American circus history: Rose’s Royal Midgets
Note: We at Lois Lane are aware that the proper term for people of unusually small stature is ‘little people.’ In our own questions we use ‘little people’ and the word ‘midget’ in the title comes from a performing troupe named before the word was considered offensive.
The name Rose’s Royal Midgets held an important place at theatres, circuses, and fairgrounds across three continents a century ago, even if each component of the troupe’s name crumbles into dust by light of day (“Rose” was a pseudonym”, the company held no Royal patent, and the word “midget” has passed out of use in polite society). This large touring production of Little People was the creation of one of show biz history’s great impresarios, Ike Rose, now forgotten but once in a league with names like Barnum and Ziegfeld as men who delivered full value for the price of a ticket. Peruse these pages for a glimpse into a vanished world, one as cynical as it was magical, but one that was also always fascinating.
From the text by Trav S.D.
“This definitive history of Rose’s Royal Midgets expands to document the “other little people of Vaudeville”, from 1890 when Ike Rose started living the legendary life of a top Vaudeville and Burlesque producer to 1957 when Performer Billy Barty founded his advocacy group Little People Of America.”
“Without pandering nor passing judgment this book documents in detail the performers, producers, the stage routines themselves and the various venues from those straight up and upscale to others shameful and shady. This book probes both the Dark and the Dazzling sides of the American Imagination. Only rare books like this seriously confront our more bizarre past and allow the new generations of show folk to revise to reinvent to reform American Theater.”
From Dick Zigun, Founder/Director ~ Coney Island USA
Q. How much circus and vaudeville history has been preserved? Where can we go to find out about this aspect of our history?
A. There are many Performing Arts Libraries nationwide that collect and archive the history of Vaudeville and American Circus.
Also, there are a few Circus collections that have enormous amounts of collectible materials for research.
CircusWorld in Baraboo, Wisconsin is one that we contacted for our book.
Q. Many people’s ideas of the circus come from the recent movies The Greatest Showman and Water for Elephants. How realistic are our modern portrayals of that?
A. Most Hollywood films don’t really portray the ‘real circus’. Dramatizations of the lives of these performers aren’t really doing justice to their work and discipline.
Q. How did performers, including ‘little people,’ who were showing off disabilities or unusual appearances, feel about their roles in the circus? I’m assuming it was complex and varied from person to person.
A. ‘Little people’ have been physically categorized into two types. Midgets and dwarfs. A midget is a perfectly proportioned person who happens to have the handicap of being shorter than normal.
Dwarves are not proportioned.
In the world of circus, dwarfs usually worked as clowns. Due to their irregular physical appearances they could use this handicap to solicit laughter from the audience. They were dedicated performers who enjoyed entertaining people even at the expense of what some people would consider embarrassment. They didn’t consider the work that way.
Midgets usually worked in theater, cabaret, vaudeville.
The company of Ike’s were very talented. They were trained singers, dancers, and variety acts. The nature of their show is talked about in the book.
Rose’s Royal Midgets was a troupe comprised of 25 ‘little people’ who entertained thousands of people worldwide. Performing in their own bands, Tribute shows, and variety acts. (Juggling, wirewalking, animal trainer acts)
They worked the vaudeville circuit in the early 1900s through the 1950s.