Biography of Queen of the Circus Lillian Leitzel Part 1

About the famous German circus performer Lillian Leitzel known as the Queen of the Circus, history and biography of the woman.


Lillian Leitzel (1893-1931)

She was known as the Queen of the Circus. Renowned for her beauty, her grace, and her amazing one-arm swings, which made her resemble a human pinwheel in the air, she was the first person named to the Circus Hall of Fame.

Lillian Leitzel was born Leopeldina Alize Elianore Pelikan on Jan. 2, 1893, in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland). Her childhood nickname was Elitza, which was later transformed by a printer's error to "Leitzel." After that friends called her Leitzel, and she billed herself as Lillian Leitzel.

Leitzel was a third-generation aerial star. Her mother, Elinor, was a Czechoslovakian aerialist who was part of a bicycle-and-trapeze act called the Leamy Ladies. Her grandmother, Julia Pelikan, was still able to swing on the trapeze when she was 84. Leitzel began learning the circus arts when she was five, often coached by her father, a Hungarian army officer turned theatrical manager, who she disliked intensely. He would hit her ankles with a buggy whip if she made a mistake.

Most of Leitzel's childhood was spent in Germany with her maternal grandparents. Her early ambition was to become a concert pianist, and she studied music and dance at the conservatories of Breslau and Berlin. Soon, however, she turned to circus performing.

In 1908 Leitzel went to the U.S. to join her mother and two aunts as part of the Leamy Ladies. They appeared with the Barnum and Bailey Circus in New York that year, and by 1911 toured the complete season with Barnum and Bailey. It was during these appearances that Leitzel introduced her arm swings, which her mother had originated but never perfected.

At the close of the 1911 season, the Leamy troupe returned to Europe, but Leitzel remained behind. She went to New York, where she soon became a vaudeville star. Up until then, acrobats and aerialists had always been relegated to the opening acts, but Leitzel was accorded the star position, next to the closing.

She also continued to tour. With the Welsh Brothers Circus, she appeared for a brief period with Annie DeHoman in an act billed as the DeHoman Sisters.

While she was performing in South Bend, Ind., in 1914, Leitzel was spotted by a Ringling Brothers representative, who signed her for the following season. She opened with them on Apr. 17, 1915, in Chicago. Soon her act was put in the center ring. It was the first act ever to be shown as a solo with Ringling Brothers (later Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey). No acts were staged in the other two rings while Leitzel was performing.

At showmanship she was unexcelled. When she entered the arena, the house lights faded except for a single spot trained on her. The only sound that could be heard under the big top was the whining of the generators outside.

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