Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Staggering Achievement in Circus History Captures Tragic Lives of Leitzel and Codona, Reveals Ringling as Never Before

UPDATE, 4/17, 1:32 PST: Re: the book's troubling assertions, I am in communication with a well-placed source on the subject of Leizel and Codona which may result in significant revisions to parts of this review, or a separate post. Disregard the headline above.

Book review
Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus

Dean Jansen
Crown, 2013

Here is a book for the ages, and why did it take me so long to get to it?

In her fiery heyday thrilling spectators with her high-energy gymnastics under the big top, Lillian Leitzel was arguably the greatest solo star ever to grace the rings of Ringling. So transcendent a figure had she become, that American soldiers during World War I voted her “the most beautiful and attractive woman in all the world,” Hollywood included. Men of note, Henry Ford among them, lined up to play suitor to the charismatic dynamo, who stood all of four foot nine.   Did they or didn’t they?  I have my doubts.  Even with Alfredo, I have my doubts.

More likely, everything was carefully choreographed to build up an epic image bigger than life, bigger even than the circus itself.  John and Charles Ringling caved to the diva’s demands for a private car on the train, her own dressing tent on the lot, both concessions unheard of at the time.  The brothers also helped fuel her flame by encouraging her various affairs, believing the notoriety would bring more glamor and attention to the circus.

Conceived in rape,  Leitzel grew up to be her own best agent, and once installed on the Ringling lot, she reigned supreme, like a self-appointed queen.   Nobody dared question the coming and goings of  their blazing headliner, whose first two ill-fated marriages come off looking more comical than sincere.  

Perhaps more sincerely, Leitzel doted on giving circus children morning lessons in her tent, and over the center ring later in the day, throwing kisses to the crowds as she whirled furiously above them, teasing her way up to the big trick — her famous one arm rollovers numbering sometimes over a hundred. Those spinning revolutions composed, so it was written, a “white blur.”  Once back on the ground and back to theatrics, Leitzel cursed out her maid and fired her. Then rehired her. Happened every day. Which sounds a bit scripted to me. And why not? Every day on the circus, she had a whole new audience to play to.

A Joyful Exuberance

How good was the act, really?  If I have a problem with Leitzel’s art and this extraordinary book, it is this: Of the scarce film footage of it from the late 1920s that have studied,  I want to feel a thrill I can’t quite feel. That “white blur” does not come through.  Notwithstanding the photo, her leg extensions can be awkward, the transitions from one trick to the next, labored.  But there is something maybe more at work here. By shunning  – or failing -- the polish of ballet that others such as Con Coleano incorporated, Leitzel may have intensified the passionate exuberance she projected, a rough tumbling spirit as lively as the three ring circus.

Enter Her Great Love

Trapeze god Alfredo Codona (not, by the way,  Mexican, but of Scottish and French blood) comes through as a bit more humble, though in the end he turns stark raving mad. He and Leitzel in love – or playing to each other’s need for constant attention and rumorizing —  tangled ruthlessly in romance, tormenting the hell out of each other by flaunting side affairs.  But Leitzel gets the prize for Greatest Act of Cruelty on Wedding Day.  She kept Alfredo and guests waiting for over three hours. Yes, three hours. The groom might have walked away. The groom was being taught how to be a more pitiful person.
Two Unforgettable Endings

When Leitzel’s rigging fails in Copenhagen, sending her to her death in 1931, I wept. So did I weep being pulled though the last punishing days of Codona’s tragic end, trapeze god felled by a fall, down to failed ringmaster, and then onto car garage mechanic in Long Beach, CA. With Leitzel gone, he defaulted to his flying partner Vera Bruce, begging her over and over again to marry him.  She did not love the man, but finally she gave in, and likely did not give out. The doomed marriage ended the lives of both in the office of a divorce lawyer, where Codona, armed for the occasion, first took down Vera, and then himself.

Ringling Revealed As Never Before

Beyond Leitzel & Codona, the circus of Ringling, as magnificently narrated by the masterful Jensen, rides high and wide on fresh revelations, some quite startling, all of which makes for an enormously enthralling read. Some nuggets among many:

John Ringling, in the painting above, admired by his nephew, John Ringling North, comes through perhaps more vividly here than in any other book I have read. 

And then there is the lowdown on Charles Ringling and wife Edith (Edie) the latter described as “extraordinarily indulgent.” Perhaps this trait drove Charlie into the charms of other women.   He tried but failed to snare touchy-feely time in the private tent of his highest paid performer.  He did better in darkened bijous with at least one show girl. And her name was not Edith Ringling,  Her name was Anna Stais. As observed by another figure in the movie house essentially up to the same thing, Charlie “had his arm around her and his head was resting on her shoulder.”   Astonishing, considering how the brothers explicitly banned all “accidental meetings”between the sexes in various public places.  

The Wallendas Enter the Tent

Nowhere have I read a better account of the Wallendas first night at Madison Square Garden to a prolonged standing ovation, declared by The Billboard “easily the best act the circus ever had, and the most daring.” I can believe this, oh can I. For, many years later when the troupe performed their legendary 7-high pyramid at the Santa Rosa fairgrounds pavilion, to the eyes of an 11-year-old, it felt as if circus gods from on high had briefly descended to give him a revelation of true wonder.  That day sealed my fate.

Troubling Assertions

Nothing is perfect, and small errors are to be expected.  Bigger ones?  Red flags must be raised here.  First and foremost, hard to understand why Jensen did not go deeper to learn, easy to learn at the time he was nearing publication, that British born Ernest Clarke was not the first flyer to nail the triple.  That honor goes to Russian-born  Lena Jordan, and if you still don’t believe me, check out Wikipedia.   Still  don’t?  Okay, how about Guinness Book of World Records?  In fact, the record was talked about  on the Circus Historical Society history message board, July 1, 1965.

Nor was Jensen without expert guidance in his research, drawing from from the likes of Fred Dahlinger, Greg Parkinson, Fred Pfening III.  I have to wonder if any of these three were asked to read the manuscript or proofs. Why oh why such an inexplicable blunder?  

Leitzel did not always get the entire performance area to herself, as Jensen fanfares.  I’ve seen her listed in old Ringling programs as appearing in seven-act displays.  Once, solo.  Here if the 1925 program:

A Legacy Barely a Blur

Curiously, the legacy of Lillian Leitzel does not hold up well in lists out there of all time circus greats. Although these lists are so wildly different as to make each seem meaningless..Her name is totally missing in several I have looked at. On others, she is never at the top. The History Channel places her at the bottom of a list of 8, below May Wirth.  She fails a list of 15, the most phenomenal female performers.

Sadly, we may never be able to see the Lilian Leitzel that others saw in her best years. What I miss the most is the white blur.  What I enjoy the most is the spectacle of her crossing the lot, with her tall maid trailing her, on her way to the tent where the crowds are waiting to be thrilled.  I love the warm waving looks she gives to bystanders on the way. Her true love.

The childless Leitzel with Dolly Jahn, 1926, celebrating the girl's birthday.

This book must rank as one of the greatest big top tomes of all time.  Need I say any more, America?  



Saturday, March 20, 2021

Sprng is Here, They Say. Where Is the Circus?

UPDATE 3.22, 12 pm: Carson & Barnes did show in Austin with Circus Funtastic. Event official Carrie returned my call to confirm. They gave two shows, no animals, and pulled in around 300 people at one of the shows, which she observed from afar and deemed very good.  Two sets of bleachers and several rows of chairs in front of them appeared to be full. This little date should cheer up the Byrds and put wind in their wings. Go, Hugo, Go! 


Hello there, Carson & Barnes! Are you still there?   Where did your website go?  Your Facebook looks stranded  back in 2020   Say, how did your “Circus Funtastic” turn out at the Austin County Fair?  I said Austin County Fair. What?  Only a few days ago, I read about it.  I got a call into Austin to confirm. No reply yet. Is Austin still there?  

Calling Circus Vargas!  Your website seems MIA.  I did spot slivers life —  you were giving trapeze lessons recently in San Luis Obispo.  Any takers?

Has anybody seen UniverSoul? Their website looks good and solid.  And what about the Big Apple Circus?  October at Lincoln Center is only six months away. What I see on their website, which looks like an empty house, tells me they are not up to it.   

Come to the circus!???  I can almost hear the winds of a strange new spring blowing hollow across baron lots, lonely for tents to punch around. Lonely for the noise it it all, the shrieking crowds, lions screaming, the band fanfaring brass and boom all the way.   Looking into what’s up at The White Tops magazine, I see too little of what’s up.  Last issue dated last fall.  Spectacle magazine is still down.  Did the CFA go on hiatus? Have circus fans collectively closed down?

A Chilly Landscape

The trouping wounded are making do on other jobs , tutor to rotor rooter.  Roman Boilshchuk, 20 years wowing Cirque du Soliel audiences around the globe, now wowing leaky faucets back into dry compliance.  Plenty are those out of spangles, humbling themselves to such toil.  Another Cirque du Soleil refuge in Sarasota is aerial strap artist Darren Trull, 34, now teaching students at Sailor Circus  Teaching has become the number one default option for the rising pool of the out of work. When everything ends up the classroom, you will know it’s over.  Are you still with me?

The American circus — I am charitably regarding it as still technically alive — may be timidly slow in catching up to potential crowds hungry for live entertainment,  now returning to public events, especially those out in the open. Hint. Hint.  I got my second Morderna shot last Sunday at CVS, and what a feeling!  Even the mild side affects next day (the chill, a new sensation  for me) made me feel like a deserving survivor.  Called my barber to tell him I’ll be in there in two weeks. He was ecstatic. Now if I lived in Sarasota, I might have grabbed a chair with a scissors man who once dazzled me with juggling.  Or had my carpet steam-cleaned by a certified clown. My Dream Sarasota Vacation would feature a wire walker turned bell hop scampering up the stairs to show me my room, wheel of death daredevil at the wheel of my taxi rattling my teeth around corners.  Hold on, sucker!

Sad, isn’t it?  We are now in spring, the time when white tops usually dance high. I don’t see any out there.  Do you?  Maybe fall? How icy cold it feels putting these words down.

He’s got a right to sing the blues, too. Even performing animals may be hurting.  The learned argue they have emotions. Our pushy pachyderm up there may be down to his last resort, into a pub for relief.  Maybe missing the noise he caused when lumbering in circles then sitting up. Missing the routines. Can you blame him? I can almost hear him roaring,  “Hey, when do I get to stand on my head again? Will somebody out there please beat some life back into me!  I'm really okay with this stuff, forget what those idiots are saying. Do any of them have trunks?  I want the circus back!"

So do we, fella.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Ranking the Circus Websites – A Walk Down the Cyber Midway

first posted on November 18, 2007

From Showbiz David Consumer Courts Division

How Appealing Are They? How Easy to Use?

Joining me for this round of reviewing is “Honorable Judge Kathy,”my sister in Omaha, and Doug, a San Francisco-based technical writer, bicyclist, and yogi, who has created some basic websites of his own. Both bring unique and useful outsider points of view. We reviewed 10 sites, rating each on six key elements: 1 — Immediate first impression at the opening page; 2 — visuals (video or photos) of the acts/show; 3 -– general feedback from press reviews and/or customers; 4 — route information; 5 — ease of purchasing tickets on-line; and 6 — last impression: overall appeal of the site and ease of navigating through it.

We each made a reasonable effort to find and rate each of the elements — short of embarking on a History Channel expedition. If anything seems clear, it is that most of these sites could benefit from easier linking to and between key elements. There was absolutely no discussion between us while we were rating the sites; thus, no opportunity for any of us to try influencing the others. Nor were any of our ordinals changed once they became known to all of us. These rankings were determined by adding our respective total scores for each circus. With a possible high of 5 points in each of the six measured categories, the most any circus could earn from a judge was a perfect 30 — or a perfect 90 total from our combined three scores

Also included are selected comments from your three peerless adjudicators.


1 Big Apple Circus (65 points)

Big Apple has accelerated its immediate impact and appeal by a total revamping of its previously slow and passive opening page: Now, we see their tent going up in Lincoln Center. Even then, for all its assets, it is a far from a perfect website and it did not win over all three of your judges.

Kathy: “I am VERY impressed with the ease in which I could navigate around this website. And I loved the way, when the website went up, that it showed, amidst the hustle and bustle of the city life, the big top going up.” Kathy was also charmed by the initial imagery of clowns and ringmaster. “The bios are great, as I love reading about the history of the performers.” Her one qualm: “Not enough photos.”

Doug found the site somewhat confusing. “Performance schedule was nice and clear” but Ticket Master showed certain performances as being sold out that elsewhere appeared available. “I finally found some photos that looked promising, but they weren’t enough, and the way they were hidden wasn’t inspiring.”

2 New Cole Bros. Circus (64 points – the winner of a tie with Circus Vargas by virtue of its being ranked above Vargas by two of the judges.)

Honorable Mention from Judge Kathy

Another circus showing redesign savvy. A video of performance highlights probably gives too much of the show away. (Ringling’s video teaser bears superior editing.) While I was delighted to discover a new opening page, and set to the most captivating music (circus owners should check this one out), Kathy questioned the image on it “For some reason, motorcycle riders just don’t seem to me to be a part of the whole circus picture, but I feel this one deserves an honorable mention.” And Doug noted, “Can’t control which seats you buy. There’s no seat map.”

3 Circus Vargas (64 points)

Honorable Mention from Showbiz David

I continue to admire this site, finding it mainly lacking — like Ringling — in customer or press quotes. It’s overall clarity and simplicity, combined with a compelling color scheme, makes it a theoretical leader in the field.

Kathy “Really liked the colorful front page. Would like to have seen a few more photos and bios.”

Doug discovered a problem that I encountered when I rated this site last April: “Ticket page needs info about seats earlier. I put my seats in the order basket, and only then saw where they were.”

4 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey (61 points)

The generally excellent Ringling site, distinguished by superb video samplers, suffered in our overall ratings for lack of reviews or customer feedback and for some frustrating navigational problems. From Doug, “They have three shows but I couldn’t figure out the difference. Clicked on ‘about the show’ and was taken to a new window about schedule and tickets. Not what I wanted.” Nor was he pleased being referred to the cumbersome Ticket master, which requires the deciphering of a code, “which I always find annoying.”

5 Cirque du Soleil (47 points)

Honorable Mention from Doug “Visually appealing.”

Our marks varied widely. I’ve grown less enchanted, finding the opening page somewhat Halloweenish and creepy, whereas Judge Kathy found it “like sci-fi ... very disappointed.”

Doug’s high score came with acute reservations: “Images alluring, music sets a nice tone. Navigation horrible and confusing — I felt like I was in maze going in circles. High on style, low on function. Too many choices left me feeling confused.”

6 UniverSoul Circus (44 points)

None of us were very engaged by this sprawling and problematic website. I found the newspaper stories and/or reviews virtually impossible to read and therefore off-putting.

Reported Kathy, “I just could not get excited about the front page.” She also found navigating a little slow. “I missed seeing any reference to a big top, and also, I do not feel ‘hip hop’ belongs at the circus.”

Doug was not sold, either, left unimpressed by stories you can’t read and links sending you off in directions you never intended to take. “Clicked High Res photos, and it took me to a page to enter an e-mail address, but the page didn’t say what I was doing this for.”

7 Carson & Barnes (38 points)

While I liked the site’s simple functionality, both Kathy and Doug were left wanting. “Very basic,” said Doug. “Need more pictures on first page of web site, noted Kathy. "Most photos made me feel like I was visiting the zoo.”

8 Kelly-Miller (35 points)

Honorable Mention from Judge Kathy “The pictures and WELCOME on the front page are great!” said she. “I would definitely want to go to this circus if it came to my town.”

Doug: “When I clicked the Video link, I thought it was a mistake that I was watching a video about sponsoring the circus. Then I realized the entire site was about bringing the circus to my town, not about selling tickets to people."

9 Walker Bros (24 points)

Although all three judges registered equals scores of 8 points each, I must say that I was charmed by this cozy little site, mainly because it appears to be new, (I could not find a site for Walker Bros. at the last ranking in spring). At this humble stage, Walker Bros reminds me the little engine that maybe, just maybe could ....

10 Circo Vazquez (21 points)

There simply is far too little here, although Doug found it “sort of a nice site, but it’s extremely slow, which ruins it.”

Individual Bests in the Six Categories:

Best First Impression: Circus Vargas
Best Visual Images: Ringling Bros.
Best Reviews and Quotes: Big Apple
Best Route Information: Big Apple
Best On-Line Ticketing: Circus Vargas, New Cole Bros., and Ringling Bros.Best Last Impression: Circus Vargas and New Cole Bros.


So, what do you think? All comments and alternative points of view are welcome. And, thank you, Honorable Judges Kathy and Doug!