Lillian Leitzel (January 2, 1892, Breslau, Germany (present-day Wrocław, Poland) – February 15, 1931, Copenhagen, Denmark) was an acrobat and strongwoman for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. The inaugural (posthumous) inductee to the International Circus Hall of Fame, Leitzel died in hospital two days after a fall during a live performance.
Leitzel was born as Leopoldina Alitza Pelikan in a family of circus performers. Her father was a Hungarian army officer and theater performer. Her mother was a Czech circus acrobat. She spent her childhood in Germany where she lived with her maternal grandparents. Although she had been well-educated and had prepared to pursue a career as a concert pianist, she joined her mother's aerobatic circus group, the Leamy Ladies.
In 1910, she came to the United States with the circus troupe and performed with Barnum and Bailey. The group later dissolved and its members returned to Europe, but Leitzel continued to attempt to perform in the American vaudeville circuit. In South Bend, Indiana, she was seen by an agent of the Ringling Brothers who offered her a contract. When Ringling and Barnum and Bailey merged, she became a huge star and a headline performer for the circus.
Act and personality
Leitzel's act included one-armed planges, momentarily dislocating the shoulder during each plange. She would flip her body over her shoulder repeatedly, sometimes hundreds of times in a feat of endurance, encouraging the audience to count each one in unison. Only four feet, nine inches, she was also famous for her demanding personality and temper. Leitzel was the first performer in history to command her own private Pullman car completely furnished with her own baby grand piano.
Her quick temper was legendary. It was not uncommon to witness Leitzel cursing or slapping a roustabout who did not adjust her rigging exactly to her liking. Further, Leitzel was known to fly off the handle and fire and rehire her personal maid, Mabel Cummings, several times a day. In sharp contrast, she was known to the children on the show as "Auntie Leitzel", and who would hold birthday parties for her fellow performers in her private dressing tent.
Accident and death
On February 13, 1931, she fell to the ground from her rigging while performing in Copenhagen, Denmark at the Valencia Theatre, when the swivel that held the rope in place fractured and snapped. She and Codona had been performing in Europe separately, and he rushed to Copenhagen. After she apparently showed signs of improvement, Codona returned to his company in Berlin. However, she died on February 15, two days after the fall, aged 39. She was buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.
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