Ames Flying Twins
Photo from the Leininger family album, circa 1939
Ames residents Medeia and Zellettia, posing here on their “spider web” trapeze, first entertained Story County residents with a performance at Lake Comar. Within a few years they would be billed as the “Famous Leininger Twins” when they performed under the big top of the 1941 Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Learn more about the early career of the Leininger Twins.
LEININGER TWINS HOME FROM CIRCUS - Ames' only representatives under the big top, the Leininger Twins, are home for the winter after seven months as acrobatic and trapeze performers with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey's circus. The girls, daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Ed Leininger, who drove to Galveston, Tex. this week to meet them as the circus ended its 1941 season, will conduct a training school here until spring when they will join the circus again at Sarasota, Fla.
Poster touts a performance by the Leininger Family
City Journal Magazine, 1941
CIRCUS TWINS - Behind the scenes isn't "backstage" to circus performers -- it is "behind the lot." And Iowa's Leininger twins, Medeia and Zellettia, are thoroughly familiar with the routine and thrills, the hard work and sometimes danger that go on "behind the lot" of a great circus. The Ames girls have been performing in circus acts since they were 3 years old. At present they are touring the country with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.
Until Medeia was recently stricken with appendicitis in New York city, the Iowa twins were aerialists -- those featured performers who make audiences catch their breaths as they work on the "traps" high up in the "big top." Upon doctor's orders, there will be no trapeze work for Medeia for at least six months.
The twins early learned that "the show must go on." When Medeia fell from the trapeze seven years ago you might think she would never perform again. Her face was severely cut -- she still carries the scars -- but she was back on the traps that night, her face swathed in bandages.
The twins will tell you that circus life demands straitlaced conduct. A wide chasm separates circus performers from circus workmen. The two groups do not mix. Performers may give orders to workmen in line of duty, but that is all. They eat separately, and follow as strict a caste system as that found at sea.
Once the Leininger twins ignored this rule. The sister of one of the workmen who was with the Lewis circus was talking to him frantically, trying to give away her two children. The twins interrupted and took the children, a boy, 2 and a girl, 8. The Leiningers are now training them in rudimentary acrobatics at their home in Ames.
Formality is the rule on the circus lot. Male performers are not supposed to speak to feminine entertainers except through the intermediary of the questioner, or performers' boss. If an outsider wishes to gain audience with a performer, he, too, must contact the questioner, and he will be shunted around from person to person until he does.
The precision of a circus performance is due to whistles. Whistles mark when to go on, when to leave, when the next act must go on. An act must not be varied in the slightest degree without asking the questioner beforehand. This might confuse some of the animal actors.
All the performers must participate in the "spec," or grand march, but it is rated a great honor to be asked to take part in the wild west show which generally follows the regular show. Medeia and Zellettia have been so honored. Sometimes unscheduled acts are accepted by the audience as part of the show as, for instance, the day the goat escaped and cavorted all over the grandstands. The clowns were turned loose to chase him down, and the audience whooped and hollered at the funny feature.
Another unscheduled feature resulted when the wire down which a performer did a head slide in a steel helmet from the top of the tent to the ground came into contact with a live wire. As he streaked down on his head (it took just a matter of seconds), great sparks flew out all along the way. Mrs. Leininger, the girls' mother, who was in the grandstand and who immediately recognized the danger, stood up and shrieked. The crowd shrieked, too, in approval. They thought it was a great act. The performer, with presence of mind (and it takes presence of mind to stay in the circus business) did not take hold of his apparatus at the conclusion of his slide and gracefully backflip off. He simply fell off, and sympathetic hands carried him away, limp and green.
The cyclone which lifted the big top clear over the heads of the audience last season and dropped it into a river didn't quite fit into the performance. Not a person was hurt, although Mrs. Leininger (who accompanied the girls at that time) was nearly strangled by the watch cord around her neck, which was caught on and pulled up by one of the tent stakes.
It was a great inconvenience having no big top. People could perch in trees and watch the show. They could just stand up outside and watch the trapeze acts. A secondhand tent top was hurriedly bought which kept out the stares of the unpaid, but which wasn't waterproof. In fact, it had holes in it. After the cyclone, rain kept falling for several days. Zellettia and Medeia, tripping out for a curtain call, stopped short in a puddle hidden by grass and weeds, and took their pretty pose spattered with mud -- minus glamour for the moment, but game.
Circus animals often are named after characters in books. A baby bear was named Winnie the Pooh; a featured elephant called Lady Lou. All performing elephants are females, although circus elephants are indiscriminately called bulls. And performers don't let the elephants forget they're "ladies," for according to the Leiningers, a trained elephant has never killed a woman. It is one of the twins' ambitions to learn to ride the elephants.
Flying through space high above the crowd takes plenty of nerve. Do the Leininger twins know fear? Yes. Zellettia has a haunting fear of automobile accidents. Medeia fears the "cats," as the lions and tigers are known to circus folks. It is the irony of fate that the appendectomy which took Medeia temporarily out of the air and put her into a ground act could have happened to the kindergarten teacher next door, the stenographer down the street.
Traveling again with the circus, Medeia is taking long walks to get back her strength, impatiently counting the days when she and Zellettia again can be billed as the "flying twins."
Inquirer, Picture Parade Section, May 4, 1941
TWINS ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE - You know the instant when the drummer makes his traps whir-r-r then stops suddenly. Silence settles upon all the people in the great oval, upon their upturned faces, even upon the figures in the sawdust ring. The spot picks out the girl on the trapeze. She looks tiny and defenseless away up there. The girl moves like a flash, makes a U of her body, hangs with her head ad feet downward. Maybe you recognize it for the most difficult of aerial feats, a marvel of balance.
The girl is Zellettia if it's the Ringling Brothers-Barnum and Bailey circus. Zellettia Leininger has yellow hair and jade-green eyes. She is lithe as a sapling but strong as steel. While you hold your breath she flies through the air with the greatest of ease. Yet Zellettia is afraid to come down in an elevator.
The other Leininger twin, Medeia, is afraid of something, too. Medeia comes from a circus family, has lived with the circus all her life. She is as familiar with creatures of the jungle as most girls are with their pet dogs. Yet she lives in deadly fear of snakes.
"But nearly all circus people feel that way," says Mrs. Leininger, who travels with her daughters. "If a snake escapes, performers don't like to work. They're sure something terrible is due to happen. A snake is the worst jinx there can be on the lot."
Once a performing serpent escaped. It crawled into the horse tent. The horses stampeded. Panic stirred everybody. At least fifteen persons gathered, every one afraid to attempt a capture. Finally a thin little unassuming woman appeared and matter-of-factly picked up the creature. "It hung its head like a sheepish dog," says Zellettia.
Zellettia and Medeia, both Spanish names, mean "child of love" and "Mary" respectively. Wintertimes, the girls conduct a dancing academy in their home town, Ames, Iowa. But they like summers best. They like rolling over the country on the long circus train, the smell of sawdust, the lights, the tinsel, the shrill whistle before their act.
They even like the daily work-outs which keep their hands, under-knees and ankles heavily calloused. Once Zellettia permitted her hands to go soft. Blisters on her palms were the result. She never felt the searing pain, though, until her act was over. "You must have steady nerves for trapeze work," she says.
That trick Zellettia does when she hangs head and feet downward is one which the audience usually does not understand to be so difficult. The way to do it is to find out whether you weigh more from your waist to your head, or from your waist to your feet. Then you strike a balance across the trapeze bar. To come out of it you merely feint a fall and catch yourself on your feet.
Danger must be met off-stage, too. One day when Zellettia was swinging downward on her trapeze, she saw the trainer in the open-top pen below being mauled by his bears. Eight or nine animals had him down. On the point of killing him, they ignored long poles thrust at them by attendants. Horrified, Zellettia relaxed her hold, fell atop the milling furry mass. Immediately the bears streaked for their pedestals, docile and meek. "They were good bears the rest of the season," Zellettia says.
All the animals display temperament worthy of a prima donna. A chimpanzee which rode a bicycle and ate at a little table while the twins did their act passed them each day "behind the lot." Jealous of the applause they drew, he brooded. Came and evening when he gave a growl, dragged his trainer (to whom he was chained) across the lot, aimed his hairy arm in a blow at the girls. They missed by inches a swing that probably would have broken their skulls.
Like nearly all show people, the Leininger twins are superstitious. Zellettia wears a lucky ring, a green scarab. If a pole comes between her and a person with whom she is walking she murmurs the childhood antidote to misfortune, "bread and butter." She considers thirteen her lucky number. Medeia's lucky numbers are seven and twenty-one.
But with all their leaning toward mysticism, the twins are coldly practical. Under their spangled wisps of costumes they wear two sets of brassieres and panties just in case a snap should break. They make a point of being a few minutes early for the grand march or, as circus people call it, the "spec," so they won't have to pay the five-dollar fine imposed for absence.
And in spite of their good chance charms, lucky numbers, misfortune averting ceremonials, Zellettia and Medeia are careful. "Anyone who isn't careful doesn't stay in the circus business long," they say. Caution, they add, is the principal secret of success for a trapeze artist.
Mrs. Leininger, Medeia, Zellettia, and Medeia's
husband, Jack Banta,