Nik Wallenda.

Carla Wallenda, nine years old and little four-year-old Mario Wallenda show off their high wire skills on Feb. 28, 1945.AP

Carla Wallenda was born on Feb. 13, 1936, and appeared in a newsreel in 1939 as she learned how to walk the wire, with her father and mother, Mati, looking on. But she said her first time on the wire was much earlier.

“Actually, they carried me across the wire when I was 6 weeks old,” she said in a 2017 interview with a Sarasota TV station. “My father rode the bicycle and my mother sat on his shoulders, holding me and introducing me to the public.”

She spent her younger years traveling the country as her father's troupe performed in the Ringling Bros. circus. She had a brother, Mario, and a sister, Jenny — all performed in the act.

She began appearing in the family's show in 1947, but not on the high wire at first, according to her biography on the family's website. In 1951, her father told her she could join the high-wire act if she could do a headstand on top of the family's seven-person pyramid. She was able to join the high-wire act later that year.

Fearless at Five. Cute, blonde and snub-nosed, 5-year-old Carla Wallenda is not yet old enough to go to school. Nevertheless, she is well on her way to "higher education." Carla, you see, represents the fourth generation of the Wallendas famous aerialists, and is being groomed to take her place someday on the high wire. Bettmann Archive

Carla Wallenda left the family act in 1961 to form her own troupe. The next season, two of the Wallendas were killed in an accident while performing the pyramid. Her brother was paralyzed.

Wallenda rejoined the family troupe in 1965, replacing an aunt who died doing a solo act.

Her husband, Richard Guzman, died in 1972 when he fell 60 feet (about 18 meters) during a performance in West Virginia. Her father died in 1978, falling while walking a wire across a street in Puerto Rico.

Carla Wallenda at a circus in Jacksonville, Florida on Sept. 30, 1972.Steve Starr / AP

Still, she would not be deterred from performing.

“Accidents can happen anyplace," she told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 2014. “I have to make a living and this is the only way I know or want to. I’ve done waitress work and hated every minute of it. Why should I go and do a job that I hate?”

She worked through her 70s, including in a Miley Cyrus music video. She finally retired in 2017 at the age of 81 after appearing on a Steve Harvey TV special, doing a headstand atop a 80-foot sway pole.

“When I am out there, all of my pain and all that goes away and I am in a world of my own,” she said in the 2017 TV interview.

She is survived by her son, two daughters, Rietta Wallenda Jordan and Valerie Wallenda, and 16 grandchildren. A second son, Mario, died in 1993.