Lillian Leitzel in 1931.

Lillian Leitzel in 1931.

In an era before television and Hollywood stars, some of the world’s most famous celebrities were circus performers. Most of these performers had high aspirations of joining the big league of circus companies, the Ringling Brothers Circus. The Ringling circus traveled throughout the United States and attracted millions of adoring fans.

In the early twentieth century, the most famous and beloved performer was Lillian Leitzel. She was a famed acrobat, aerialist, and strongwoman as well as one of Ringling’s most top-billed acts. Like many other performers, Leitzel came from an old circus family. She was born Leopoldina Alitza Pelikan to Nellie Pelikan, a famed Czech acrobat who was often on tour in Europe, so Leitzel was raised primarily by her grandparents. As Leitzel grew, she dreamed of the circus and, by age nine, she knew she wanted to become an aerialist.

Skilled in the art of performing, Leitzel joined her mother’s circus troupe, the Leamy Ladies, when she was a teenager. At four feet nine inches tall, Leitzel quickly grew in popularity and soon became the star of the troupe. In 1910, the troupe successfully attracted the attention of the Ringlings and became a regular act in their show. Leitzel evolved into a crowd favorite and branched out on a solo act. Her performance consisted of one-armed flips on a silver ring several feet in the air. Each time her shoulder was temporarily dislocated, but Leitzel’s commitment to the circus was undeterred. Later, as an adult, Leitzel was passionate about children and education. In her free time, she established an unofficial circus school for the children of performers, thus granting her the nickname “Auntie Leitzel.” Leitzel, who was extremely loved by her friends and audience, continued to perform until 1931 when she tragically died in a circus accident in Copenhagen.

In 1926, Lillian Leitzel became the highest-paid performer in circus history. She had progressive ideas about women and social justice in a time when many women and girls did not have public voices.

You can watch a video of Lillian’s famed act here.

-Casey Gymrek
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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