This is as close to the "roar of the sawdust and the smell of the crowd" as you can get, having been written by a circus performer whose life (1891-1964) spanned the heyday of the American circus. She worked with the biggest big tops – Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey - but got her start as a "cooch" girl at the lowest rung of the ladder.
Edited by Janet M. Davis, author of The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top, Tiny Kline's narrative includes old photographs and very personal revelations. An immigrant born Helen Deutsch, the pretty, diminutive young Jewish Hungarian took the appellation Tina, then Tiny, once she landed in show business. Though Kline never admits it directly, she almost certainly did a strip-dance routine in vaudeville and the traveling shows of the time. She does mention "doing high kicks and the split, which was then considered naughty." Davis suggests that as an ambitious youngster with no family to sponsor or support her, she was typical of the influx of Jewish working girls crowding in to America at the time. What marked Tiny for distinction was her toughness.
Early on in her circus adventures, which included acting as part of the panorama (spectacle or spectacular) at the show's opening, and becoming a skilled equestrian, she met and married Otto Kline, a performing "cowboy." Actually, the handsome Otto was a Jewish immigrant whose real name was Kreinbrink. Weeks after the marriage, Kline was killed in front of a crowd who watched amazed and then horrified as he skillfully went through his daredevil horseback routine, only to slip and fall, his skull crushed under his horse's hooves. Tiny never married again but carried on with the circus, the only home she knew, deciding to specialize in what would seem to most people a most dangerous act: she hung suspended by her teeth in mid-air, and then, simulating an accident, she "fell" by sliding down a specially constructed rigging. There was no health insurance and no compensation for accidents or injury from the shows she traveled with, even the biggest of the organizations. Tiny was matter-of-fact about the risks and the pain that this act engendered.
The intrepid trouper carried her own rigging and assembled it herself before each show. Like all other circus people of the time, she lived in small spaces. According to her fascinating firsthand accounts, she had one small trunk for her equipment, one space in a large shared dressing area, one berth on the train, and for meals she was assigned a spot at a communal table. The circus world was very stratified, with its own caste system. So Tiny would dine and put on her makeup, even share toilets with only a certain level of performers. She became well-known for her daredevil act and her riding skills, but this did not elevate her much farther than the middle tier of social status. The highest-rated performers might have a private dining and sleeping area, but for Tiny her life would always be lived elbow to elbow with others. Of course, at her level, she would never mix with the rousties, the men who put up the tents and cleared away the remnants of the show.
Tiny met many colorful characters, as one might imagine – the bear woman, the rubber-skinned man. She is sanguine about the many gay men who dressed as women for the large tableaus that were part of the circus spectacle. She was hardworking and well respected among those who knew her but remained something of a loner, perhaps permanently scarred by the death of her husband. She suffered multiple aches and pains, many small accidents and one very serious one, losing teeth and breaking her nose along with scalp lacerations that sprayed copious amounts of blood when she hit the ground. She was at the mercy of the local hospital and her show companions to pay her bills. The kindly Shriners who had sponsored the circus picked up the tab.
She spent time off the road now and then, and each time she rejoined the circus she found more modernization and more changes. She experienced the humiliation of not being remembered or admired, forced to throw in her lot with lesser performers. But she was lucky – and plucky - enough to have the chance to play Tinkerbell at Disneyland in her seventies, proving that an old lady with real acrobatic skills was as valuable as the young ones who could only look pretty.
Kline's book is not only a personal memoir but a vibrant portrait, almost a history, of American circus life, which concludes with her opinion that the circus, as it once existed, is dead. Modern circuses travel by truck rather than rail and employ more acts that use technological tricks rather than guts and physical skill.
However, there are still elephants, and in case you ever wondered, it is possible to let an elephant sit on you, as Kline graphically describes. But there can be unexpected and unwanted consequences, if the elephant tends to get stage fright. Read the book to find out more!