The Little Circus That Could ... Highest Rated of Them All on Yelp

The Little Circus That Could ... Highest Rated of Them All on Yelp
Currently Reigning Champion at 4-1/2 Stars, Zoppe Family Circus Wins the Crowds with Heart-Warming Tradition

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Blundering “Biography” of Leitzel & Codona, a Book You Can't Put Dowm -- Or Trust. Park Your Memory at the Marquee ...

This revised review is drawn from additional research following the posting of my earlier review of the book. More about this at the end.

Book Review, Revised
Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus
Dean Jansen, Crown Publishers

Here is a book for the ages, or so I originally thought and wrote.  The subjects tackled by author Dean Jensen — Leitzel and Codona, and Ringling in all its glory — are of course immensely compelling.

In her fiery heyday thrilling spectators with 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.” And that included Hollywood. Men of note, Henry Ford among them, are said in these precarious pages to have lined up to play suitor to the charismatic performer.  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.  A mythical image now made even more mythical (and at times heartlessly cruel) by an expedient author of dubious ethics. Make no mistake:  There is plenty here to enthrall and entertain readers with little interest in big top history.  Plenty here that may be genuinely rich and even revelatory. But for my money,  too much of it bears the mark of either incredibly careless research or slyly calculated distortion to inflate story-telling dynamics. Shame on Crown Publishers for daring to describe this a biography.          

Conceived in rape,  Leitzel grew up to be her own best agent, and once installed on the Ringling caravan — granted an entire car on the train, a private tent on the lot, and a maid, Mabel Cummings — she reigned 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.  

She doted on giving circus children morning lessons in her tent.  And under the big top later in the day, her spectacular entrance pitted the diminutive dynamo — all of 4' 9", against the lumbering 6' 4" Willie Mosher, uninformed like a hotel doorman, who escorted her into the ring. (Believe it or not, there is no mention of Mosher in the book that I recall, nor does his name appear in the index.)  Lillian threw 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, in Jensen’s own beguiling two-word description,  a “white blur.” I have never come across a white a blur in the scarce film footage of her act that I have seen.


How good was the act, really?  If I have a problem with Leitzel’s art and this sensationalizing treatment of her life, it is this: Of the footage I have seen from the  late 1920s,  I want — oh how I want — to feel a thrill I can’t quite feel. In photos out there, her leg extensions can be awkward, the transitions from one trick to the next, labored. Of the rollover plange, equestrian director Fred Bradna wrote in his book,The Big Top, “It was not a beautiful sight; it was not supposed to be.  It was a test of stamina.”  But there is something maybe more at work. By shunning  – or failing -- the polish of ballet that others such as Con Colleano incorporated, Leitzel may have intensified the passionate exuberance she projected, a rough tumbling spirit as lively as the three ring circus on the move.


Trapeze god Alfredo Codona 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.  Roll the drums!  Silence all vendors!  Leitzel wins the prize for Greatest Act of Cruelty on Wedding Day.  That is, if you wish to buy Jensen’s blundering tale of how Leitzel kept Alfredo and guests waiting for over three hours at the alter. Yes, three hours.  In fact, calm down, kids — they were married on time between shows in Chicago.   It was at a wedding reception following the night show that Leitzel lost herself for a couple of hours, driving Codona into a panic.             


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, Alfredo, right, defaulted to his flying partner Vera Bruce,center, begging her over and over again to marry him. Really?  According to Jensen’s end notes, he drew this stormy account from a story, “The Mad Love of Alfredo Codona,” allegedly penned by Annie Bruce for True Story Magazine in 1938,  a tabloid-leaning periodical known for taking rewrite liberties with submissions, and also publishing the work of fiction writers   Why did Jensen not defer to more credible accounts at hand, one by Fred Bradna in The Big Top;  the other by author Robert Lewis Taylor in Center Ring?  In fact, Bruce had been trying all along to steal Codona away from Leitzel.  


Beyond Leitzel & Codona, the circus of Ringling, as narrated by the masterfully fact-altering Jensen, rides high and wide on revelations so startling as to leave me dumbfounded.  How did it take so long for some of these things to surface?  As long, maybe,  as it took Jensen to concoct them.  He mentions dozens of taped interviews, and I hope these will end up in a legit space.  They could turn out to be a gold mine.


For example, there is the sighting of married man Charles Ringling --- seen here with Leitzel and his son, Robert ---  spotted in a darkened movie house with his head resting on the shoulder of showgirl Anna Stais, his arm around her. The spotting of it was done in only a few nervous seconds by flyer Butch Brann, having just slipped into seats with “Dolores.”  In his own words, as quoted: “Then I saw who was in the row just ahead of us.  It was Charlie and Anna Stais ... Dolores and I hightailed it out of that row.” To the balcony they fled.  I have a question for those into movie house intrigue:  How could Butch have known for sure from the back of a figure sitting directly in front of him in a darkened theatre that it was his own boss. – one of the brothers who banned “accidental meetings” between the sexes on the show?  


Away from gossip and dirt in the shadows, how about something as important as who first threw the first triple?  Ernest Clarke was not the first flyer to nail it.  That honor goes to Russian-born  Lena Jordan, and if you don’t believe me, check out Wikipedia.   Still  don’t?  Okay, how about Guinness Book of World Records?  In fact, the record was impressively explored and certified on the Circus Historical Society history message board, July 1, 1965.

What makes these blunders more inexplicable is that Jensen drew from the likes of Fred Dahlinger (“how many times did I call on him while producing this book?”), Greg Parkinson, Fred Pfening III.  I have to wonder if any of these three were asked to read the manuscript or proofs.  


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 examined. 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 enjoy the most in film footage is the spectacle of her crossing the lot, with her maid trailing her, on her way to the big tent where the crowds are waiting to be thrilled.  I love the warm waving looks Lillian Leitzel gives to bystanders on the way. Her true love.

To me, Queen of the Air feels like contaminated goods, and I no longer have the faith in it to buy my own copy.  How would I know what to believe? Perhaps the experts of what qualifies as “biography” will find me off base. So be it.  I am not of the school that dismisses objectivity as out of date.   Some standards of conduct should forever be worth fighting for.  

TWO STARS, kindly awarded.

For more about the book, I discuss Queen for the Air with Timothy Tegge in an earlier post on the subject.  In fact, had Tim not answered my second e-mail asking for his input, this revised review would likely never have been.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Thanks For the Thrill, Phil!


 Best of all, he is my favorite golfer of all.

What an amazing weekend on the green!  I had not known that Phil stood to become the oldest player ever to win a major. And that electrified this affair from average to epic.  History might be in the making.  By Sunday, Phil was not lost somewhere in the end of the pack, as so often he is, but still in the lead. 

I was riveted this afternoon to every move Phil made, but had to think he was going to blunder his way out of  the running. This outing was  as compelling as when Tiger made his spectacular comeback at the Masters.

Is Phil Mickelson not now the greatest golfer who ever lived?

Saturday, May 22, 2021


Is it real, or a clever figment of an overly ambitious choreographer?

Down the Covington Chute comes a link to Giulio-Scatola, announcing in effect the return of Ringling.

This he POSTED May 20:

I am very excited to announce that I have joined the iconic Feld Entertainment Inc. as Director - Casting & Performance for the new Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey - The Greatest Show on Earth. Lookout for future Casting Calls and news about this spectacular journey ahead. 

If this is so, I'm going to stalk the Feld website for more information.  So far, nothing I can find. It is by far theoretically the best news since Ringling suddenly shut both units down back in 2017.

Also, I've added a link to SOS Circus Facebook.  You'll find it to the right, bottom of the list.  Covers circus action around the world. 

More up ahead ... As for me, I hear a circus train coming! ...

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Believe in Baraboo: Summer Season Promises Perky Circus Show ... Town's Charms, A Haven From Woke Insanity ... What More Could You Ask For? ...

 LONG LIVE the spirit of the Ringling brothers in this utterly enchanting burg. How I wish Lyft could whisk me there in an hour or so. Just thinking about Ringlingville puts me back in a comfort zone far removed from the social garbage and coddled lunatics across the bay. Barnum could not compete with what now passes for cutting-edge life in San FranFreako. That word woke. I HATE it.

CIRCUS WORLD is making a big little splash-back come June.  I’ve pre-screened one of the acts, and can promise you a slice of gold. 

  Was there ever a more beautiful circus wagon?

PIPES RINGMASTER-IN-CHIEF Scott O’Donnell, who is becoming an enduring staple of stability, expect two daily shows under the big top, at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.  And expect sideshow features, such as the Be a Clown performance, a guided wagon tour, and the Antique Musical Instrument Show.

OF COURSES, you’ll have possibly the largest collection in the world of red wagons, photographs and old souvenirs to get blissfully lost in.  Never has the past felt so much better than the present.  BTW: My mask is off!

Hurricane Hungarian Jugglers, Viki and Richie Zsilak 

ABOUT THE RING show O’Donnell & Co. are cooking up,  I can tell you this. I watched something new to my eyes: T.J Howell’s multi-bike acts (from zig-zag uni-wheel down to quarter-inch scale, a riot) and was shortly-in captivated by the guy’s zippy showmanship, his amusing dexterity and the way he BUILDS the act.  It’s all there.

TOP OF MY WISH list, Scott: Please be the one to RESURRECT the old Foley & Burke Thimble Theatre fun house, which was sent your way decades ago, and for all I know, may still be withering if not shamefully rotting away in the back area under a flimsy roof.  Is it there? Are you going to EVER give it its due? How many friggen wagon wheels must you re-spin before you honor a magnificent carnival attraction that those before you legally accepted?  I hereby offer to make you out a check for one-thousand dollars when I step up to buy a ticket to the Thimble Theater at Circus World.  One thousand dollars.  

Will somebody please rush this post to Scott. ...  Hello? ...  Hello? ... Anybody there? ... I thought I heard .... hello?

Sorry about that. I had better put my mask back on. 

 Now in the works: My re-review of the book Queen of the Air

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Brief Family Brush with Royalty: When My Father Hosted Norway Durng the Rise of Hitler's Bloody Bombings

Last night, while watching Crossing the Atlantic on Masterpiece, the memory of an old family photo came provisionally alive in my mind.  Was that the time when my father hosted two royal figures from the Old World?

Crossing the Atlantic depicts the relationship between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and  the Crown Princess Martha of, Norway, on her second  trip to America, hoping to win FDR's military support for the war.  In the third episode, (I missed the first two), mention is made of a previous trip the Crown Princess made the year before, and with the Crown Prince.  Hold on! Could that be related to the old photo I have?

Yes!  There they are, in the western edge of Golden Gate Park in which I was raised.  How I wish I had asked my mother if she could recount the visit for me. I had not yet entered the scene.  My dad, I assume, must have shown them around the park, surely the windmill, not likely into our house that stood above it on a small crest. 

Why the royal visit?  Maybe something about the flowers.  Or the windmill.  Or Norway's close connection to Sweden, the country from which my grandfather had immigrated as a young man. Or my father being a member of the Coast Guard, with a station at the edge of the park.

I love this photograph, for in my father's eyes, gazing directly at us (he is seen here, left in the trio),  I see a soft and fulfilling sense of what --- pride, accomplishment, recognition? Surely a highlight in his short life -- I was only six-years-old when he passed away.  He was employed by the city of San Francisco as grounds keeper for the west end of Golden Gate Park, which included his tending its famed Dutch ("North") Windmill.  Across the street, he also worked as an electrician for Playland-at-the-Beach, and by night during the war years, guided passengers onto and off the thrill trains of the Big Dipper roller coaster, which was managed by my uncle William Schmitt.

Now, I've got to get my hands on the first two episodes of Crossing the Atlantic, to see if the Crown Prince and Queen's first visit is dramatized. And how far it may come to covering Golden Park and my dad.  On the back of the photo I have, there is this inscription in the most elegant hand: "Compliments of  Gron  [?] Foundation. To Mr. E Hammarstrom. May 1939.  Visit of Crown Prince Olav and Crown Princess Martha of Norway."

My dad was talked about in the family for how he scared my mother to the death when he took one his full circle rides  on a wing of the North Windmill.

I assume that is him here.



View of the Big Dipper roller coaster and the North Windmill, directly across the street