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Lynn Hummel: 1,500 feet up and no net below

I really sat up and paid attention when it was announced that Nik Wallenda, a 7th generation Wallenda tight-rope walking daredevil, was scheduled to walk, without a net, above a 1,500 foot drop (higher than the Empire State Building), over the Little Colorado River Gorge near the Grand Canyon. Fortunately, Wallenda made it safely after the tense, dramatic 23 minute walk. Television coverage had a 10 second delay in case of a stumble and fall disaster. Wallenda was the first person to walk over the brink of Niagara Falls last June. NBC, which recorded the event, had insisted Wallenda wear a tether. No tether this time.

I got to wondering who would carry on the tight-rope tradition if Wallenda went down. What if there weren’t more Wallendas to keep this aspect of our daredevil culture alive?

Then I remembered the Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley, Minn. The greatest legacy of Rudy Perpich, former governor of Minnesota, is the Perpich Center which, since 1989, has run a high school program for 350 11th and 12th graders in theater, dance, music, literary arts, media arts, visual arts and art science. The school is tuition-free for Minnesota students who, through auditions, interviews and videos, can prove they have the talent and motivation to be there. The Perpich program is a wonderful mission to encourage, enhance and preserve the fine arts. BUT — the Perpich people would never consider teaching the fine art of high-wire and tight-rope walking because they would deem it more a circus act than a fine art.

Some unique talents should not fade into the past just because the fine arts people do not consider them worthy of preserving. Walking a cable high above the ground without a tether or a net is certainly one of them. Five more are juggling, ventriloquism, tea-leaf or crystal ball fortune telling, mime and yodeling. These specialties are part of our culture too.       

I have often wished that I could juggle. Any good juggler could be the life of the party. But I never had the patience or the training to learn. Well trained and courageous jugglers can keep three, four, five, maybe six knives, swords, hatchets, lit torches or running chain saws in the air at the same time. They probably start with soft fuzzy tennis balls, but it really isn’t entertainment if there is no risk of losing a finger, hand or limb.

There is an entire generation that doesn’t remember Edgar Bergen the ventriloquist and Charley McCarthy the wooden character that sat on his lap and made clever, insulting remarks. That was the fine art of ventriloquism at its best. When is the last time you heard a talented ventriloquist? How can they talk, sing or whistle without moving their lips? Some even talk while drinking water. The need for a new training program is urgent.

Tea-leaf and crystal ball fortune telling have become endangered species because of the computer. Forecasts are now based on computer models operated by nerds. As a result, we have global warming, earth-quakes, tornados, hurricanes, tropical storms, tsunamis, failed romances, recessions and depressions as never before. Computer matches are about as successful in the romance business as old fashioned coincidence and blind dates. How many recessions have we had since computers have been crunching numbers for us? What we need are well trained and wise-to-the-ways-of-the-world gypsies who can see more in tea-leaves, crystal balls or the lines on the palm of a hand than all the nerds and geeks who can upload, download, hack and blog, but can’t predict worth a darn?

In some of the larger cities you can see a mime on the street, saying nothing and standing like a statue to entertain you. These folks are talented actors and professionals. If you don’t watch closely, you may be mistaken when you see a wooden personality standing there texting. Mimes will please you, while street-texters will bore you and bump into you while you’re walking past. A well trained mime is a treasure.

Yodeling should never be neglected or forgotten. The excitement of a clear echo would be lost if all we ever heard was “Hello — Hello — Hello.” Sophisticated and highly trained singers think yodeling is a cute novelty until they hear a talented yodeler, then they are astonished. This is a great folk art that should be preserved by people who appreciate happy music.

All this leads to the obvious conclusion that we need an academy for the preservation of folk art: tight-rope and high-wire walking, juggling, ventriloquism, fortune telling, mime and yodeling. The dodo bird, passenger pigeon and saber tooth tiger became extinct because we weren’t paying attention. The bald eagle, bison and timber wolf are alive because we were. A word to the wise.