On the high wire: a performer’s memories

A Martins Ferry born man helped make history on the high wires in the 1950s when viewers of the Ed Sullivan show were able to see Ed Harrigan walking the tightrope as part of the Flying Wallendas seven person pyramid.

Harrigan, now residing in California, had a fervent love of the circus as a child. Early memories include frequenting Wheeling Island during shows of the Ringling Brothers and other troupes and observing aspects of the show from the unloading of the trains to the production.

“When I was a kid I was nuts about the circus, especially the big tent,” he said, adding that he was riveted by every aspect.

In 1953 he asked for employment at the Shrine Circus performing on Wheeling Island. His parents were reluctant to permit this, but a visit to the circus showed a group of reputable, hard working professionals who took great pride in their work.

“It wasn’t a ragtag affair. It was a good, clean circus,” he said.

After graduating high school, he took the bus to Texas where the circus was performing and took a job working with the show as a laborer at age 19. Harrigan traveled with them on their circuit and learned the inner workings of the circus. He was drawn to the performances.

“Whenever I didn’t have anything else to do, I would hang around the big tent,” he said. “I could tell these guys were really on fire.”

It was during this time that the Flying Wallendas signed up to perform. As tightrope artists went, they were the undisputed best. Since the 1940s, The Wallendas have been walking tightropes for The Ringling Brothers, Shrine Circus and Barnum and Bailey. They have been called the most consistent and dominant high wire troupe in American history. The meeting would change Harrigan’s life.

“I was absolutely just knocked off my feet,” he said, recounting their most famous act, the seven-person pyramid. “I saw the seven-person pyramid and said, ‘Good grief, I’ve got to do that.'”

Harrigan observed them perform whenever time allowed.

“I would watch them real close,” he said.

Eventually he waited until no one was around and tried to cross the wire himself. For his first experience on the wire he was 48 feet up, without a net and with no proper tightrope walking shoes.

“Oh man I was scared,” he said. “There’s no way to turn around to go back once you start.”

He took about three steps on the line and managed to back up.

Karl Wallenda observed his attempts and began giving lessons in the high rope walk. The first thing he did was give Harrigan a heavier balancing pole.

“The heavier the balancing pole, the better you can balance,” he said, recalling how Karl had placed his hands on Harrigan’s shoulders and guided him across the rope. “I had absolute faith in Karl. He talked me all the way across. He didn’t hesitate. My adrenaline was screaming the first time I crossed that wire.”

Carl set up a 10-foot practice wire for Harrigan. He took up the hard work and strict discipline necessary to perfect his skill. This included constant round trips back and forth across the wire. Harrigan began carrying Karl’s 185-pound son Mario on his shoulders while walking the wire.

“I didn’t care. If you want to do something like that, you’ve got to pay the price,” he said.

Harrigan traveled with the Wallendas from 1956-1958 and earned a place on the base of the seven-person pyramid.

“I was first on the wire,” he said, adding that they performed twice a day for about four years. The seven person pyramid act won the Wallendas a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. “It’s that difficult and no one else in the world had done it.”

He still holds vivid memories of the thrill of walking the wire and the responsibility of having his teammates depend on him.

“It was the greatest thing I ever did in my life. Sometimes I think about it and I think, ‘God I actually did that.'”

Harrigan recalls the difficult nature of the performances.

“Every single time it was a challenge,” he said. “My adrenaline was up. It felt like it was up every day.”

The group also performed the seven man pyramid on the Ed Sullivan Show on the lot behind the New York studio.

The stunts also took them across the United States and beyond.

“I traveled all over the U.S. Most of the year we would get into Canada,” he said, adding that during the Christmas season they would perform at Mexico City and Havana. “We really enjoyed being there.”

He recalled one experience in Havana around 1958 when fighting broke out during Fidel Castro’s revolution.

Fortunately the performers were in little direct danger since Castro was still attempting to maintain friendly relations with the United States, but stray bullets and hand grenades are indiscriminate during a battle.

“That was not fun. When your life is in danger, not from something you want to do, but because of some idiot with a gun,” he said.

For some dangerous activity with his feet on the ground, he also assisted the tiger trainers by distracting the big cats away from the trainer should something go wrong.

“I loved that,” he recalled working with the animals.

Eventually, personal issues began to interfere with Harrigan’s work and when the adrenaline rush began to fade he turned to drink.

Fortunately, he met and married a woman from Martin’s Ferry and decided to return to his home town.

“It was almost love at first sight,” he said, adding that the choice to leave the troupe was still a painful one. “Quitting the circus just about killed me.”

Afterward, the Wallendas saw a tragedy during a Detroit performance of their act in 1962. Harrigan’s replacement made a split-second mistake during the pyramid act and fell to his death. Another rope walker was unable to catch himself in time and was left a paraplegic.

“It really hurt me bad to hear about it,” he said, adding that there is truth to an old saying. “The show must go on. You get to hate (the saying) but it’s true.”

Harrigan eventually moved to California where he worked in optical polishing and made advancements in that field.

Today, Harrigan suffers from emphysema after a lifelong smoking habit. His mind is sharp, however, and he has never regretted his determination to follow his dream. Some friends and family members have begun to spread word of his story. More information can be found at www.randomville.com.

DeFrank can be reached at rdefrank@timesleaderonline.com