Wallenda, Chicago get ready for walk on high-wire

Marina City towers, visible from Wacker Drive will be the site of Nik Wallenda's high-wire walk Sunday night.
Marina City towers, visible from Wacker Drive will be the site of Nik Wallenda’s high-wire walk Sunday night.

By Lyndsey McKenna

Preparations have come down to the wire for Nik Wallenda’s high-wire walk across the Chicago River Sunday, as area residents prepare for street and sidewalk closures.

That evening Wallenda plans to walk across a wire suspended on a 15-degree incline over the Chicago River from the West Tower of Marina City at 300 N. State Street to the Leo Burnett Building at 35 W. Wacker Drive. Shortly after he will return to the Marina City complex to walk from the West Tower to the East Tower of Marina City, while blindfolded, 60 stories high.

For Sunday’s stunt Wallenda does not intend to use a harness or protective net. The high-wire artist has previously crossed the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls. During his walk across Niagara Falls, Wallenda was required by television producers to wear a safety harness.

Wallenda is seventh-generation member of the Wallenda family, whose members perform across the globe as the Flying Wallendas.

This isn’t the family’s first feat in the city of Chicago. In September 2006, Mario Wallenda, son of Karl Wallenda, rode a modified bicycle across a wire over the Chicago River near the Merchandise Mart.

Though the Discovery Channel’s live telecast of the event will cast a spotlight on the city, the event is forcing a number of street and sidewalk closures in the area beginning Thursday night.

From 9 p.m. on Thursday to 6 a.m. Friday morning, Wacker Drive will be closed between Clark and Wabash for preparations. The State Street Bridge and the Dearborn Street Bridge will both be closed during the same timeframe.

Closures continue in the area on Sunday. Beginning at 5 p.m. both State and Dearborn will be closed between Kinzie and Lake. Drive will be closed between Clark and Wabash. The closures will be in effect until 6 a.m. Monday.

Water traffic on the Chicago River will be restricted between Dearborn and State from -8:15 p.m. Sunday.

A number of restrictions will be in effect for residents of Marina City, a mixed-use complex designed by Bertrand Goldberg. Residents have been asked to turn off all balcony lights during the event and to refrain from using drones or laser pointers, playing music, grilling, yelling or taking pictures with flash cameras. Residents are limited to eight guests for the event.

According to Ellen Chessick, president of the Marina Towers Condominium Association, more than 2,000 guests are expected in the building for the event.

“When we were contacted by Nik Wallenda’s group and the city in late winter and early spring of this year, they explained the event and wanted to know if we would be open to allowing the Marina Towers’ involvement,” Chessick said. “We are very proud of our towers and their significance as one of Chicago’s most recognizable, iconic buildings.”

Safety remains a top priority for event organizers and for the city. Wallenda’s great-grandfather Karl Wallenda fell to his death during a stunt in Puerto Rico at the age of 73. Mario Wallenda fell while performing a human pyramid stunt in Detroit, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

Mary May of the Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events said, “The City of Chicago has been working with Team Wallenda and Discovery Channel on all necessary permitting for the production and public safety needs.”

Though the risks are real, the possible reward for the 35-year-old Wallenda is great, both fiscally and professionally. More than 10 million viewers tuned in when Wallenda walked across the Grand Canyon, making it the Discovery Channel’s highest-rated live broadcast.

“The high-wire is about seeing how far can we go and push our bodies as performers,” said Maribeth Joy, executive director of CircEsteem, a youth program in Chicago that seeks to build self-esteem through circus arts. “We take great risks, and there’s a sense of thrill and accomplishment that comes with that risk.”

For those seeking a view of the event with feet firmly planted on solid ground, viewing areas will be hosted on Wacker between Clark and Dearborn and also between Wabash and State. The event will be broadcast live on the Discovery Channel from 6-8 p.m.