By Caroline Fontein
The Las Vegas Strip is home to big-name headliners and extravagant productions. It’s also where you’ll find a collection of the best specialty acts in the world. These acts are the product of individuals who have spent years mastering a unique skill set. They’re the people who can juggle pingpong balls in their mouth, balance on a high wire or contort their body in such a way that it may make you cringe, but you won’t be able to take your eyes off them.
For these performers, life really is a cabaret. The story behind their acts is just as compelling as what you see on stage. This blog series highlights some of our favorite specialty performers on the Strip and what went into creating their act for audiences in Vegas.
One such performer is Tony “Tightropes” Hernandez. He both performs in and created the final act in “Absinthe,” an adult circus-style variety show at Caesars Palace. His set, the Esteemed Gentlemen of the High Wire, features Hernandez, Paul Matthew Lopez (“Fat Frank”) and Almas Meirmanov (“Handsome Hank”). The three men play the role of party animals who balance on the high wire while taking shots of Jack Daniels, doing a keg stand and demonstrating a new and more edgy way to use an Ab Roller. Towards the end of his act, Hernandez tops it all by balancing on a chair while on the high wire. It’s an incredible routine, but for Hernandez becoming a circus performer was just a matter of following in his parents’ footsteps.
Hernandez grew up in a circus family and started performing when he was 2 years old. Before that, he was watching his family’s teeterboard act from his stroller on the side of the ring.
“What else is a kid going to do if he watches that all his life?” questioned Hernandez.
The teeterboard resembles a seesaw, and is an acrobatic tool where a person jumps on one end and the person on the other end is launched into the air. Hernandez learned the role of a flier, meaning he would get launched from the teeterboard, flip in the air and land on his brother’s shoulders. He did that for 18 years. During that time, he performed with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for five years and toured all over the world.
Along the way he met his future wife who was also from a famous circus family, The Flying Wallendas. The Flying Wallendas are circus legends known for creating a seven-person human pyramid on the high wire. In 1962, the family made headlines when the group experienced a catastrophic fall while performing at the State Fair Coliseum in Detroit. Despite that, the family has continued to perform, passing their unique talent onto future generations including Hernandez’s soon-to-be wife, Lijana Wallenda. She was the star of the show and topped the pyramid by balancing on a chair.
Like all guys, Hernandez wanted to make a good impression on Lijana and her parents. Getting in good with the Flying Wallendas meant learning the family trade.
“Her parents were like, ‘well if you’re going to date our daughter you need to learn how to get on the high wire.’ I was like, ‘Ok, you’re not going to scare me away that fast,'” said Hernandez.
The Wallendas realized Hernandez had a natural talent for performing on the high wire and integrated him into their act.
“I don’t know if I could say I’m a Jedi high wire walker, but I would say it took me about a year to be to a point where I knew I could walk 30 feet in the air or 50 feet in the air, and I wouldn’t fall,” said Hernandez.
Decades after the 1962 incident, the Wallendas wanted to re-create the seven-person pyramid in the same building where they fell, and they invited Hernandez to perform with them.
“It was very creepy, but it was also pretty cool to be able to put the demons to rest, so to speak,” said Hernandez.
Afterwards, Hernandez and his now wife, made their way to Chicago. Hernandez started acting and joined the Looking Glass Theater Company. Co-founded by David Schwimmer, the theater company was known for its emphasis on physical theater making it a perfect fit for Hernandez.
“It was really fun because it allowed me to have the circus stuff in my back pocket and play with character work,” said Hernandez.
He and his wife also started a company in Chicago that produced entertainment for special events. The high wire routine was their signature act. After seeing “Absinthe” in New York City Hernandez was approached by the show’s host and his best friend, The Gazillionaire. “Absinthe” in Vegas needed a closing act, and Hernandez wanted to create the impossible.
His wife was pregnant at the time so he knew he needed to develop a new act that could be performed without her. It also had to be something appropriate to his audience, the show’s party atmosphere and the intimate performance space inside the Spiegeltent in Vegas. “Absinthe” is produced by Spiegelworld and has performed in other cities, hence the name of the venue.
“It was kind of stressful because I knew that the stage was only a 9-foot circle. When you do high wire you’re usually in big arenas so the audience is really far away from you,” said Hernandez.
Despite, the intimate venue, Hernandez pulled it off. His act is the first time a high wire routine has been performed inside a Spiegeltent. He utilized both his experience as a circus performer and actor in Chicago to develop the Esteemed Gentlemen of the High Wire.
Hernandez and his team make what they do look easy to the point where the audience probably forgets that the performers are carrying a 50-pound pole while balancing above the crowd with nothing to break their fall.
Not only did he create the act, but Hernandez and his wife also trained Lopez and Meirmanov. They performed with Hernandez as part of the seven-person pyramid. Training started by getting the new guys used to walking on the wire at a low height. From there Hernandez and his wife would create distractions to try and break their focus. Sometimes they would throw footballs at the guys or tackle them while they were on the high wire.
“We were trying to push [the new guys] so they got mad. We wanted to see their breaking point, if they were going to freak out and just jump off the wire because you can’t do that,” said Hernandez.
It’s not like any other job where you can step away for a moment when a situation gets tense. For these guys, they deal with things getting down to the wire all the time. To add to it, Hernandez and his wife created conditions where the new guys would be forced to work when they were feeling anything but stable.
“We would take them out and party with them, and we would get them liquored up. Then we’d work them really hard when they’re hung over. We try to make the elements really hard so that when the elements are at their best, they would be amazing,” said Hernandez.
He explained that the key to being a successful wire walker is learning balance and focus. Once you can master that, the sense of control that performers have on the high wire is astounding. There are no second chances on the wire, so literally watching their steps and being prepared for anything is crucial.
“We had a great grandfather who was Karl Wallenda, who had this amazing quote… ‘Life is on the wire. The rest is just waiting.’ It’s true for wire walkers,” said Hernandez.