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March 15, 2024

Photos of Aerialist and Strongwoman Luisita Leers From the 1920s and 1930s

Luisita Leers (1909–1997) was a prominent aerialist during the 1920s and 1930s, who predominantly worked under the Barnum and Bailey Circus, performing at high profile venues such as New York’s Roxy Theatre and Paris’s Cirque Medrano.

Luisita was born Martha Luise Krökel in Wiesbaden, in the western state of Hesse in Germany, on October 14, 1909. Her mother, Gertrude, was a member of the Reichenbach circus family. A physically powerful woman, Gertrude acquired fame with an elegant and spectacular acrobatic act, Les Leandros, in which she was the under-stander—an unusual occurrence for a woman. Luisita never knew her biological father, who left Gertrude when Luisita was only two years old. Her mother eventually remarried with Guido Krökel, an aerial contortionist who worked with the Leers-Arvello Troupe; their act, which combined Roman Rings and acrobatic pyramids, was mostly an aerial display of strength.

Guido took care of Luisita’s artistic education without much tenderness, and transformed her into an exceptionally strong female athlete, who was able to hold her own in the Leers-Arvellos’s various exhibitions of strength. Luisita made her professional debut on March 8, 1920 in Cologne (Köln), working with the troupe on the Roman rings. She was eleven years old! Soon, she could perform a one-arm “plange” (or planche) and an “iron cross,” which were then supposed to belong exclusively to a male repertoire, and she even held with one arm her hanging stepfather. Meanwhile, she was building a trapeze act of her own, in which she could display her unusual strength. She began her solo trapeze career in 1926.

Her remarkable work on the trapeze quickly drew attention, and she was featured in some of the world’s most prestigious circuses and variety theaters, from the legendary Wintergarten and Scala in Berlin to the Roxy, New York’s premier movie palace, and a four-year contract with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1928 through 1933. There, she occupied a center-ring position in a program that was particularly rich in stellar aerialists: It included Winnie Colleano on the swinging trapeze, the Codonas and the Siegrist-Silbons on the flying trapeze, and the undisputed star of the show, Lillian Leitzel, on the Roman rings.

Luisita’s act included a neck-hang on the trapeze bar while doing a “side leg scale” (a vertical split holding one leg up), a one-arm planche, and a spectacular series of back rotations around the trapeze bar. The most she did in performance was 139 rotations, but she said she was able to perform up to 180 without feeling any major stress. When she appeared for the first time at Paris’s legendary Cirque Medrano in March 1935, the Paris correspondent of Variety, the top American trade paper, described her thus:
“Luisita Leers stops the show at Medrano this fortnight; [she] is not only a remarkable performer, from a purely acrobatic viewpoint, but has one of those smiles that knocks ‘em over and a body that remains beautiful in spite of its extraordinary muscles. She works high without a net. Muscular control is so perfect that her stuff looks easy, but when she hangs by the back of her neck, apparently just as easily as she did her simpler introductory turns, the audience realizes there was something to it all along.”
Luisita continued working intermittently in the U.S until 1936. She appeared in other circus shows and in vaudeville, and then returned permanently to Germany, just as the Nazis, paving the way for World War II, had seized power. When the war broke out, she found herself trapped in her own country. She was eventually unable to work (or train, for that matter), and to make matters worse, her family house was destroyed during the Allies’ bombing, along with her props and costumes.

When the war ended, Luisita was thirty-six. Out of shape and without equipment or money, she was unable to resume her career. She settled in Braunschweig, in Lower Saxony, where she met her husband, Gerhard Glage (whom she married on August 30, 1952), found employment as a translator, and eventually created her own translating agency. An artist to the end, she also took an interest in sculpture, for which she showed an evident talent. She passed away in 1997, at age eighty-eight.


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