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Wallenda's tightrope test runs bring festive atmosphere to Niagara Falls

Tightrope walker Nik Wallenda concludes his public practices Tuesday in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

Over the last week, Wallenda has invited spectators to watch him prepare for his June 15 wirewalk over Horseshoe Falls.

But almost a month before the main event, Wallenda's presence is already inspiring an eclectic atmosphere in this hard scrabble city of 50,000.

"Great for the city"

During practice, Wallenda stands on a two-inch thick wire, 10 feet above a parking lot. Slowly but surely, he proceeds with a 45 pound balancing beam strung around his neck. A few hundred spectators walk the route with him behind metal barriers, snapping pictures along the way.

Among the throng is lifelong Niagara Falls resident Frank Sexton.

"It seems great for the city, man," Sexton says. "There all kind of people walking around here. It's got to be great for local shops."

Local businesses have hung banners all over downtown welcoming Wallenda and his crowds of potential customers.

Since the public practice sessions began May 10, Lockport resident Paul Mroziak has traveled to Niagara Falls three times to watch Wallenda.

"It's something I'm never going to see again in my lifetime. I would think that it would help tourism. Can't hurt it, that's for sure," Mroziak says, laughing.

It might actually be a once in a lifetime event.

U.S. and Canadian authorities, in allowing the first wirewalk in more than a century, agreed that no more can happen for another 20 years.

Still, courting daredevil stunts to boost tourism is a good idea, according to spectator Jeff Jehrio.

"I think it brings excitement," says Jehrio, who juggled tennis balls while watching Wallenda. "It brings danger. People love to see danger. Just the fact that he could fall is exciting to certain folks."

Sideshow stimulus

There's a sideshow component to the festivities for sure. Peddlers, providers of bicycle tricks, magicians and buskers offer ancillary entertainment for the curious.

Aspiring country singer Angela Faith juggles and sings at the same time, with her eyes closed. While she stays at the periphery, most of the crowd near the wire appears reverent, watching every Wallenda tiptoe.

While Wallenda will be the star of a three-hour prime time special on ABC on June 15, the event's preamble includes this series of public practice sessions above the parking lot of the Seneca Niagara Casino.

Wallenda has a stage in front of the gambling house where he answers questions from the public.

But first, spectators are told about games of chance residing in the building immediately behind the stage.

"What I want to tell you about today is table games," says Tony Astran, Seneca Casino publicity manager.

Wallenda doesn't like gambling, Astran tells the crowd.

"If he played roulette, he would probably pick the number seven," Astran says. "The reason why? According to Nik, to him, the number seven represents fullness. And it's God's number."

As a seventh-generation funambulist, Wallenda and his crew know how to drum up publicity and handle a crowd.

Before he takes the stage, a member of his entourage hawks a picture of the wirewalker from NBC's Today show.

"You can have one of these pictures. Nik will sign it. Ten dollars."

Wallenda takes the stage and addresses assembled media from all over the world. He's also joined by Bello Nock, the "world's one and only comic daredevil."

Nock's hair is styled to look a pencil eraser. He does not pass up the chance to showcase his comedic sensibilities.

"If you're crossing the border, are you going to take your passport with you?" Nock asks Wallenda, jokingly. "Is border control going to be on the other side?"

"There's a good chance of that," Wallenda quips. "Otherwise I'd have to turn around. And that's a long walk back."

Welcome mat

When asked by a member of the crowd how he likes Niagara Falls, which he first viewed in 1985 as an awestruck boy, Wallenda said locals have made him feel at home.

"They have been incredibly gracious to Nik Wallenda," Wallenda said. "Because many other people over the last 100 years have come saying, 'Can we get permission to do this?' And they said, 'Thanks but no thanks.' "

An autograph line forms, and Wallenda scribbles his name on anything - t-shirts, casino tickets, Maid of the Mist pamphlets and glossy photos (from the Today show, of course).

But Wallenda's time in Niagara Falls is nearly over.

Before June 15, he will perform shows in Branson, Missouri. And he's already planning his next stunts: walking across the Grand Canyon and crossing the Continental Divide in Turkey.