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Performer started walk on circus wire in North Dakota

One of the most fearless circus performers was born and raised in North Dakota. Vernon Liedtke was billed as the "Sensational Orton," and his aerial death-defying acts caused those in the audience to gasp. Most of his later acclaim was for his "s...

Vernon Liedtke

One of the most fearless circus performers was born and raised in North Dakota.

Vernon Liedtke was billed as the "Sensational Orton," and his aerial death-defying acts caused those in the audience to gasp.

Most of his later acclaim was for his "sway pole" act. According to circus lingo, this is defined as "an act in which the performer perches atop an extremely tall pole, then sways and rocks the pole giddily from side to side, and is very dangerous to perform."

While atop this swaying pole, 100 feet in the air, Liedtke would perform handstands and other acrobatic feats. Besides performing at local fairs, Liedtke performed at the 1940 San Francisco World's Fair, on national television, and before much of European royalty.

Liedtke was born June 28, 1912, to Adolf and Grantie Ellen Randall Liedtke on his father's homestead one mile north of Robinson in Kidder County. As a child, Liedtke loved to climb and showed no fear of heights.

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In the early 1920s, Adolf took his family to see the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus when it came to Jamestown. From that time on, Vernon knew he wanted to join the circus. He studied circus posters and practiced the tricks he saw displayed on the posters.

In 1927, the Orton Brothers Circus came to Robinson. Liedtke talked with the owners, Miles and Bayard Orton, about joining. Because they needed the help of a strong farm kid in setting up the equipment, they agreed to let Liedtke join, but only if he had his parents' permission.

They agreed on the condition that he return home every fall to continue his education until graduation.

The Orton Brothers were third-generation circus owners.

The circus performed throughout the Midwest states. It had a menagerie of animals and 50 people who participated in the acts. Of the performers, 27 were Ortons, and most of the rest were in-laws. All the animals, equipment and people traveled by railroad.

Liedtke started doing manual work for the circus, such as setting up and tearing down.

Soon he performed as a clown and played in the band. He returned every fall to Robinson until he graduated from high school in 1930.

He received a scholarship to enroll at the North Dakota Agricultural College - now North Dakota State University - and attended for a short time, but his love of the circus was too strong. He dropped out to join the Orton Brothers full time.

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The grandfather of the Orton Circus owners established a town 25 miles west of Des Moines, Iowa, called Ortonville. It was where the circus people spent the winters, and it was where Liedtke rejoined his circus family.

Miles and Bayard Orton had a younger sister, Grace, who was primarily in charge of wardrobe. She was trained on the trapeze and often filled in when one of the regular performers was injured or too ill to work. She taught Liedtke trapeze and soon the two got married.

The Great Depression made it difficult for most people to afford circus tickets, and in 1932 the Orton Brothers Circus closed. Times were tough for Vernon and Grace, but, between infrequent odd jobs, he continued to work on the trapeze. In 1934, he made his first public appearance on the trapeze at the Shrine Circus in Fargo. There were a lot of trapeze artists, so Liedtke started looking for an act that was more unique.

His new act was the sway pole. Grace had experience with the sway pole and was the first female to do a one-hand stand atop a 100-foot-high pole. Billing himself as the "Sensational Orton," Vernon and his wife began to get gigs at state fairs and other exhibitions. Their big break came in 1940 when they performed at the World's Fair in San Francisco.

Vernon and Grace divorced in 1946. He married another performer, Doris Blackburn, in 1948. In 1950, Vernon and Doris joined the Bertram Mills Circus in England. They performed before Queen Elizabeth and other European royalty, and their act was so successful they were asked back three more times over the next six years.

The Liedtkes were asked to rejoin the circus in England in 1958, but on Dec. 1, 1957, while working on new acts in his backyard in Dallas, one of the guy wires supporting the sway pole broke, and Liedtke fell to his death. After his funeral in Dallas, he was buried at "Showmen's Rest," a part of the Woodlawn Cemetery in Chicago.

I want to thank author Douglas A. Wick, whose father went to school with Vernon Liedtke, for recommending that I write this article.

"Did You Know That" is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net

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