The Leitzel Sisters
Leitzel and Jeanette

Photo courtesy Steve Gossard
Photo courtesy Steve Gossard

After the Leamy Ladies disbanded following their 1911 appearance with Barnum & Bailey in Madison Square Garden, Leitzel remained in the United States. There is evidence she spent at least a part of the remainder of the season with Barnum & Bailey.

In December of 1911, she joined with her Aunt Tina to form the Leitzel Sisters. After what amounted to a tryout at the Columbia Theater in New York, the act was booked on the Orpheum circuit, the dominant vaudeville chain in the United States.

Tina worked on the trapeze and Leitzel worked on the rope and rings. As many reviews pointed out, Leitzel was the act. Tina just filled in the time between Leitzel’s astonishing aerial acrobatics. The finale of the act was the stunt that was to become Leitzel’s trademark, her swingovers. Hanging, suspended by one arm from a short looped rope, she turned herself into a human pinwheel, using her shoulder as the pivot. She would usually do 40 or 50 revolutions in the act.

In vaudeville, acrobatic acts, such as the Leitzel Sisters, were known as dumb acts or sight acts, because they did not require sound. They usually opened or closed the program on a vaudeville bill, because they were not so disturbed by the noise of late arriving and early departing audience members and because they were considered a notch below the acting, singing, dancing and comic acts which dominated the vaudeville scene.

For a little over a year, beginning in February 1912, the Leitzel Sisters worked the Orpheum circuit, opening and closing the bills in cities across the country. They played the best theaters in most of the big cities on the circuit, including New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, St Louis, Kansas City, Philadelphia and Baltimore, establishing themselves as one of the finest acts of their type. They received excellent reviews in the trade papers. And the manager’s reports, which all the theater managers maintained, were just as enthusiastic.

In April of 1913, Leitzel introduced a new act with a new partner: Leitzel and Jeanette. It was similar enough to the Leitzel Sisters that it was sometimes advertised as the Leitzel Sisters and sometimes reviewed as the Leitzel Sisters. Jeanette performed on the trapeze while Leitzel did her aerial magic on the rope and rings. The act became so highly regarded that it eventually earned a spot on the bill at the Palace Theater in New York, the most important and most prestigious vaudeville venue in the world, where it earned a superb review in Billboard.

The road for the act stayed smooth until they reached the Chicago Palace in September 1914. According to the opening night reviews, the act was sensational and closed big, but they disappeared from the program after opening night. It was later reported that it had been on doctors orders that Leitzel had cancelled her appearances. Whatever the reason, within a month, Leitzel and Jeanette found themselves exiled to split week engagements in the vaudeville hinterlands. Split weeks, requiring a performers to play two cities every week, were the bane of a vaudevillians existence.

One of the venues that Leitzel and Jeanette played while they were working split weeks was South Bend, Indiana. It was the week before Thanksgiving. Ringling executive Fred Warrell, who was spending the holidays in his hometown of South Bend, was alerted to Leitzel’s appearance by a publicity man at the South Bend Orpheum. When he saw her act, he offered her a contract on the spot. Leitzel, in response, gave Warrell a list of demands to take back to his bosses. Two months later, Warrell came back to Leitzel with a contract that included an extraordinary provision granting Leitzel a private stateroom on the circus train and a salary of $200 per week in Chicago and $150 per week on the road. The Ringling Brothers had a new center ring attraction and the vaudeville team of Leitzel and Jeanette ended their association.