The Doll Family: Little People in Vaudeville by David Soren

The Doll Family were also known as the Earles Family and The Dancing Dolls and, later on, The Moving Picture Midgets. They were four American siblings from Germany who engaged in vaudeville, movies, circuses and sideshows in America from ca. 1912 to 1955. They were Gracie Doll Earles (Frieda A. Schneider, March 12, 1899- November 8, 1970),  Harry Doll Earles (born Kurt Fritz Schneider, April 3, 1902 – May 4, 1985), Daisy Doll Earles aka The Midget Mae West-- (born Hilda Emma Schneider, April 29, 1907 – March 15, 1980), Tiny Doll aka Tiny Earles (born Elly Annie Schneider, July 23, 1914 – September 6, 2004). They were to become one of the most famous groups of so-called little people in America in the 20th century.

University of Arizona Vaudeville Collection
Postcard from 1923 of Hans and Gretel: The Smallest Society Dancers. Really Kurt and Frieda, members of the so-called Doll Family. From the University of Arizona Vaudeville Collection

They were born in Stolpen, Germany, along with three other normal-sized children. In those less “correct” times, opportunities for little people were limited and Harry and Grace became “Hans and Gretel” and performed in sideshows and for novelty entertainments along with their family. About 1914 they came to America to tour with Bert W. Earles’ wild west show, where they moved into his family land in Pasadena, California. Daisy and Tiny were brought to America in 1922 and 1926 completing the quartet and the act and adopting the Earles name until he died in the 1930s and they became known as The Dolls.

The foursome became very famous with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus as singers, dancers, and horse and wagon riders from 1926 to 1956 with the exception of a contract dispute leading to their replacement in 1952. As their fame spread they appeared in a number of famous comedy and horror films among them both versions of The Unholy Three, a vehicle for the “Master of a Thousand Faces”,  horror star Lon Chaney, in 1925 and 1930. They were also in the Tod Browning classics Freaks, but that did not add to their fame because the film, which used circus freaks and actual sideshow acts, was considered too unseemly to be released until about 1950. Nonetheless Harry Doll and his sister Daisy played key title roles in the film, he portraying that of Hans and she Frieda, lovers in the film but brother and sister in real life. They also appeared in the classic Laurel and Hardy comedy Sailors Beware in 1927 as well as in several other lesser known films but their fame was significantly augmented after all four members of the Doll Family played munchkins in the 1939 Judy Garland film The Wizard of Oz with Harry among the members of the Lollipop Guild who welcomed Dorothy (Garland) to Munchkinland.

But the Doll Family was not the only group of little people to achieve great fame in America. Leopold von Singer (May 3, 1877 – March 5, 1951) was an Austrian vaudeville entrepreneur who, at the outbreak of World War I, took his own troupe to the United States to work in vaudeville and become a rival to the Doll Family. In fact, both groups worked together on The Wizard of Oz and there were reports of considerable jealousy and rivalry on the set, as Singer’s Midgets amounted to 124 of the munchkins by contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. But when Singer retired, a very rich man, in 1945 after World War II the “midgets” disbanded and many returned to Austria while the Doll Family continued to work in America.

University of Arizona Vaudeville Collection
Postcard from the University of Arizona Vaudeville Collection 1899, featuring Gus Hill's theatrical presentation of the Royal Lilliputians, an attempt for comedic purposes to use actual little people and giants to tell the tale of Gulliver's

During the filming of The Wizard of Oz stories spread about the huge numbers of little people who were encountering one another for the first time and the resulting debauchery and orgies that allegedly took place at the Culver Hotel by the MGM studios. These escapades have never been documented but Judy Garland on her television show in the 1960s claimed that all sorts of wild things went on there. There were certainly social gatherings but no records exist so far as we know that the police were called in as Judy claimed. There is however a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for all of the Munchkins.

After their circus touring ended the Dolls hired on with the Christiani Circus but found traveling with their new bosses in their own trailer not up to the standards they had enjoyed with the Ringling Brothers Circus and in 1958 they all retired to a good-sized gate-guarded home that all lived in in Sarasota, Florida although everything in side the home was made to miniature size and even the light switches were made lower down in each room. Because of their special needs and close ties, the family stayed together. Daisy was briefly married but it lasted less than a year in 1942 and she also appeared briefly in the blockbuster circus movie The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952. All of them stayed in the house until the last survivor, Tiny, died in 2004.

It should be noted that in addition to the Doll Family and Singer's Midgets there were numerous attempts to band together groups of little people for so-called freak shows and sideshows. In 1899, one of the biggest and most successful was put together by ex-juggler and vaudeville entrepreneur Gus Hill, who was more famous for creating traveling shows based on newspaper comic characters that were popular in the day. Through gorgeous advertising posters and postcards, Hill promoted his group of dwarfs, midgets and giants, known as the Royal Lilliputians, a show containing a miniature town with little shops that he had invaded by giants with resulting theatrical mayhem. The little town was peopled with such characters as Colonel Small, Pani the Javanese Midget, Miss Tiny and the Cautna Sisters, billed as "The Smallest and Most Beautiful Women in the World".

Names
Topics