April is a crazy month for classic comedy anniversaries, including the birthdays of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd and (this year) the centennial of the first comedy short directed by Buster Keaton (though not the first one he released). And numerous others, as well. Join me Monday, April 19 (7pm) for my zoom crash course on classic comedy, where we’ll be talking about these guys and many others, and what makes them unique, how they influenced each other, and everyone who came since! The talk will be available only to members of my Patreon family — go here to join so you can take part in all the Travalanche zoom talks, and other exclusive benefits, like my upcoming Podcast about Old Time Medicine Shows, coming up in early May. Come find out why the poet tell us “April is the Foolish Month”!
Nowadays it is with frequency that we encounter much in the way about “multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion.” Yet, paradoxically perhaps, it is in the realm of the theatrical firmament that what is offered for exhibition before our collective eyes is circumscribed, in scope delimited.
In yesteryear – but, in fact, actually not too long ago – theatergoers avid for both excellence and novelty had an array of choices for their entertainment pleasure that we today, simply do not have, alas.
For those studying the actual timeline of vaudeville, variety, and ancillary cultural attractions presented in various public venues, we may comprehend, from our distance, the nostalgic, pining away for now once regnant theatrical forms once upon a time loved by the masses, fairground exhibitions of ‘human oddities’, and other novelty acts and performers, all of which audiences and spectators valued immeasurably and with enduring sincere thankfulness: this period in our cultural life was a beholder’s paradise, and now superannuated by sensibilities our forebears might not find to be, in fact, of a truly progressive arc.
Comes now, a further, evocative and contextual addition to our imaginative resources by which to re- examine this cultural time of the past, and theatrical glory, of a unique sub-set of talented people: the new book, Roses Royal Midgets and Other Little People of Vaudeville, published by Vaudevisuals Press with essays by Trav S.D.
In the books’, well-written pages, we encounter theatrical heroes and heroines, small in stature by the measuring-stick of biological normies yet obvious cultural giants, whose very existence and talents were recognized as true testament of the transcendency of our in-common human condition.
If P.T. Barnum’s featured attraction, the diminutive General Tom Thumb ever needed similar dimensioned phalanxes to lead, then these small Vaudevillian troops of midgets might well have become his troops and legatees.
The new book allows readers to luxuriate in fascinating mini-histories and profiles of the little people and of producers who showcased their marvelous ways and artistry of all sorts. For the pages are replete with extracts from published souvenir programs, lavish poster lithographic studies, photo ethnographic documentation of this Lilliputian subculture; Bravo to all: Trav S.D. essays, Jim Moore, publisher, and James Taylor Foreword author and freak-lorist.
On stage in their specialty-numbers, and their dancing, song, skits, comedy routines, instrumental playing and acrobatics, etc., they regaled spectators with phenomental virtuosity, similar to that in normal Vaudeville time in variety circuits across the land.
It’s illumitive to behold this unique slice of humanity and, as well, since these people are, in photos adorable, one wishes one could pluck them from out of the pages, and cradle them in the crook of one’s elbows!
As the French author La Fountain, compiler of fables, wrote, centuries past, when you throw the goose out the front door of the house, it waddles back in from the back of your house; so filmmaker Spike Lee in ‘Bamboozle’ felt that Minstreals had come back this time repurposed as gangsta-rap.
Apropos of this, perhaps other past theatrical forms – including those we are reminded of in this book under review here – may. too, be resurrected, but, unlike Mr. Lee’s example, with more salubrious, and of transcendent purpose.
Just as a character on TV, Archie Bunker, said “Those were the days,” and, most probably, those were quite better days culturally, and the currently vogueish shibeleths of the “cultural studies” mavens cannot gainsay the actual cultural excellence displayed by our brassy show-biz inheritance including midgets and all; minstrels and all; freaks and all…
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On Monday night I watched the wonderful Bindlestiff Open Stage Quarantine edition and was pleased to see the “Ask Hovey” segment (featuring circus historian/teacher/performer Hovey Burgess) where he talked about ‘Midgets’ and mentioned the Vaudevisuals Press book “Rose’s Royal Midgets and Other Little People of Vaudeville“. Here is the video excerpt from the show.
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In the first half of the twentieth century, performing troupes of Little People ⏤ then popularly known as Midgets ⏤ were undeniably, in Europe or in the United States, the main drawing cards of any variety or circus production that featured them. After their appearance in M-G-M’s “The Wizard of Oz,” the Munchkins’ everlasting fame has been a testimony to their timeless appeal. “Midgets” were not to be confused with Little People victim of achondroplasia: unlike the latter, they were perfectly proportioned, looking like amazingly gifted children who had just fled Neverland. Endearing to their audiences, they were also genuinely talented performers, and if only for that reason, their place in show business history is indeed worthy of attention.
“Rose’s Royal Midgets and Other Little People of Vaudeville,” published by Vaudevisuals Press, justly gives them the long-overdue attention they deserve as performing artists: the very short bibliography appearing at the end of the book sadly shows how little has been written about them, unless they appeared under the generic denomination of “freaks” in a few books related to carnival and circus sideshows — an even more derogatory term than “Midgets,” especially for the true performers they often were.
Trav S.D., American vaudeville’s foremost historian and keeper of the flame (whose book “No Applause, Just Throw the Money” is a must for anyone curious about vaudeville), tells us in a well-researched essay the history of Ike Rose and his Royal Midgets company, which forms the backbone of the book and benefits from precious documents in the personal collection of Karen McCarty — whose grandmother, Gladys Farkas, was a member of Rose’s company. Besides rare photographs, reproductions of contracts, advertising booklets, and programs give us a wonderful insight into the life of the troupes of that era.
In another well-illustrated essay, Trav introduces us to other famous Little People, from P.T. Barnum’s Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) to the Doll Family (born Schneider) and many lesser-known individuals and troupes, with biographical notices that finally take them out of the shadows. The book opens with an essay by James Taylor (author of “Shocked and Amazed! On & Off the Midway”) on performing Little People’s reaction to the much too frequent use of the derogatory terminology that usually describes them, whether or not in a professional context. It ends with a gallery of Charles Eisenmann’s photographic portraits of Little People (from the Syracuse University Library’s Ronald G. Becker Collection) dating back to the 1880s.
Edited and published by Jim Moore, photographer to the circus stars, “Rose’s Royal Midgets and Other Little People of Vaudeville” is a wonderful tribute to bona-fide artists who, notwithstanding the special appeal of their physical peculiarity, were by and large talented actors, singers, dancers, comedians, and circus performers who certainly deserved more than a quick footnote in the history of show business.
Dominique Jando ~ Circopedia
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Rose’s Royal Midgets and Other Little People of Vaudeville ~ A new book from Vaudevisuals Press ~
Available now at: http://vaudevisualspress.shop
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A Marxian multimedia adventure through New York City, in the company of its funniest sons and writer and performer Noah Diamond (I’ll Say She Is, Marxfest, The Marx Brothers Council Podcast). With special guests, a lot of laughs, a few tears, and a few surprises. Presented by Freedonia Marxonia.
What great fun I had watching this wonderful story assembled with so much care by the amazingly talented Noah Diamond!
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Sammy’s Bowery Follies
In 1934, Sammy Fuchs opened a saloon at 267 Bowery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Surrounded by flophouses and missions, Sammy’s Bowery Follies catered mainly to the homeless, the penniless, and the generally down and out.
That changed somewhat in the early ‘40s after a surprising customer passed through: a monocle-wearing gentleman who turned out to be a British lord tired of the fussy formality of the uptown clubs.
Sensing a new market, Sammy acquired a cabaret license, built a stage, hired some aging vaudevillians, and began advertising his bar as the “Stork Club of the Bowery,” a nod to the famed nightclub uptown.
The plan worked. Fancy folks, tourists and celebrities began seeking out Sammy’s, looking for a chance to loosen their ties and slum it a little bit in the Gay Nineties-themed dive. It was not uncommon to find a socialite in an opera gown wedged between a sailor on shore leave and a passed-out drunk.
Sammy recognized the importance of atmosphere, and served free food and drinks to some of his more colorful regulars (characters with names such as Prune Juice Jenny, Box Car Gussie and Tugboat Ethel, the “Queen of the Bowery”) to preserve the ambience.
The notable photographer Weegee made Sammy’s one of his regular shooting grounds and even held his book launch parties there.
By the end of World War II, Sammy’s was serving some 100,000 customers a year, as literal busloads of tourists were dropped off outside, eager to drink and sing along with hobos, dwarves and assorted misfits.
Sammy Fuchs died in 1969. A year later, the bar finally closed. The closing ceremony was attended by over 700 loyal patrons.
While I was there absorbing the atmosphere and drinks, a midget walked in… he was about three and a half feet. I invited him for a drink. He told me that he just arrived from Los Angeles, where he had been working for a Browns & Williams Tobacco Co’, walking the streets dressed as a penguin.
Karen McCarty and I have known each other for quite sometime. When I heard that her grandmother was a ‘midget’ performer with Rose’s Royal Midgets I couldn’t believe my ears. I am publishing a book on this unique performing company and with this interview I had first hand information about a company that has been gone for years. A company of 25 midgets that performed World-wide for many years.
Trained as a young girl in dance and singing she was quite an asset to the company once she was employed by Ike Rose.
“Healthy Humor is a Not for Profit Performing Arts Organization whose performers create joy, wonder, and laughter for hospitalized children nationwide.”
For more information on Rose’s Royal Midgets!
Coming in November – Check out this site to preorder the book!
During my 4 days documenting the Southern Sideshow Hootenanny in New Orleans in early March, I sat down with juggler Thom Wall (who performed at the Festival in the All-Star and Living Legends Show) and he talked about his niche publishing company Modern Vaudeville Press.
All the titles can be purchased at the website Modern Vaudeville Press
Juggling from Antiquity to the Middle Ages by Thom Wall
How to Become a Juggler by Rupert Ingalese
Body Talk – Basic Mime by Mano Diamond
More titles are in the works.
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