A week when two families brought spotlights on Fort Worth

Posted Wednesday, Jul. 10, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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sanders The night before President John Kennedy and first lady Jackie came to Fort Worth on Nov. 21, 1963, another family had wowed a Cowtown crowd and brought the international spotlight to the city.

I was reminded of it while visiting the Dallas Museum of Art’s exhibit, “Hotel Texas: An Art Exhibition for President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy,” the reprise assembly of great art that had been hastily, but thoughtfully, put together by Fort Worth leaders to grace the three-room hotel suite where the Kennedys spent the night.

The fact that the DMA, in partnership with the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, could bring together 13 of the 16 pieces in that original exhibit for this show is almost as amazing as the fact that a handful of people could have pulled off the original exhibition in five days 50 years ago.

The artists represented include Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, Henry Moore, Thomas Eakins, Charles M. Russell and Eros Pellini.

In addition to the artwork and photos of how the pieces were displayed in the suite, the exhibit includes some artifacts from Kennedy’s Fort Worth visit.

There were front pages from the morning and evening Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and I noticed the photo at the top of the Nov. 20, 1963 evening paper, right next to the headline: “City Awaits Arrival of Kennedy Party.”

The picture was of seven people on a high wire, stacked three high.

The photo caption read: “Precision Pyramid — The Great Wallendas entertained Shrine Circus first-nighters Wednesday with the first human pyramid they’ve done in public since the tragic 1962 fall that killed two of their troupe and crippled one. Elston Brooks reviews this and other acts of the opening performance, P8, Sec. 5.”

Brooks, an entertainment columnist, reported that a sold-out crowd of 8,000 was on hand that night to watch patriarch Karl Wallenda verbally guide his troupe across the wire during their comeback performance, the first of a scheduled 18 shows over 11 days.

Watching from a wheelchair as his family performed 36 feet above the coliseum floor was Karl Wallenda’s 21-year-old adopted son, Mario, who was paralyzed when the troupe fell during the act Jan. 30, 1962, in Detroit.

One of Mario’s distant cousins and a brother-in-law were killed in that fall.

An NBC Television crew was filming the Wallendas’ appearance in Fort Worth for the DuPont Show of the Week series. The camera was rolling the day before during rehearsal when the unthinkable happened, almost causing another tragedy.

Brooks described the “three tiers of human flesh, 1,300 pounds of performers” moving forward as one at their final rehearsal.

“The were halfway across when it happened,” he wrote. “The lights were extinguished in the coliseum. An electrician had chosen this moment to test the lights.”

It was one of the most dramatic scenes in the NBC special, as footage showed complete darkness.

The performers froze, except for uttering some soothing words in German, Brooks reported. The panic, he said, was on the ground as people struggled to get the lights back on.

After about a minute the lights came on, and the seven successfully made their way across the wire.

There was a net for the Fort Worth performances, something the Wallendas normally did not do — something that Karl’s great-grandson, Nik, still does not do, as evidenced by his walk across the Grand Canyon last month.

During that Grand Canyon feat, Nik said he thought of his great-grandfather, who fell to his death in 1978 while attempting a high-wire walk between two buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Wallendas have been performing in this country since 1928 and have become a part of circus and acrobatic lore. But their story is not complete without the part in Fort Worth during a week that changed history, for them and the nation.

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775 Twitter: @BobRaySanders

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