The American Circus
in the Jazz Age

John Ringling (on left, partially obscured by post) hosts President and Mrs. Coolidge at the circus. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., [LC-F82-1234]
John Ringling (on left, partially obscured by post) hosts President and Mrs. Coolidge at the circus.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [reproduction number, e.g., [LC-F82-1234]
It is difficult to appreciate the enormous affection the American public had for Leitzel without understanding the role the circus played in America in the first third of the Twentieth Century. For fifty years it had been the dominant form of entertainment for much of the country, but the evolution of the automobile and the emergence of radio and motion pictures were threatening its very existence. Consolidation and attrition became the hallmarks of an industry that just decades earlier was experiencing unbridled expansion.

The distress in which industry found itself only endeared it more to the many generations of Americans who had grown up in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century into the first decade of the Twentieth Century, and for whom the day the circus came to town had been the most anticipated day of every summer. They revered the circus and treasured the memories it provided them. The esteem and affection it engendered was apparent decades later in the recollections of Nobel laureate John Steinbeck, who remembered how, in his youth, he had earned a free pass to the circus by assisting with the care of the animals on the morning of the show. Of that experience, he wrote, “No honor since has compared with that pass held high to the ticket taker, held so everyone could see.” (Chicago Tribune, October 5, 1969, p. E1)

An organization was formed to promote the future of the circus and preserve its legacy. On its roster were Governors, U. S. Senators and many titans of business and industry. Its first meeting was addressed by the President of the United States. It was an indication of the high regard in which the nation held what Steinbeck called “our oldest and deepest rooted entertainment.” (Chicago Tribune, October 5, 1969, p. E1)

Circus day was still a major event on every calendar. When the Ringling show came to town, fans would begin assembling long before dawn, awaiting the arrival of the four sections of the train that carried the show. If there was a parade, the entire county would turn out to watch. But the highlight of every morning was the raising of the big top. Thousands would assemble to see men, animals and machines, all working in unison in the massive undertaking. Watching the 600 foot long big top rise was an awe inspiring sight, which evoked deep feelings in the onlookers. It conjured memories of an era that many were afraid was fading away.

The sights and smells of the circus were ingrained in the American psyche, and strong emotions were unleashed in its presence. The performance itself was more spectacular than ever. It was the era during which the greatest artists in circus history ruled the center ring. When the circus came to town, the names of its stars appeared in the local newspapers as prominently as those of movie stars.

It was in this environment that Leitzel emerged as a cultural icon. She was the circus’s biggest and most visible star and its de facto ambassador of goodwill to the public and the press. Her success in vaudeville left no doubt she would have been a star in any venue, but in the circus of the 1920s she became much more.