Iconic Performers Who Left a Mark on the Circus Industry

Acrobats have long been a fixture under the big top. In particular, during the 17th and 18th centuries tightrope dancers became an important form of acrobatic entertainment; using rope as their platform they would walk along it while swinging from it.

As circuses grew in popularity and global reach, their influence expanded globally and prefigured cultural nationalism. American showmen exerted immense efforts overseas that revolutionized global entertainment alongside casino industry (that comes with casino sites reviewed onĀ Yoakim Bridge) while shaping popular entertainment worldwide and leading the way toward cultural nationalism.

Dan Rice

Dan Rice was the first clown to become a household name in America when he started his career in Galena, Illinois, in 1844. At first his performances as a circus clown earned him $15 per week but soon his fame and earnings skyrocketed as soon as he bought wagon and riverboat shows and started earning up to $1,000 per week! Dan’s performances included jokes, aphoristic philosophy, civic observations, songs, as well as engaging an entertaining show experience for audiences.

Rice came from New York but relocated to Pittsburgh at age 13. Working as a strongman, lecturer and even briefly singing blackface before joining Howes and Turner Circus as an acrobat before developing his own unique blend of animals, acrobats and clowns as the Howes and Turner circus did, Rice soon developed his own style that combined animals, acrobats and clowns for years of touring and his own unique blend that showcased them all.

After the Civil War, railroad outfits gradually evolved into larger enterprises that bore little resemblance to the scraggly animal menageries that had been performing since 17th-century theaters and tavern yards. Early railroad circuses consisted of simple operations with only an empty canvas big top for shelter, assembly equipment for assembly purposes, some animals and a handful of performers on display.

Even without sideshows or street parades, these shows quickly became immensely popular, inspiring a resurgence of American circuses. Many of these new shows utilized traditional circus formats with one ring under canvas big top and limited performances each summer.

Carlyon’s book on Dan Rice, entitled ‘Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You Haven’t Heard Of,’ is an absolute pleasure. Arranged chronologically and beginning with the famous pig that seemed to count, waltz, and tell time (analogous to P. T. Barnum’s famous humbug of an African-American woman named Joyce Heth), Carlyon explores Rice’s successes and failures which provide valuable insight into both circus history as well as entertainment development. Additionally, his book provides insight into both worlds!

Lillian Leitzel

At circuses during the first half of the 20th century, aerial performers–not elephants or tigers–were the biggest draws. And no one stood out like Lillian Leitzel, known as Queen of the Air for her diminutive trapeze artist skills and overdeveloped upper body muscles that gave her an “octopus-like” appearance.

Born Leopoldina Alitza Pelikan, Leitzel was one of five children of a Hungarian Army officer and theater performer and Czech circus acrobat couple who immigrated to Germany. While growing up there she studied to be a concert pianist before being drawn into circus world by Leamy Ladies troupe of her mother. Following some time performing vaudeville circuit performances she joined Ringling Brothers Circus which then later merged with Barnum & Bailey circuses as one of their headline acts.

She performed her act on a moveable ring suspended from the ceiling of a circus tent. At times, her stunts would see her soar 50 or 60 feet without any protection below.

One of her most iconic acts was her one-armed plange, wherein she used only her right arm to spin herself around on a ring using only right arm rotation. At one point, crowd members counted 249 consecutive revolutions!

Leitzel was also an extraordinary gymnast, performing her own version of a triple somersault that left audiences spellbound and caught the attention of Alfredo Codona, a young trapeze artist attracted by her daring moves.

Codona made promises that he would marry Leitzel someday, yet that never materialized. Instead, he married another member of his troupe named Vera Bruce and soon started engaging in reckless acts to win back her love.

In 1931, Leitzel’s career came to a sudden and tragic end when an improperly functioning swivel in her rigging failed and caused her to crash through, landing her dead at Breslau Cemetery near Breslau Germany.

Like other circus performers of her era, Leitzel found herself engaged in several contentious marriages. Her initial attempt was in 1920 with Clyde Ingalls who stood six feet tall and was more than a year older than she. Their union wasn’t successful. Subsequently she married Alfredo Codona who boasted similar acrobatic skills to Leitzel.

May Wirth

At a time when female circus riders weren’t encouraged to be brave and daring, Australian circus rider May Wirth defied all norms by living by her own rules. Instead of contentedly sitting astride her circus pony, May was determined to thrill audiences with thrilling stunts that showcased both courage and skill; thus teaching herself feats no other woman could perform — such as performing backwards somersaults between cantering horses.

May was born in Bundaberg Queensland in 1894 to Dezeppo Marie who had left John Zinga, an Australian circus performer known for his theatrical acts, shortly before she was taken in by Mary Wirth who owned Australia’s largest circus. By age 10, May had begun performing circus acts.

In 1912, May was discovered by talent scouts for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus and given a prominent place in their season opening performance in New York on 21 March. She quickly rose through their ranks, becoming their greatest bareback riding queen and famed for performing backwards somersaults through rings from one horse to the next.

After the merger between Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey in 1919, May and her troupe performed two seasons with the Walter L. Main Circus before touring vaudeville throughout Europe and touring country fairs after retiring from big top circus work in 1927.

Marvellous Miss May is an astounding tale of an extraordinary girl from humble origins who defied expectations to rise to the pinnacle of her profession, at an extraordinary rate. Additionally, this book serves as an enjoyable document from that period – providing rich insights into circus as a form of entertainment enjoyed by millions worldwide at that time.

This book includes rare photographs and other ephemera that is part of the National Library of Australia’s collection of Australian performing arts programmes and ephemera (PROMPT), featuring over 100,000 items covering Australian performing arts organisations, professional productions starring Australian artists overseas as well as plays, music videos and films produced within Australia.


Rossa Matilda Richter stunned audiences during Victorian England by becoming one of the first human cannonballs, delighting audiences with her death-defying feats and becoming the world’s first cannonball.

Born in London in 1863, she began performing when she was only 12 years old. After taking ballet, gymnastic, and trapeze lessons as a girl she joined a circus troupe at 12. Due to her daring stunts she quickly earned the name ‘La Petite Lulu.’ In later years however she adopted Zazel and began performing as the human cannonball.

Zazel’s act consisted of being catapulted high into the air using an artificial cannon that actually used rubber springs and gunpowder to catapult her towards a safety net below. Her success as the original human cannonball led many imitators; unfortunately in 1891 tragedy struck: during a show she was fired backwards into a net, breaking her spine and passing away shortly afterward.

Zazel derives its name from Hebrew (z’azel), or Azazel, which refers to a darker spirit. Leviticus 16 mentions him as one of several “demons” who resided within wildernesses where impurity prevailed; in this same text is mentioned the scapegoat ritual in which an animal would be sacrificed in order to pay for people’s sins.

Zazel fits within the Enneagram Type 8 personality profile, which encompasses traits such as dominating and controlling behavior and an intense need for power. While these characteristics might make him unpopular with some, Zazel still manages to form deep connections with those close to him, making him such an unforgettable and fascinating character.