Hollywood Remains to Be Seen

Lillian Leitzel
1892 - 1931

Alfredo Codona
1893 - 1937

Inglewood Park Cemetery

This 17-foot-tall statue of an angel reaching down to embrace a woman is a hauntingly beautiful memorial to two of the most famous -- and most tragic -- circus aerialists, Lillian Leitzel (1892 - 1931) and Alfredo Codona (1893 - 1937).

The diminutive Leitzel -- she was only 4-foot-9, and weighed just 95 pounds -- was one of the early stars of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus in the 1920s. She was promoted on circus posters as "The Queen of the Air" and "The World's Most Marvelous Lady Gymnast." Leitzel was best known for a feat called the one-arm plange, or swing-over, in which she would perform a nearly vertical rotation while hanging from a ring by only one arm.

Leitzel came from a European circus family. Her mother and two aunts were famous throughout Europe with their trapeze act known as the Leamy Ladies; her grandmother, Julia Pelikan, was still swinging from the trapeze at the age of 84; and her uncle, Adolph Pelikan, was a popular circus clown. Although Leitzel received an extensive education in Germany, at schools in Breslau and Berlin -- she was fluent in six languages and was a talented pianist -- she built a trapeze bar in her backyard and spent her free time practicing the tricks she saw her mother and aunts perform. Leitzel eventually joined her mother's act, and she first visited the United States in 1908, appearing with the Barnum & Bailey show in New York City.

The Leamy Ladies returned to the United States again in 1911, but when they went home to Europe at the end of their tour, Leitzel stayed behind, and became a popular performer on the vaudeville circuit.

In 1914, Leitzel joined the Ringling Bros. circus and, by the time the circus merged with Barnum & Bailey five years later to become "The Greatest Show on Earth," Leitzel was the undisputed star. When Leitzel was announced by the ringmaster, all the lights in the three-ring tent would be turned off. She was the only performer in the circus who did her act alone.

The highlight of her act came when Leitzel would grab a padded rope loop attached to a swivel, and would repeatedly throw herself over the loop. While she was swinging high over their heads, the audience would keep count of her rotations. Her record was 249 revolutions, which is an incredible feat, considering that each time Leitzel would complete a swing-over, her shoulder became partially dislocated, then snapped back into place. Once asked why she would put herself through such a difficult and painful routine, Leitzel gave a prophetic response: "I'd rather be a racehorse and last a minute than be a plow horse and last forever."

Outside the circus tent, Leitzel had a reputation as a temperamental prima donna, unpredictable and demanding. She was known to curse or slap circus employees, and she was the first circus performer to travel in her own private Pullman rail car, complete with a baby grand piano.

In 1928, Leitzel married another hot-tempered circus performer, trapeze artist Alfredo Codona of the Flying Codonas, a stylish and graceful performer known for his daring triple somersault. Although Codona wasn't the first aerialist to perform the triple somersault, he was the first to include it as a regular part of his act.

Leitzel and Codona shared similar temperaments, and their tumultuous marriage featured numerous arguments, public shouting matches, breakups and reconciliations.

Alfredo Codona also came from a circus family. His father, Eduardo, owned and operated a small circus in southern Mexico, and several members of the family performed as aerialists. Alfredo joined the act before he was a year old, with his father balancing him on his hand as the opening act.

In 1917, the Flying Codonas joined the Ringling Bros. circus, where Leitzel was already a star. When Eduardo retired, the Flying Codonas became the Three Codonas, with Alfredo, his brother, Lalo, and sister, Victoria. When Victoria quit the act, she was replaced by Vera Bruce.

The Three Codonas appeared in a short film titled "Swing High" (1931), which was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Short Subject. Alfredo Codona also performed most of the aerial stunts for the early "Tarzan" films starring Johnny Weissmuller in the early 1930s.

In addition to their combustible personalities, Leitzel and Alfredo Codona were also both tireless performers. Both craved the spotlight and the attention they received, and they often scheduled performances during their winter breaks from the circus. During one of these outside performances, on Feb. 13, 1931, in Copenhagen, Denmark, one of the brass connections on Lietzel's rope broke, and she fell 45 feet to a concrete floor, suffering a concussion and spinal injuries. Codona, who was performing in Berlin at the time, rushed to Copenhagen, but Leitzel insisted that her injuries weren't serious, and she urged Codona to return to Berlin to finish his engagement.

Two days later, and a few hours after Codona left her side, Leitzel's condition worsened and she died.

Codona was devastated by Leitzel's death. He built the memorial to her, "In everlasting memory of my beloved, Leitzel Codona -- Erected by her devoted husband, Alfredo Codona."

At first glance, it appears that the statue, titled "Reunion," represents an angel embracing Leitzel and taking her to heaven. But if the figure of the woman on the statue is supposed to represent Leitzel, the handsome, wavy-haired angel looks amazingly like Codona, based on the small photograph of him on his grave marker. Perhaps the angel is not really an angel at all, and the statue is merely a representation of Codona's love for Leitzel, with the wings as a symbol of his life as an aerialist.

Just below the woman's feet on the statue are carved two small rings -- the same type of rings Leitzel used in her famous swing-over routine. One of the rings is firmly attached to a rope, but above the other ring, the rope is broken.

After Leitzel's death, Codona married Vera Bruce in September 1932, and started to become increasingly reckless in his act. When he was seriously injured in a fall in 1933, doctors told him that torn ligaments in his shoulder would prevent him from ever performing again, and he was permanently "grounded." Still mourning Leitzel's death, and now faced with the end of his own career, Codona's marriage started to crumble.

Codona was working at a garage in Long Beach, CA, when Bruce filed for divorce in 1937. While the couple was in Bruce's attorney's office, along with Bruce's mother, in July 1937 to discuss divorce proceedings, Codona asked to speak to his wife in private. Bruce's mother refused to leave. After the attorney left the room, Codona locked the door, pulled a pistol from his coat pocket, shot his wife four times as her horrified mother watched, then shot himself once in the head. Codona died instantly, and Bruce died the next day.

After the shooting, Codona's family found a suicide note containing his last request -- to be buried beside Leitzel.

On one side of Codona's grave is a large marker over the grave of his brother, Lalo Codona (1895 - 1951), and on the other side is a small marker over the grave of his sister, Victoria Codona Adolph (1891 - 1983). Behind the angel statue are the graves of Codona's parents, Eduardo (1859 - 1934) and Hortensia (1869 - 1931).

Leitzel was born Leopoldina Alitza Pelikan on Jan. 2, 1892, in Breslau, Germany (some sources say Bohemia). She died on Feb. 15, 1931, in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Codona was born on Oct. 7, 1893 in Sonora, Mexico. He died on July 30, 1937, in Long Beach, CA.

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