Leitzel adored children, and she made it her mission, while she was with the circus, to improve the lives of all the youngsters who traveled with the show. Not only did she want the children to enjoy their experiences with the circus, she wanted them to benefit from them. She became a teacher, a mentor, a surrogate parent, a benefactor, a promoter, a babysitter and a lady bountiful.
Most famously, for one hour every day, Leitzel turned her dressing tent into a classroom for all the children of the backyard. She supplied books, slates, chalk, paper, pencils, toys, games and a typewriter. While she tutored the youngest children in reading and arithmetic, her stated philosophy was “Whatever interests children and keeps them absorbed in their task is good for them …… My greatest pleasure is cultivating their love for nature and the beautiful.”
Whatever affection Leitzel showered on the children of the backyard was reciprocated. She was considered a member of the family by every child who traveled with the show. They all called her Auntie Leitzel. And if a child had a birthday during the circus season, Leitzel would throw a party, plenty of gifts included. She also sponsored an annual Halloween party and Fourth of July picnic. Leitzel did everything she could to assure the children had a normal life and that they would remember their experiences in the backyard fondly.
There were two children in whom Leitzel took a special interest: Glenn Graves and Dolly Jahn. Glenn was the son of boss property man Mickey Graves. Beginning when he was three years old, while Mickey’s wife stayed at home taking care of the couple’s other children, Glenn would keep his father company and travel with the show. It was Leitzel who was depended on to supply a maternal touch. Glenn’s mother relied on Leitzel to make sure his wardrobe, nutritional and educational needs were met. His mornings were often spent in Leitzel’s dressing tent, sitting in one of her deck chairs, amusing himself with a picture book. Glenn even spent a winter with Leitzel when his dad signed on as Leitzel’s property man for the off-season in vaudeville.
Dolly Jahn was the daughter of perch pole artist Hans Jahn. When Dolly turned four, she decided she wanted to be the next Leitzel, and she prevailed upon Auntie Leitzel to tutor her. Leitzel bought Dolly a set of rings, which she hung outside of her dressing tent and on which, every day, she taught the little girl the rudiments of the roman rings. Dolly became a frequent guest in Leitzel’s stateroom on the circus train, where she was given the privilege of occasionally spending the night.
While the children of the backyard were certainly blessed to have Leitzel looking over them, Leitzel was equally blessed by the presence of the children. She loved being able to mentor them. She told anyone who would listen that if she were not in the circus, she would want to be a teacher. With the children of the backyard, Leitzel had that opportunity. Anyone who knew her would tell you her time with the kids was one of the real joys of Leitzel’s life in the circus.