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Series Feature #6 – Life in The Circus From Yesterday to Today! – Schlitzie, Pip and Flip (Aka Pinheads)

Step right up, Step right up! The show is about to begin as we explore the world of the circus and those who made and make a magical place to visit.  The tradition of the circus has a long incredible history as we learned from last week, but that history lesson is not over today as I will make it point of how history and even film has influenced the circus.

In our last visit to the modern circus we had the opportunity to continue our journey to the future of the modern circus entrepreneurs. Visiting with Ringling Bros with the formation of Barnum and Bailey completing the ultimate circus.

Previous Profiles and Stories

Myrtle Corbin (The Four Legged Girl)

Koo-Koo the Bird Girl –

Bearded Women

Camel Girl

The Siamese Twins

The Modern Circus Evolving

From the 19th century through the first half of the 20th century, traveling circuses were a major form of spectator entertainment in the US and attracted huge attention whenever they traveled. After WWII, the popularity of the circus declined as a new forms of entertainment arrived such as television. From the 1960s onward, Circuses attracted growing criticism from animal rights activists. Many circuses went out of business or were forced to merge with circus companies.

The circus would not be so quick to die off and still to this day exist many without animals but with other forms of performances. The circus is an international and forever will be even today. Other countries also took great interest in the circus such as Russia and China.

In 1919, Lenin expressed a wish for the circus to become the people’s “Art form” with facilities and status on par with theatre, opera and ballet. With China they tended to draw on traditions of acrobatics, like the Chinese State Circus as popular touring acts.

As with anything even the circus came into the new age known as the contemporary circus which was considered the performing arts movement that originated in 1970’s in Australia, Canada, France and the West Coast of the United States and the United Kingdom.

Contemporary circuses combine traditional circus skills and theatrical techniques to convey a story or theme. Compared with traditional circuses, this genre tends to focus more attention on the overall aesthetics impact such as on character and story development.  

I think its important to take a step back with comparing the two type of circuses which I consider very different. The period between the world wars was marked by economic depression and political turmoil throughout the world, which causes several circuses to struggle for existence. In addition, foreign travel for European circuses was inhibited by passport formalities, custom duties, quarantine restrictions an currency regulations.

The Ringling Empire Falters

During the 1930 and 40’s the Ringling empire experienced great financial difficulties. Many circus performers lost their jobs during the great depression of the 1930’s which prompted the federal government to organize the works progress administration circus-the only example of a state run circus ever seen in the United States.

As the circus was slowly returning to solvency, a disastrous fire in 1944 destroyed the Ringling big top during a performance in Hartford, Connecticut taking 168 lives and left hundreds of spectators burned and injured. Ultimately the courts decided the only way for the circus to repay its losses and settle its lawsuits was to stay open and this became the first instance of a Chapter Eleven bankruptcy in the United States.

The history will continue and does to this day, where we will pick up in the 20th century next week, but the show must go on with who our next profile will be as the choice does get more and more difficult because I am discovering so many performers that appeared to exist many of which suffered severe deformities but in a way used those differences to create a life but at the cost of our enjoyment. 

For many of you who read my pieces you will see that I love film and Television when I get inspired for my writings, this case is no different as I would like us to learn a little about Schlitzie in addition to Pip and Flip Snow also known as pinheads.

Why are we so fascinated with these performers is beyond me but I think I may understand being that have been in popular culture for so many years especially in the film Freaks and in American Horror Stories Freak Show as representations of those individuals, although Freaks has the actual people and AHS are actors and some real life individuals.  I am positive these individuals will continue to live on in future films and Television, but I hope my blogs bring to light their humanity because they were human beings who deserve respect.

Schlitzie (September 10, 1901 – September 24, 1971)

Possibly known as Simon Metz and legally Schlitze Surtees was an American sideshow performer. Appearing in a few films and is best known for his role in the 1932 movie Freaks. His lifelong career on the outdoor entertainment circuit as a major sideshow attraction with Barnum and Bailey among others made him a popular cultural icon.

His true birth date, name, location and parents are unknown with the information on his gravesite indicates his birth in the Bronx New York, though some sources claim he was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico with other claims he was born in Yucatan, Mexico.

His Condition

Born with Microcephaly, a neurodevelopment disorder which left him with an unusually small brain and skull, a small stature standing four feet tall with myopia and severe intellectual disability.

It was said that Schlitzie had the cognition of a three-year-old and was unable to care for himself and could only speak in monosyllabic words and form a few simple phrases. However he was able to perform simple task and it was believed he could understand most of what was said to him.  Those who knew him described him as affectionate, exuberant, sociable person who loved dancing, singing and being the center of attention performing for anyone he could stop and talk with.

Sideshows known as Pinheads

On the sideshow circuit, microcephalic people were usually promoted as pinheads or missing links. Being billed under titles such as “The last of the Aztecs”, “The Monkey Girl” and “What is it?”

Often dressed in a muumuu and presented as either female or androgynous to add to the mystique of his unusual appearance. Due to his urinary incontinence, obligated him to wear diapers , made dresses perfect for his care needs.

Schlitzie was an incredible success throughout the 1920’s and 30’s employed by many upscale circuses including Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Circus, Clyde Beatty Circus, Tom Mix Circus, Crafts 20 big shows and Foley & Burke Carnival. In 1928 making his film debut in “The Sideshow, a drama set in the circus, which featured a variety of actual sideshow performers.

The Silver Screen awaits!

Landing his best-known role as an actor in Tod Browning’s 1932 horror film Freaks.  Appearing in various movies and credited with a role in the 1934 exploitation films tomorrow’s children. His final film role as
“Princess Bibi” a sideshow attraction in “Meet Boston Blackie”.

While performing in the Tom Mix Circus in 1935 , George Surtees, a chimpanzee trainer with a trained chimpanzee act in the show adapted him becoming his legal guardian. Continuing to perform in the sideshow circuit  after Surtees death in 1965, his daughter who was not in show business committed Schlitzie to the Los Angeles County Hospital. Remaining hospitalized for some time until he was recognized by sword swallower Bill “Frenchy” Unks, who happened to be working at the hospital durning the off-season.

It is said the Schlitzie missed the carnival badly and being away from the public eye made him depressed. Hospital authorities determined that the best care for him would be to make him a ward of Unks employer, showman Sam Alexander and his return to the sideshow where he remained until 1968.

His Final Days

Living in Los Angeles in his final years performing in various circuits both locally and internationally with his last performance with Dobritch International Circus held at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Schlitzie also became a notable attraction on the streets of Hollywood, spending his final days on Santa Monica Blvd.

On September 24, 1971 at Seventy years old, Schlitzie died at Fountain View Convalescent Home being interred at Queens of Heaven Cemetery in Rowland Heights.

Continuing to live in popular culture with his image being lent to many products, including masks, hats, shirts, models , clocks , snow globes and dolls. Additionally Schlitzie was cited as an inspiration for Bill Griffiths comic strip Zippy the Pinhead and the circus freak Bertram in Red Dead Redemption 2.

Pip and Flip arrived

It would only be natural to not forget about those other so called pinheads such as Jenny Lee Snow and Elvira Snow also known as Pip and Flip being billed as Pip and Zip in Freaks. Billed as being hailed from the Yucatan but were actually from Hartwell, Georgia and their parents basically loaned the siblings to various shows in to order to support the family. Both born with Microcephaly and billed as pinheads both were intellectually delayed, possessing toddler like mentalities, but it was the childlike innocence that charmed audiences and crowds.  The sister earned an incredible $75 per week considering this was during the great depression.

Unfortunately, Jenny Lee Snow was unable to enjoy her fame as she passed away in her early 20’s n August 27, 1934 while Elvira lived a long life as passed always on November 1, 1976 as a senior citizen.

Not a lot of detail is out there about Jenny and Elvira which I think is quite common as much of their lives where before social media and society probably didn’t consider them incredible important to popular culture in comparison to Schlitzie who appeared to have a long history and much more influence in American circus culture, but lets not forget. There are other performers like Pip and Flip who performed an important oddities in the circus because of their usual kind natures and childlikeness.

American Horror Stories Adaption of Pip and Flip

In today’s culture especially in American Horror Show we had Pepper and Salty providing amusement through innocent dances and play.

I found Pepper to be quite lovable with an incredibly sad sorry of being abandoned by her family ending up at an orphanage. From much of the research I have seen many families abandoned their own children due to their differences, but many kept them in the family but used and exploited them for money.

Although I don’t know how common microcephaly is today although this medical condition still exists even with recent events from the Zika Virus which appeared to cause this condition.

I found that after profiling these individuals I only wish to know more about their lives, their hardships and careers.  I often wonder based on the how much their were films if they were able to survive financially, it appeared they did.

I hope you found this week’s profile and circus history enjoyable as we continue to dive into circus history and those performers who made it incredible. 

16 thoughts on “Series Feature #6 – Life in The Circus From Yesterday to Today! – Schlitzie, Pip and Flip (Aka Pinheads)”

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