Madison Square Garden 1917

Ruth Budd
Ruth Budd

In his 1952 autobiography, The Big Top, Fred Bradna, the show’s equestrian director, recounted the tumultuous 1919 season, when the Ringling Brothers combined the Ringling Circus with the Barnum & Bailey show. Among the problems he recalled most vividly was the calamity created by the three great female aerial stars of the era: Leitzel, Dainty Marie and Ruth Budd.

As Bradna tells the story, all three prima donnas had been booked for the show, and each was to be given the arena to herself. The only problem was that each one wished to go on before the other two. They worried that the audience might become disinterested after seeing two similar acts. When the order of program was announced, Dainty Marie was to appear first, followed by Ruth Budd with Leitzel the last of the three to appear. This did not go down well with Leitzel or Budd. When Budd could not have her way, she quit the show. John Ringling then managed to temporarily placate Leitzel by convincing her that the greatest star always appears last. With Ruth Budd gone and the order of appearance of the other two settled, the show survived its Madison Square Garden engagement with minimal disruption.

The peace did not hold once the show hit the road. According to Bradna, the two great aerialists continued to try to assert their supremacy. Dainty Marie, using a loophole in her contract, took to refusing to appear when she did not get her way. Bradna, tiring of all the drama, told her to go to work or leave the show. Dainty Marie left the show, leaving Leitzel supreme. It was the last time any artist would ever challenge Leitzel.

The story, with considerable embellishing, was retold by Robert Lewis Taylor in his 1956 New Yorker profile of Leitzel. It thus achieved a certain stature as part of the Leitzel legacy. The problem is that it is not true. In fact, none of the three women even appeared with the circus in Madison Square Garden in 1919. But there was an incident in 1917 that may explain Bradna’s confusion. For a firsthand account, I recommend Tiny Kline’s memoir, Circus Queen & Tinker Bell.

Due to a contract dispute, Leitzel was not with the Ringling Brothers’ Circus when it opened in 1917. However, Leitzel had agreed to appear with the Brothers’ other show, the Barnum & Bailey Circus, (in 1917 the Ringling Brothers were still touring both shows separately) for its 1917 engagement at Madison Square Garden, but Leitzel had not agreed to the arrangements she found when she arrived in New York for rehearsal. She was programmed to share the arena with Ruth Budd. Suspicion is that John Ringling did this deliberately in an attempt to put Leitzel in her place, because he felt that his brother Charles was overindulging her.

Initially, Leitzel just stewed, until she learned that Budd sang as part of her act, then she exploded. In the middle of the main arena in Madison Square Garden, using the most colorful language, in front of the entire cast, Leitzel told Bradna that either she appeared alone or she did not appear. Then she stomped off to her dressing room.

Having had his fun, Ringling realized that Leitzel was too valuable to the show to lose. So when the program for opening night was finalized, Leitzel had the arena to herself, but Ruth Budd worked in Display no. 15, which featured Bird Millman in the center ring.

Opening night was Budd’s turn to stew. She gave Ringling the same ultimatum that Leitzel had: either she had the arena to herself, or she would quit the show. Budd found she was not so valuable to Ringling. He let her walk. Leitzel would continue to have her run-ins with John Ringling, but never again did anyone question her supremacy among aerial artists.