When the Nerveless Nocks stunt team opens for its 28th season at the Tommy Bartlett Show in the Wisconsin Dells, 7-year-old Cyrus Nock will race his pintsize motorcycle inside the Globe of Thunder while his mom, Carolina, screams "Slow down!" According to Nock's father, Michelangelo, "The World's Youngest Motorcycle Daredevil" tore the house down last summer, noting Cyrus is carrying on a nine-generation, 160-year family tradition. "The thrill and excitement of performing in front of an audience is in our blood," the proud father says.
Meanwhile, at Raging Waters in San Dimas, California, Nikolas and Erendira Wallenda's three kids, ages 2, 4, and 7, will take turns putting on a costume and displaying their innate sense of balance in the Fabulous Wallendas' show. When Evita, the youngest, was maybe 6 months old, Nik could just hold out his hand and she could balance perfectly on his palm. "People would be stunned," says Tom Rhein of Cincinnati's Coney Island, where the legendary high-wire family has been a favorite since 26-year-old Nikolas's great-grandfather Karl Wallenda, a Ringling headliner for two decades, made his first appearance at the park in 1948. Nikolas was just 9 years old when his parents made their Coney Island debut.
For these circus aristocrats, spending the summer performing at an amusement park is as much a part of growing up as learning to tumble and walk the low wire. Why do the parks bring them back year after year? According to aerialist-turned-talent agent Mitzi Gill of Star Attractions in Las Vegas, Nevada, "Daredevil thrill attractions are always popular because when people see something they can't even imagine doing, they are simply awestruck." Gill's database of 2,900 acts and shows includes the Nocks and the Wallendas, as well as the Winns' Thrill Show and the Smiths' Human Cannonball Team. "The families are large," says Gill, "and the skill is handed down to sons and daughters who grow up and go on the road.
The Nerveless Nocks
The Tommy Bartlett Show has been producing water ski, sky, and stage shows in Wisconsin Dells for 53 years, making it one of the longest-running live entertainment shows in existence. The Nocks have filled the bill for the aerial part of our show for 28 years," says Tommy Bartlett Show president and CEO Tom Diehl.
The Nerveless Nocks owe their name to Queen Elizabeth II, who pronounced them "simply nerveless" after a command performance of their signature sway pole act in 1954. Michelangelo Nock, president and CEO of Nerveless Nocks Entertainment Productions, Inc., is now the leader of the troupe his father, Eugene, and uncle, Charles, headlined with Ringling Brothers. He recalls how the original pine poles brought over from Europe would dry and crack. "I'm glad they switched to steel before we came along." Jokes Michelangelo, whose father's motto was "Safety first!" Michelangelo and his brothers Eugene Jr., John, and Bello (the current Ringling Bros. headliner) began performing the sway pole act at the Tommy Bartlett show as teenagers.
The hallmarks of the act are a hand-over-hand, foot-over-foot run up to the top and daring mid-air exchanges. "It stops people in their tracks because they see we're not wearing any harnesses," Michelangelo explains. "It's a slick surface, 100 feet straight up. There are no nets." In the finale, which is staged for the greatest possible audience reaction, the performers wrap their legs around the poles, spread their arms, and plunge headfirst to the ground. "People will run from their seats because they hear you scream and think you're going to fall on them. At the last minute, you grab the pole and stop," says Michelangelo, whose costumes get shredded by the friction. "My dad always said, 'Boys, when you're learning, your first reaction is to let go when you feel the burn. Squeeze harder, because if you let go, you're going to die."
"In the world of the performing artist, seeing a real person doing something really daring still captivates," says Gene Columbus, vice president of entertainment staffing at Walt Disney World, "and I think it will still captivate 100 years from now, and 500 years from now." Columbus and his wife, Becky, have been like family to the Nock boys since they toured internationally with Disney on Parade from 1970-1976. "It was the best place to grow up," says Michelangelo, who made his stage debut at age 5 in "Peter Pan" and was enchanted by Dumbo's Circus and Mickey Mouse walking the high wire. "The stage was like a big playground floor with all these props and characters."
When the Nerveless Nocks arrived at Tommy Bartlett in 1978, Diehl helped the shy youngster overcome his stage fright. "Every year, we have a free kids' show for all the schools within a 45-mile radius, so I asked him to juggle for the kids. That broke the ice," Diehl recalls. The next season, the 11-year-old was training on a 10-foot sway pole with a safety harness, an act his 13-year-old daughter, Angelina, is now learning. She already performs a hula hoop act and appears in the ad for the SkyCycle attraction at Tommy Bartlett's Exploratory. "Basically it's a bicycle up on a high wire that simulates what the Nocks do on their motorcycle high wire," says Diehl, who credits Michelangelo for technical assistance on the design. "It's got a counterbalance and couldn't possibly tip over, but when people get strapped in, their eyes are the size of silver dollars."
Asked to name the aerial feat that takes his breath away, no matter how many times he's seen it, Diehl, like Columbus, names the Nocks' helicopter act, in which Michelangelo performs trapeze stunts while hanging 250 feet in the air from a chopper piloted by his brother, Eugene Nock, Jr., president of Nock Entertainment Group, Inc.
"It's noisy, it's windy… you have to keep your composure," Michelangelo says of his aerial acrobatics. "You can't get excited. You can't lose your cool. I concentrate for a month and practice the act over and over in my back yard at my stunt ranch in Sarasota, so when I get up there, it's like I'm 20 feet off the ground."
The helicopter act is just one of many the Nocks keep in their repertoire. Since the average guest comes to Tommy Bartlett every three years, they rotate the set. One thing remains the same, though: Michelangelo still sells programs and signs autographs, just as he did as a teen. "People come by and say, 'Hey, I remember you,'" he says.
The Fabulous Wallendas
Picture yourself sitting neck deep in the wave pool at a park enjoying a really cool show. As you watch in amazement, a daring couple performs acrobatics 50 feet in the air. "When you come to a waterpark you don't expect to see a high-wire act, and then you don't expect to see one the caliber of the Wallendas," says Tony Brancazio, general manager of Wet 'n' Wild Emerald Pointe in Greensboro, North Carolina, where the Wallendas have performed for the past two years. "People tell their friends and word spreads and keeps building every year."
Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the family, famously said, "Life is on the wire. Everything else is just waiting." His great-grandson, Nikolas Wallenda, now leads one of the troupes carrying on the family tradition of wire walking, while also encompassing such thrill attractions as the motorcycle on the wire, the giant space wheel, and a sway pole that bends all the way down to the ground. "I like to mix it up a little bit," says Nikolas, president of Wallenda Family Entertainment, Inc. "it keeps us on our toes and gives the public something new to see every year."
"We were the first Palace Entertainment park to bring them in," says Brancazio, who met the Wallendas at IAAPA Orlando 2002. The idea of shopping for another high-dive or jet-ski show was jettisoned after seeing Tom Rhein's photos of the Fabulous Wallendas wowing the crowd at Coney Island's Sunlite Pool.
"The waterpark is such an active environment and it's very spread out, so people have a tendency to ignore the hourly announcements of what time the show is going to be," says Brancazio. "But as soon as the Wallendas get up there, people pay attention, because you definitely don't ignore somebody who's 50 feet up a high wire. Because of our success, a few of our other parks have taken a look and will probably do something in the future." While Nikolas and his wife, Erendira, will make their debut at Raging Waters in San Dimas this summer, the show will go on at Wet 'n' Wild Emerald Pointe with his mother, Delilah, and sister, Lijana, performing.
"Because the Wallenda name has such a long history – generation of fans have watched them – the performance also attracts a lot of senior visitors who bring their grandchildren to go swimming, and they get to see the Wallendas, too," says Brancazio, who believes that any new attraction in a park is just another draw that adds to the overall atmosphere of entertainment. "It's one more thing to do while you're here, and it's something that appeals pretty much across the board.
"We've gotten so many TV stations coming out to cover their practice rounds and interview them, and newspapers doing feature stories," Brancazio adds. The press coverage recaps the family's triumphs and tragedies, including the famous accident that killed two wire walkers and seriously injured another during a 1962 performance of the troupe's signature act, the seven-person pyramid. Tom Rhein, who was in the audience in Detroit, Michigan, when the Wallendas first performed the act after a 20-year hiatus, describes "the thunder of applause when they all stepped off that wire. It is probably one of the most amazing theatrical performances that I have ever seen. It makes you think that we do have the ability to transcend our fears."
In 2001, the Wallenda grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who perform with their respective families, came together at Japan's Kurashiki Tivoli Park to set the Guinness world record for an eight-person pyramid. In preparation for the six-minute feat, they practiced an average of four hours a day, six days a week, for five months. "If one of us goes, we all go, which was proven in Detroit when the seven fell in '62," Nikolas says. "You don't push something like that. There's a difference between practicing at 10 feet and performing at 30 feet. It's all in your mind, but if that pyramid jerks about an inch to the side, it feels like two feet when you're 30 feet off the ground."
The family's most popular act remains the pyramid, though the seven-person version is too costly for most parks because it involves so many Wallendas. An alternative is the three- or four-person pyramid. "We kicked it back and forth a couple of times, whether they'd come out here and do a pyramid, or a record," says Brancazio. "That's just one of the things we're talking about doing in the future."
When the show is over, Nikolas gladly signs autographs and fields questions. Teenagers and young kids will often ask, "Where are the magnets in your shoes?"
"They think nothing is real anymore, that everything is modern technology," observes Nikolas, "so they don't believe that people really risk their lives for entertainment." A lot of times people have to feel the bottom of his shoes or see the bottom of his feet before they'll believe he really did balance on a high wire that's a mere five-eighths of an inch wide.
When Mitzi and Ron Gill retired from a 30-year career as iron jaw aerialists in circuses and stage revues, they parlayed their industry contacts into a successful new business. Founded in 1981, Star Attractions matches quality entertainers with parks and other venues. The company's extensive database includes such categories as aerial artists and thrill attractions, along with variety acts such as living statues and one-man bands.
One of the Gills' most dynamic acts is the Smith family of Human Cannonballs. "You know how they have that countdown, 5-4-3-2-1, before the cannon is fired? They tell me the Smith kids could count backwards before they learned to count forwards," Mitzi says with a laugh, referring to David Jr., Jennifer, and Stephanie, who have performed solo or as a team with their father, David Sr.
"The cannons are really an excellent investment because they draw a lot of media, having appeared on television specials over the past few years," Mitzi adds. During a father-son dueling cannon competition for Guinness World Records: Primetime in 1998 at Kennywood, located just outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, David Smith Sr. broke the world record for farthest distance by a human cannonball – 185 feet 10 inches. Since then he has broken his own record with a shot of 200 feet 4 inches.
Guinness world record holders and former Ringling performers have a cachet, as do "the world's tallest (fill in the blank)." "We've had clients say, 'What do you have that's a good draw that we can use to get people acclimated to a new area of the park?' I have a lot of places where the cannons were used as a big publicity burst to get something started but have become an annual event," says Mitzi, whose longtime residence in Sarasota, Florida, and attendance at IAAPA Orlando made her aware of theme parks as a viable market for these shows.
"What gets me about the Cannonballs is their apex is about 70 feet, and when they start to come down they look at the net, and then flip over on their back," she says. "They don't see the net until they hit. Now that's incredible!"