News & Articles

Lobby Display: Philippe Petit

by Steppenwolf Theatre Company

"When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk." A few days shy of his 25th birthday, a young Frenchman danced on a wire in the skies of Manhattan, nearly a quarter of a mile above the earth. Without formal training. Without a safety net. Without a harness. Wire-walker Philippe Petit had danced on air before. In Paris: between the spires of Notre Dame Cathedral (1971). In Sydney: between the northern pylons of the Harbour Bridge (1973). In both cities: crowds gathered; traffic halted, even the trains; law enforcement watched, helpless. Everyone looked up, breathless with amazement. But these were mere trial runs. The self-taught aerialist was preparing for a more formidable feat, one that would take years of meticulous planning and committed dreaming. A triumph Petit referred to simply as "Le Coup." He had first learned of the Twin Towers at age 18. A newspaper illustration depicted what would soon become the tallest structures the world had ever known. But the teen was more interested in the space between. He was enchanted by a new and impossible dream: to transform the cavernous void into a grand theatre for the imagination. "I loved those towers and I knew I had to conquer them," he said, "if only to inspire people. I wanted people to be able to look to the sky again." Committed to dazzling the world with a fearless performance in the clouds, Petit set his plans into motion. Supporting himself as a street juggler, unicyclist, magician and pantomime artist, Petit assembled a motley crew of co-conspirators and flew to New York. He inspected the buildings in person, posing as a French magazine journalist (all the while snapping pictures) and hiring a helicopter to take additional aerial photography. Drawing upon his observations, he constructed a scale model of the towers and designed fake ID cards. Reaching his goal required, "Six years of dreaming, eight months of planning, one night of doing and one morning of performing." On August 6, 1974, Philippe Petit and his friends snuck into the towers via a freight elevator. Half entered the South Tower; the others, the North Tower. They transported 60 meters of wire (weighing more than 450 lbs) up to the 104th floor where they hid for hours. In the pitch of night, Petit and his gang struggled to rig the wire from one building to the other with the prodigious use of a bow, arrow and fishing line. Fighting frustration, exhaustion and fear, they were sure the wire would not be finished in time. But they continued, placing faith in themselves, muting their doubts. At 7:15 the next morning, the wire was ready. With a custom-made, 55-pound balancing pole in his hands, Petit slipped the protection of the South Tower and stepped into his dreams. At that moment of transformation, he entered another world. "I was extremely happy after all those years of dreaming and months of working," he said. "Now the dream was reality." For 45 minutes, he glided across the wire, making at least seven trips back and forth. Lost in euphoria, Petit stopped at one point, sat on the wire and looked down at the gathering crowds. Construction workers had put down their equipment. Taxi drivers had stopped their meters. Businessmen had paused their morning commutes. From the street below, the man above appeared to be walking on air. Everyone watched, spellbound. Once he alighted the wire, he was immediately apprehended. But even the arresting officers could not restrain their incredulity. Port Authority Police Sgt. Charles Daniel reported, "I observed the tightrope ‘dancer’—because you couldn't call him a ‘walker’—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire...He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire...Unbelievable." Due to an outpouring of public support for his artistry, all charges were dropped on the condition that he perform for children in Central Park, walking above Turtle Pond. The Port Authority also gave Petit a lifetime pass to the Twin Towers' Observation Deck. More than 30 years later, Petit’s walk continues to inspire countless dreamers through his memoirs and the work of admirers. Petit has written three books: Two Towers, I walk (1975); On the High Wire (1985); and To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers (2002). A children's book about him, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, won the 2004 Caldecott Award and a film, Man on Wire, won the 2009 Academy® Award for Best Documentary. In addition to writing and performing around the world, Petit, who now lives outside Woodstock, New York, has been working toward the fulfillment of his new dream: a walk across the Grand Canyon.