Wallenda walk pumps up the crowds in A.C.

Posted: August 11, 2012

ATLANTIC CITY - This town would be the last place looking to minimize risk.

So, unlike Niagara Falls, Atlantic City required no safety harness for the intrepid Nik Wallenda as he walked, on a sandy wire 100 feet above the beach, the 1,300 feet from one casino, the Atlantic Club, to another, the Tropicana.

"You are the master," a spectator in the crowd that police estimated at 100,000 people shouted up at him about halfway through the 27-minute walk.

Wallenda, 33, dressed in a red shirt and black cargo shorts, pumped his fist in response, gripping his balancing pole with one hand.

And it was masterful. Both stunt and performance art, the walk was thrilling and serene, intimate and communal. Wallenda made sure to honor his high-wire-walking ancestors as well as his ultimate purpose: to promote both Atlantic City and the Wallenda Family Experience show, which opens Sunday at the Tropicana.

Afterward, Wallenda said he almost stopped at the start because of sand that had caked on the greased wire while it lay on the beach the last two days.

After walking out backward a few steps in his bare feet to test the grip, he decided the elk-sole wire boots made by his mother would still grip the wire. He restarted the walk facing forward.

"Sand on the wire. I learned a lesson," he said later. "I'll be telling that story a long time."

Wind gusts caused additional challenges, as did casino volunteers who were supposed to be manning the 40 sets of stabilizing ropes but who also were taking pictures or talking on their cellphones, said Michael Richter, a clown in Wallenda's show. Richter was the last person Wallenda hugged on his way up and the first when he got back down.

"Walk up the hill!" Wallenda shouted down at the volunteers at one point. The 90 bakers, slot attendants, and other casino workers had gotten red Wallenda T-shirts and instructions to be perched in the dunes lining the Boardwalk, the ropes extending from either side of the main wire to the ground and secured around their backsides.

Good thing the dunes are so high - a feature otherwise considered a detriment to Atlantic City, which is trying to get them lowered. In any case, Wallenda said after the walk, the slacking wires had been brushing his toes.

From the ground, all seemed to go without major disruptions. The walk started at the appointed 3:05 time (five extra minutes to build suspense), said Jeff Guaracino of the Atlantic City Alliance, a nonprofit established by Gov. Christie's tourism board to promote the city.

The transfixed crowd was hushed at times and cheering at others as it sweated it out from below.

A born-again Christian, Wallenda said he sang praises, made up songs, and generally felt peaceful during the walk.

The crowd responded in kind. "Beautiful, Nik, beautiful," said one beach watcher, Michael Jordan of Atlantic City.

"I looked out at the water," Wallenda said as he was hustled by security through the Tropicana, which was lined with impressed people. "I looked at the ocean, the crowds on the Boardwalk."

Wallenda tapped into Atlantic City's current desire to up its spectacle mojo - to bring back the emotion that once swept through a town devoted to the diving horse, the daredevil, and the like.

The event was sponsored by the two casinos and the Alliance (the "Do AC" folks), which is aiming to bring attention back to the bones of the resort: the Boardwalk, beach, and classic buildings such as Boardwalk Hall, which every night sponsors a high-tech 3D light show.

"It was clear the history had a lot of emotional content, but not sufficient to bring people down" to visit, said Liza Cartmell, alliance president. "We have to be current, bring back that emotional content, the risk, the spectacle, the unusual, the sense of freedom of being by the water's edge."

The Alliance also is bringing in architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams - fresh off their Barnes Foundation success in Philadelphia - and public art curator Lance Fung to remake the gaping empty lots that mar the Boardwalk into public art and horticulture gathering spots.

Wallenda's walk was over a cable stretched between two cranes on Sovereign and Brighton Avenues. The cable was given 24 hours to settle, and it had a little sag in the middle, deliberately.

At various points, Wallenda gave thumbs up, pointed to a banner plane advertising his show, and pumped his fists. He motioned to one person on a Boardwalk ramp to come up and join him.

"It's just like walking on the Boardwalk," said the seventh-generation member of the Wallenda family.

Before the walk, Wallenda said his wife, mother, father, and three children - ages 14, 11 and 9 - would be in attendance, though he predicted that his children would be bored and on their Nintendos while he was walking.

"I just say a prayer, and that's it," he said. "It becomes very normal to you."

The beach might seem a pretty tame location for a guy just back from Niagara Falls, but Wallenda noted that his great-grandfather "did amazing walks around the world and he died on a smaller one."

Karl Wallenda died at 73 after falling on a 1978 wire walk in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in winds that exceeded 30 m.p.h. His family said the death was the result of misconnected ropes, not the wind.

Ramone Gwyn, 16, of New Cumberland, Pa., pronounced the beach walk "not as tricky" as Niagara Falls as he watched with his grandmother and brother Andre, 11.

"We were pretty impressed," his grandmother, Cathy Burkholder, said. "We're not teenagers."

For an afternoon at least, Wallenda seemed to revive the grand spectacle of a prior era in Atlantic City.

Even the spirit of long-departed Miss America was evoked when someone in the press room shouted to Wallenda: "Show us your shoes!" That was the call to contestants as they paraded down the Boardwalk before the pageant, a tradition still bitterly missed in this town.

Mr. W complied, holding up the boots that carried him across the wire.

Top that, Miss A.


Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-823-0453 or arosenberg@phillynews.com.

For a play-by-play and photos of the walk, go to www.twitter.com/amysrosenberg and the Jersey Shore blog www.philly.com/downashore.

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