Wednesday, Jul 23, 2014
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Sebring realtor toured world in death-defying circus act


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SEBRING - Today, she can be found safely going over paperwork at her real estate office desk, in her car visiting clients or properties and spending after-work hours cooking, taking walks and traveling to see family.

But for almost 25 years, Nancy Trautman lived life on the edge of daring, dangling on the cusp of disaster and teetering into the spectacle of awe.

From the remote villages of South America, to the lush tropics of New Zealand, around the broad realm of the Alps and riding the airwaves of America, Trautman made a living as half of "The Sensational Leighs," acrobats extraordinaire commandeering "The Giant Space Wheel" - two eight-foot rotating cylinders attached to 25-foot, see-sawing steel beams mounted on a 50-foot vertical support column.

From 1961 until her retirement from performing in 1985, Nancy and her then-husband, Leigh Heisinger, traveled the world as "The Sensational Leights," entertaining celebrities and sharing the stage with some of the biggest names in the international thrills business.

A native of Jacksonville, Trautman, 72, wasn't born into show business: her mother was with the police department and her father was in the printing department of Florida State University. However, she met Leigh while attending FSU and married him in 1961,

In the late 1950s, while in Tallahassee, Leigh had met Clay Beckett, a Washington, D.C., policeman, inventor of the Space Wheel and its first showman. Beckett trained Leigh how to perform on his Space Wheel.

After Beckett retired in 1961, Leigh bought the wheel from Beckett, graduated from FSU and after marrying Nancy the same year, assembled it in their Tallahassee home's yard and renamed it "The Loop Swing of Death," later renaming it "The Giant Space Wheel." The next year, after training her, Leigh added Nancy to the act on a smaller double-rim wheel added to the other end, and it was now called "The Sensational Leighs."

"We went about learning how to use it together very carefully," said Nancy. "My (former) husband would control it, put a rope on it so it wouldn't get away until I got comfortable on it. People later would say 'you make it look so easy.' But it took years to perfect. You don't just go up; you have to learn to sell it as scary."

As she sat in her Tanglewood home, Nancy said it took her about six months to learn how to balance and perform on the breathtaking apparatus, but years to perfect. After initially performing at smaller hometown venues around her hometown of Havana, Fla., their agents got in touch with Ringling Bros. Circus and The Sensational Leighs, and in early 1962, went on a six-month tour of South America, including indoor coliseums in Brazil and Argentina

Atop the Space Wheel, decked out in space-themed costumes, Leigh and Nancy enthralled thousands on the contraption with no motors, no hidden support wires and movements coming through The Sensational Leighs' strength, daring fortitude and dexterity.

At a 1967 performance in Charlotte, N.C., Nancy said she was hit by the revolving apparatus while she was running in front of it, resulting in a concussion and a one-week hospital stay.

"We had no safety nets, never. There was no way. It was a big, moving beam, how are you going to get a net there?" she said. "The biggest safety net was our brains. We had a lot of respect for what we were doing."

In late 1962, The Sensational Leighs performed in New Zealand and in the late 1960s and throughout he 1970s, did shows around Europe including Germany, Italy, Spain, England, France. Their act is the only thrill act to appear on three occasions - 1962, 1976 and 1980 - at the world-famous Deutschlandhalle Circus in West Berlin, Germany.

Besides live audiences, Leigh and Nancy appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show," "The Mike Douglas Show" and "Thrillseekers." The shows often highlighted The Sensational Leighs' run inside the wheel, where the couple would seem to defy gravity and hover above the surface.

On the Mike Douglas Show in the 1970s, Burt Reynolds was the co-host and he even re-created his famous Cosmopolitan cover pose for the audience, lying down inside the wheel.

"Being on TV was easy. It wasn't nerve-wracking. Once you've been in front of really large audiences, it became easy," said Nancy.

Nancy over the years performed on the same bill and met celebrities such as Bobby Vinton, Wayne Newton and a Middle Eastern princess - who while watching the act in Switzerland, gave the acrobats a gold piece - and Karl Wallenda of The Flying Wallendas. She said she and her husband regularly toured with the Wallendas and performed at the same circuses.

Rick Wallenda, 58, Karl Wallenda's grandson who still performs with the act on the high-wire, said he remembered working with the Leighs in the late 1960s and 1970s and acts would become "a big family" on the road. Speaking from Sarasota, he said the husband-wife thrill team was unusual and were truly innovators in thrill entertainment.

"Everybody now has copied them. It (the wheel) was the only one of its kind at first," he said. "I had never seen a woman going up on the wheel; they were kind of pioneering in that respect and having both perform at once on each end was new," he said.

During the act's run, Nancy said one of the highlights was performing in front of 80,000 people in an indoor arena in Montreal, Canada, in the mid-1970s. They received a standing ovation.

"I'll always remember that. And it was always more thrilling to get the ovations for our act in Europe; they would all clap in unison and very loudly," she reflected and said.

After Nancy retired, The Sensational Leighs continued as a father-daughter act, with daughter Robin Lewand taking to the wheel until 2000 when the The Giant Space Wheel was finally dismantled for good and is now forlornly stored supine at her father's house since their last show in North Carolina. She said life on the road with Leigh and Nancy was always exciting and a constant eye-opener; she said it didn't distract from her mother's ability to be a mom.

"I would travel the world with them and perform. It's the best 'high' you could possibly have," she said from her home near Tallahassee. "She did all the shows, but still cooked, sewed and spent time with us. My dream was to always be like my mom; I think I am."

Over the years, after the patent ran out on the Space Wheel, others were made and a new group of aerial artists began taking to the contraption.

As for her life in the air, along the road and on the edge, Nancy said it's a past she remembers proudly and enjoys reflecting on the showbiz career, stopping to share her adventures with whomever is interested.

"I'm lucky, we saw more things worldwide than most people and got paid to do it. I've never regretted being in the business for the 28 years I was in," she said.

pcatala@highlandstoday.com

(863) 386-5855

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