Monday, October 13, 2008

Circus Queen and Tinker Bell: The Memoir of Tiny Kline. By Tiny Kline. Edited by Janet M. Davis. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, July 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-252-03312-4, $65.00; paper: ISBN 978-0-252-07510-0, $24.95. 376 pages.
Review by Robert Sugarman, Circus Historical Society

Janet Davis’s previous book, The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002) has established itself as one of the most authoritative analyses of the Golden Age Circus that thrived in America in the early part of the twentieth century. The volume also examines in depth the relationship of that circus to the society in which it existed. Her new book, a memoir written by performer Tiny Kline and edited by Davis, is an excellent complement to The Circus Age, providing a firsthand account of the Golden Age circus by one of its participants. Kline rose through the ranks of what was then a rigid caste system from “Statue girl,” one who posed semi-nude in heavy grease paint in emulation of classic sculpture, to center ring performer. Legendary circus personalities such as Equestrian Director Fred Bradna and aerialists Lillian Leitzel and Alfred Codona are seen as professional colleagues in a demanding work situation. Kline recounts the difficulties performers experienced when the Ringling and the Barnum shows combined, and the awkward transition when the grounded Ringling Barnum show moved many of its acts to the Al G. Barnes show with which Kline had been appearing. When Kline joined the Barnum and Bailey circus in 1916, it was a gigantic affair. Its layout, usually in a different city each day, filled nine acres. Horses that moved the circus on and off the lot were the backbone of the mile-long parades that preceded each day’s show and of the performance itself. Except for top management and the most elite performers, living conditions for circus personnel were hard. In addition to the vicissitudes of weather, performers were responsible for creating and maintaining their costumes, which meant washing them in buckets of cold water and hanging them on tent ropes to dry. Performers traveled on trains in crowded and uncomfortable conditions. Through all this, Kline’s passion for circus performance led her to improve her skills and move up the circus ladder to present elephants, ride horses bareback and in chariot races around the hippodrome track surrounding the three rings and four stages, and to do a daring descent, suspended by her teeth, from the top of the tent on a breakaway wire. Davis’s introduction places Kline’s life in perspective. A Hungarian Jewish immigrant, Kline typified the immersion of many immigrants in American Popular Culture. Starting her career as a dancer in burlesque, Kline moved to various touring shows and Wild West shows, and eventually became a dancer at New York’s Hippodrome and played vaudeville during the circus’s off seasons. Kline’s memoir ends in 1948 when, four years after retiring from circus performance, she visited the thoroughly mechanized Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Show, which had been reduced in size and was directed and choreographed by Broadway showmen who, she felt, sexualized and regimented the show, diminished the spontaneity of performance, and compromised the show’s appeal for family audiences. Kline continued doing her “slides for life” in a variety of venues. Davis provides information about Kline’s final performance activity. In her seventies, Kline performed as Tinker Bell in Disneyland, doing a 484-foot slide suspended from a wire from the 146-foot Mount Matterhorn to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, where her arrival signaled the start of the evening’s fireworks. Working from two drafts of Kline’s memoir, Davis has not only provided a coherent and enlightening document, but has supplied fully annotated endnotes to explicate references and correct factual errors. Like The Circus Age, Circus Queen and Tinker Bell is an exemplary demonstration of how the study of circus in particular and Popular Culture in general can enrich our understanding of the world in which we live. The book includes some photos. It will prove to be an indispensable addition to any Popular Culture collection.

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