Leitzel’s Act

Leitzel 5 handstand on rings

Few acts remained as constant for so long, and few acts varied so much from day to day as Leitzel’s. While its substance was virtually unchanged from her debut to her final appearance with the circus, the details of her act were, on a daily basis, subject to the whims of her mercurial personality. If Leitzel was upset, she might delay the show by pausing in the middle of her act. If she was in an upbeat mood, she might add extra stunts to her act. Of course, no one was ever quite certain how many swingovers she would elect to perform as a finale. And at the conclusion of her turn in the spotlight, there was always the possibility of one of her famous fainting spells. Whatever she did, it always seemed to delight the audience, but her antics drove equestrian director, Fred Bradna, and bandleader, Merle Evans, to distraction.

The act had two parts. It began with Leitzel’s flying rings routine and concluded with her famous swingovers. Leitzel, in the glow of a spotlight, would enter the center ring accompanied by her attendant, Willie Mosher, a lanky 6’4” member of the clown colony, dressed in a glorified doorman’s uniform, while her maid, Mabel Clemings, waited by the edge of the hippodrome track. Stentorian voiced Lew Graham, in his inimitable style, would regale the audience with the extraordinary nature of the exhibition they were about to witness.

When Graham concluded his introduction, Leitzel would bask in the spotlight for a moment, allowing the audience to soak in the experience. Then, after Mosher removed the pink tulle scarf that covered her shoulders, Leitzel would kick off her golden mules and reach for her web, the canvas covered climbing rope that she used to reach her rings. The band would play the “Crimson Petal Waltz” and Leitzel would begin her ascent.

Unlike other aerialists, who might ascend hand over hand, be hoisted or shimmy up the rope, Leitzel would cartwheel up the web using a complex gymnastic technique called a roll-up, stopping after each revolution to blow kisses to the audience. When she would reach the level of her apparatus, Leitzel would pause for a moment and pose. She would wrap the web around her left leg and with her arms extended gesture to the audience before transferring to the rings. It was at this point she might decide to slow down the festivities by just swinging for a spell, otherwise Leitzel would move directly into her flying rings routine.

The band would strike up the “William Tell Overture.” Leitzel would begin with a press to a beautiful handstand. She would hold the pose for several seconds, the rings still, a slight arch in her back, her legs straight, without any separation, and her toes pointed. Then she would drop into her giant swings. She would whip her body around over and over. At this point it was not about form, her legs would separate and her knees would bend. This was an expression of pure childlike joy. Still photos always revealed a broad smile on her face. From the giant swings she moved onto her one arm stunts, a series of bone wearying tricks that required almost superhuman strength. Suspended by one arm from one of her rings, she would pull her body up and down and throw her body left and right without an ounce of strain apparent. One trick would build on another. It was the force and recklessness with which she threw her body around and the pace at which she worked that made the act so exciting. She was that bundle of energy that the newspapers so often described her as being.

Following this demonstration of gymnastic virtuosity, Leitzel, as she had ascended, would roll down the web to a terrific reception. Mabel Clemings would rush into the ring to attend to her mistress, making sure no strands of hair were out of place and her costume still looked perfect. At this point, Lew Graham would once again attract the attention of the audience. Although in large arenas like Madison Square Garden, Leitzel performed her entire routine with all the other rings empty, on the road the other rings were usually filled during the flying rings portion of her act. But for the finale of her act, the rest of the circus always came to a halt. Graham would make an announcement that all vendors should retire to their seats, an acknowledgement of Leitzel’s unique stature. Then he would reintroduce Leitzel and prepare the audience to be astonished as Leitzel was about to perform her amazing swingovers.

With the spotlight still on her, Leitzel would slip her right hand through a leather loop that was attached to a rope that ran through a pulley near the top of the circus tent or the arena in which she was preforming. A dozen property men held the other end of the rope and, when the signal was given, thanks to their efforts, Leitzel would rise like an angel ascending to the clouds until the stopper hit the pulley, and Leitzel was in position to perform.

The band would segue into Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Leitzel, hanging by her right arm from the short rope with the leather loop, would arch her back and launch herself into her swingovers, a trick, in which, using her shoulder as a pivot point, she would turn her body into a pinwheel, dislocating her shoulder with each revolution. The bass drum would sound as she completed each revolution and the announcer would add one to his count. Early in her career she would do around forty swingovers at every performance, but eventually her standard would become one hundred swingovers and occasionally when the mood struck her she would exceed two hundred.

At the conclusion of her swingovers, Leitzel would be lowered to the tanbark to be greeted by deafening applause. After briefly acknowledging the reception with a gentle bow, she would exit the big top or arena by taking a victory lap around the hippodrome track blowing kisses to the audience as she passed each section.