Part 2 of an 8-part series by Liam Nolan
She was only four-feet-nine-inches tall, weighed a mere 94 pounds, and had the arms of a blacksmith. Though an unparalleled acrobatic performer, she had enough musical talent to be a concert pianist.
She called herself Lillian Leitzel, but her real name was Leopoldina Alize Pelikan. She was the greatest superstar in circus history.
Leopoldina was born in Breslau, Germany, and her mother, Elinor Pelikan, performed in a famous act named The Leamy Ladies. From childhood Leopoldina wanted to be an aerialist. Her schoolteachers thought she would become a concert pianist.
“No,” the child insisted, “I want to be in the circus.”
She studied music and languages, became fluent in five of the latter, and was a prodigy as a pianist. In Breslau and Berlin her classroom sessions became battles of wills — Leopoldino’s against everyone else’s.
Her father had tried to rule his children with military discipline. When he tried to compel Leopoldina to do countless push-ups, she screamed, “No! I won’t! Do them yourself!”
From then on she never spoke to, or about him again.
She practised endlessly on a small trapeze, trying to convince her mother that she (Leopoldina) should be allowed to join the The Leamy Ladies. Elinor finally agreed, and lived to regret that decision.
On her first appearance with them, Leopoldina stole The Leamy Ladies’ thunder— she became the main focus of audience attention.
In 1911 The Leamy Ladies were engaged by the Barnum and Bailey Show in New York. They were a big success, where upon Leopoldina determined to become a star circus performer.
Consequently, when The Leamy Ladies returned to Europe Leopoldina stayed on in America, and changed her name. She decided to perform on the Roman Rings, and on a single rope for one-arm planges. She spent hour after hour perfecting graceful twirls and swings on the rings. The one-arm planges were something else.
Aerialists used a long rope to climb aloft. Most hauled themselves up hand-over-hand. Leitzel used a series of roll-ups, during which she held her body horizontally until she arrived at the height she needed to be at — between 20 and 40 feet above the ground. She would then insert her right hand into the loop at the end of the hanging rope, and begin a series of swing-overs, or one-arm planges.
She continually threw her body up and over her right shoulder. It took incredible strength and timing. On each revolution her shoulder dislocated, and then snapped back into place.
She never used a safety net. If at any instant her mind let go of concentration, she would have fallen and died.
When Leitzel stayed behind in America she faced the bruising reality of trying to earn a living. Countless booking agents turned her down. “We have enough female acrobats,” they said.
Then one day she was offered a three-night engagement at a honky tonk in Bayonne, New Jersey. The money was paltry, but the agent said, “A coupla New York producers might look in on the last night.”
Three of them did, and when she put on her aerial act, they were transfixed. They started bidding against each other, trying to book her….