Thursday, 6 February 2014

Behind the Photo: "Griffo Banks His Roll" (1925)

Often I will see an old photo or ad and spend some time digging into the back story. Sometimes I find a great story, sometimes not. Either way, I learn a few things about the city's history. Here's my latest attempt:

August 6, 1925, Winnipeg Tribune

"Griffo Banks His Roll" appeared in the August 6, 1925 edition of the Winnipeg Tribune. It shows Griffo, one of the Singer's Midgets' dwarf elephants, coming out of the branch with bank book in trunk.

July 25, 1925, Winnipeg Free Press

August 3rd 1925 marked the start of the 1925 - 26 vaudeville season. The Orpheum Theatre on Fort Street's headline act for opening week was Singer's Midgets, a troupe of 20 dwarfs and a menagerie of dwarf animals.

The Grain Exchange ca. 1930 (source)

The Grain Exchange branch of the Royal Bank of Canada was located at 167 Lombard Street, on the main floor of the Grain Exchange Building. Presumably, that was the Orpheum's home bank.

This type of publicity shot was used by the troupe before. This 1924 photo shows one of their elephants making a deposit at the bank of a U.S. theatre.

Top: Singer's Midgets ca. unknown (source)
Bottom: Poster ca. 1915 poster (source)

The Singer's Midgets act was founded in Austria in 1913 by Leo Singer, (Leopold von Singer), who was not a dwarf. During World War I Singer relocated it to the U.S. and took his show with him.

There were a few dwarf acts on the vaudeville circuit, but Singer's included an array of small animals, from miniature ponies and midget elephants to teacup dogs, which put them at the top of the heap.

April 23 1921, Winnipeg Free Press

This wasn't the Singer's Midgets' first visit to Winnipeg. Their first appearance appears to have been in April 1921, also at the Orpheum. That year there were 30 members and the reviews of their 40-minute show were glowing.

A July 1921 Tribune article called them: “…by far the most remarkable aggregation of small people that ever stepped before an audience…. What they lack in size they take up in side-slitting fun.” 

The Free Press' review of April 20, 1921 said "Singer’s Midgets is a rare morsel. It is a marvel of beauty, grace, talent and training, It is staged like an extravaganza, equipped like a circus and runs like clock work."

As vaudeville began to wane in the late 1920s, the troupe did some film work such as The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) and in 1939 their most famous role, as some of the Munchkins in the The Wizard of Oz. (There were just 20 members of the troupe and 125 Munchkins in the movie. You can read more about them as the Munchkins here.)

Shortly after Oz, the attraction of dwarf shows ended and the troupe disbanded. Some carried on in the entertainment business as actors or in smaller, regional travelling shows.

Karl Slover, who was most likely the last living member of the original Singer's Midgets and may have performed in Winnipeg during this 1925 engagement, died in 2011.

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