Saturday, May 16, 2020

Rose's Midget Revue, part 1: 1920s-1950s

Rose's Midget Revue was the "Biggest Little Show on Earth," an artistically diverse all-midget variety show that performed at fairs and theaters in the United States and Canada in the 1920s-1950s. Despite widespread critical acclaim over its 30-year existence, the revue is almost forgotten today and is omitted from histories of vaudeville.

Rose's revue was said to be "the most gorgeously staged Midget show in the United States" (Sandusky Star Journal, 1926). "Their name will be a by-word in every home, as they are sure to eclipse and excel all previous records for entertainment and originality," predicted the Southtown Economist in 1922.

In 1937, the Dubois Daily Express hailed the troupe as "the world's most sensational liliputian [sic]" variety act and musical ensemble. It was "acclaimed by critics to be fully on a par with the finest of Broadway productions" (Harrison Daily News, 1937), and was said to be "one of the best known [organizations] of its kind in the business" (Billboard,1947).

The troupe was featured on a number of postcards and was routinely covered in newspapers in the towns where they performed, but they were almost completely forgotten thereafter. Even Joe Laurie Jr.'s excellent 1953 history of vaudeville, Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace, omits any mention of Rose's troupe or the other midget troupes that were active in the US and Europe during the vaudeville era, such as Zeynard's Liliput-Speciality Troupe and Fred Roper and His Wonder Midgets, even though Rose's revue was still actively touring at the time he wrote the book.

The size of Rose's Midget Revue ranged over the years from 9 to 35 members, the tallest of whom was said to be 32 inches tall in some reports and 45 inches in others. Some of the claims about the performers were marketing hype, though, because the shortest person in the show was often said to be 18 inches tall, which is a few inches shorter than the verified world record for shortest adult of all time. 

The troupe originally consisted of European talent but soon expanded to include performers from the United States as well. For extra pizzazz, it was sometimes billed as Rose's Parisian Midget Revue, Rose's Parisian Midget Follies, Rose's Royal Midgets, and Rose's Hollywood Midget Revue.

Captain Ike Rose's Historical Wild West, 1913
The troupe was assembled by Ike Rose, a New Yorker originally named Isaac Rosenstamm. He was a show-business veteran who once worked as an agent for both Harry Houdini and Ruth St. Denis and was married to Australian dancer Saharet until 1913. As Captain Ike Rose, he led Ike Rose's Historical Wild West show, a cowboy-themed troupe that toured Australia in the early 1910s.

When Ike died in 1935, his second wife, Carla Rose (a "normal-sized woman," newspapers sometimes pointed out), took over the troupe and was usually billed as Mrs. Ike Rose or Mrs. I. Rose. The troupe enjoyed some of its greatest successes under her management.

In the mid 1920s, the show was said to be a $25,000 production, which in today's dollars is over a third of a million dollars. When Rose's revue played at the Orpheum in Lima, Ohio, in 1924, it was heralded as "the most expensive and pretentious attraction ever booked" at that theater.
Cedar Rapids Gazette, May 31, 1944

Although all-midget revues might seem exploitative, they provided a lot of talented performers an opportunity in show business that they might not otherwise have had. The marketing and coverage of Rose's revue was generally respectful, highlighting the performers' remarkable abilities in addition to their small size. Ads hailed the performers as "Extraordinary and Amazing: Tiny Perfect People," and reviewers generally praised the performers as "highly educated, talented in an unusual degree and accomplished in art, music, stagecraft and the dance."

But not all the coverage the troupe received was wholly sensitive to little people. In a 1933 article about Rose's troupe, the Thomasville Times Enterprise of Thomasville, Georgia, delivered the following backhanded compliment: "The average Midget Theatrical Troupe are merely freaks, but talent is the dominating factor of this attraction."

Many articles described the habits and emotions of the performers as if they were exotic specimens rather than people. A 1926 article in the Sandusky Star Journal, which referred to the members of the troupe as "abbreviated folks" and "like children," observed that "midgets have romances, likes and dislikes, same as others" and that the breakfast "of the average midget consists of a portion of fruit, a soft boiled egg and a bit of toast and coffee." A 1927 article in the Wisconsin newspaper Appleton Post Crescent asserted that although "romances and marriages among midgets" occur, "there is no record of any children resulting from a midget marriage." The same article claimed that midgets, "unlike dwarves," are "fully developed mentally."

The North Adams Transcript of North Adams, Massachusetts, gave a typical description of the troup in 1937:
...[A]n aggregation of cute and clever midgets of both sexes who will present a most novel entertainment. There are four young men and five comely ladies in the troupe, all pocked-sized editions, who will favor the audience with songs, dances, stunts and novel bits of mimicry. 
1948 Cavalcade ad that lists Rose's Midget Revue
The troupe performed throughout the Northeast, Midwest, and Deep South and occasionally ventured into Canada. It performed annually during the holiday season at Goldblatt's flagship department store at State Street and Van Buren in Chicago, where it would perform 8-10 shows a day in the toy department to crowds of about 300 at each performance.

Billboard, Aug. 6, 1955
The troupe sometimes performed at county fairs, but their most common venue was theaters, where the performance was usually followed by a motion picture.

Some of the group's highest-profile gigs included performances at the California Pacific International Exposition in San Diego in 1935 and 1936. At least one member of the troupe, Vance Swift, performed in the Midget Town exhibit and show at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

The troupe signed with Al Wagner's Cavalcade of Amusements in 1947 and performed with the cavalcade until the early 1950s. In 1953 the revue signed with Wallace Bros. Shows to tour Canada. In 1955, the troupe's contract for the following year must have fallen through, because an ad in Billboard in August of that year noted the revue's availability for the 1956 season "due to disappointment." In November, the troupe was still looking for work for the next year's season, and after that I found no further record of activity, so that might have been the end of Rose's revue.

Billboard, Nov. 26, 1955
Midget troupes fell by the wayside, but some artists continued to exploit their small stature in order to market their entertainment career, such as Little Richard Miller ("born without arms and legs") and Little Lowell (the "Singing Midget") , both of whom recorded gospel music in the 1960s and 1970s.

The acts of Rose's Midget Revue

At various times, the troupe was reported to feature many different kinds of variety acts:
  • Acrobats and "contortion"
  • Comedians
  • Drama
  • The "only known midget swing band in existence" 
  • The "only colored midget in the states"
  • "The smallest living hillbillies"
  • A fan dance quintette
  • Ballets, including fan dance ballets
  • "Smallest Jitterbug in a Zoot Suit"
  • A "Gay Nineties Bowery number"
  • A "Spanish Rhumba Ensemble"
  • The musical revue Better Times (a long-running feature in their performances)
  • A midget military parade AKA parade of the toy soldiers
  • A stage setting patterned after the Ziegfeld Follies ("gorgeous scenes and costumes")
  • A midget Bill Robinson, Mae West, Harriet Hoctor, and Morton Downey 
In addition to the performances, the stage set sometimes included miniature ponies, wagons, carriages, and automobiles. The pullman car in which the troupe traveled, which was outfitted with berths and equipment that were proportional to the performers' sizes, was sometimes offered for display as well.

Rose's performers (an incomplete list)

  • Alice ("our graceful Prima Ballerina")
  • Herman Arndt
  • Lena Bayer
  • Betty and Freddie ("our miniature Ballroom Team")
  • Bismark
  • Dapper Little Curt ("pint-sized magician and comedian")
  • Mary Ellen ("internationally famous as the most perfectly-formed midget in the world")
  • Estralita (sometimes spelled Estrallita or Esterita, a blues singer and "our little Hawaiian songbird")
  • Gladys Farkoes
  • Geraldine Feneck
  • Fifi ("the only midget fan dancer in the world")
  • Clarence Finch
  • Frieda and Joe
  • Miss Friedel
  • Paul Glauer
  • Jacqueline Hall (the "midget Mae West")
  • Hansi Herman (fashion designer and dressmaker for the troupe)
  • Henry Hors
  • Theodore Hors
  • Esther Howard
  • Little Sonja Howard AKA Princess Sonja (Esther Howard's twin sister and a fan dancer sometimes billed as "midget Sally Rands" [sic] and as a "miniature pistol-packin' mama")
  • Joe Kotalick ("the diminutive tenor")
  • Nita Krebs (toe dancer)
  • Johanna Mayr
  • Hermy Mendt ("the little feller who deceives")
  • The Mite Magician
  • Danny Montague ("the world's only colored midget" and "the little dancing demon")
  • Gladys Nightingale
  • Adella Nowak ("our little Kewpie Doll")
  • Florence Nowak
  • Mickey Page
  • Nick Page
  • Eugene "Jean" Palfi ("the 4 1/2 foot Paul Whiteman" and "a triple-tongue cornet virtuoso")
  • Prince Pani
  • Picadilly Johnnies (the "Beau Brummels of song and dance")
  • Alice Pick
  • Gussie Pick
  • Myrtle Pilkerton
  • Walter Pollitt (pianist and "normal-size man")
  • Elly Popezyk
  • Princess Suzanna
  • Mr. and Mrs. Fred Retter (tap dancers)
  • Sovenia Jennie Riddle (married Anthony Vendola in 1954)
  • Carla Rose (owner)
  • Karl Starke
  • Vance Swift ("the only Hawaiian singer and dancer," reputed to be the world's smallest man; from New Albany Indiana; also billed as "smallest draftee in the world")
  • Fisher Thompson, musical director
  • Anthony (or Tony, sometimes spelled Toni) Vendola (the "miniature Gene Krupa")
  • Luz Villa Lobos ("Spanish Dancing Senorita in diminutive form")
  • Casper and Mab Weis
  • Kurt Zeibler (master of ceremonies)
  • Warner Zeibler

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