lunes, 19 de abril de 2010

Jeanie the Living Half Girl.

"You know: the crowd looks at the freaks and the freaks look at the crowd. And that's about how it is. You'd be surprised how many weird looking people you can find in an audience. They think they're perfectly normal." Tomaini.

Jeanie Tomaini was born August 23, 1916 as Berniece Smith, Died August 10, 1999 Gibsonton, Florida. She was known in her day as the "World's Only Living Half Girl." She was born without legs and both of her arms were twisted. 

She began performing at age 3, exhibited by her parents at fairs all over the country. Jeanie's act consisted mainly of acrobatic stunts such as handstands and cartwheels - although her hands were deformed, she was able to walk on them with ease. 

When Jeanie was 13, her mother died while Jeanie was appearing at a fair in Paris, Texas. Jeanie and her two brothers were placed in an orphanage, and she was adopted at age 15 by a woman named Lizzie Weeks who was psychologically abusive and kept Jeanie locked up between performances, lest anyone see her without paying for a ticket. 

While performing on the sideshow circuit in the 1930s, Jeanie met Aurelio "Al" Tomaini, an 8-foot, 2-inch giant from Long Branch, New Jersey, born February 25, 1912. He and Jeanie became romantically involved and, while playing a fair in Cleveland, Ohio in 1936, the pair eloped and were married by a justice of the peace on September 8. They honeymooned at Niagara Falls.

Al and Jeanie discovered Gibsonton, Florida, a blossoming carnival community, while vacationing along the Alafia River in the 1930s. Al loved to fish, and the couple retired on a piece of property along the banks of the river in the 1940s. 

Now that they were no longer on the road, they were able to raise children and adopted two daughters. They established a lodge and fishing camp which was named "The Giant's Camp" by Frank Lentini, the three-legged man, a personal friend of the Tomainis. One of Al's enormous cowboy boots is nailed to a pedestal along US 41. Al, like many giants, suffered a number of health problems. Towards the end of his life, his legs were constantly hurting. On August 30, 1962, he passed away, aged 50. 

Jeanie outlived Al and continued to run the Giant's Camp for many years, until her own death on August 10, 1999 - the anniversary of the adoption of her daughter, Judy "Rustie" Rock in 1946. She was 13 days shy of her 84th birthday and was buried on the anniversary of Al's death. The Tomaini family still live in Gibsonton. Jeanie's great-grandson Alexzander Morrow is now a sideshow performer known as the Junior Torture King.

Here is an excerpt from the NPR episode "Gibtown"  in which Tomaini was interviewed about her sideshow experiences and the effect of "Do-gooders" on the lives of those who made their living as "freaks."

 Produced by: Joe Richman
Broadcast on SoundPrint and NPR's All Things Considered (1995)

Mr. BURKHART: Well, Jeanie.
Ms. TOMAINI: Well, hello.
Mr. BURKHART: Hello, good looking, what's cooking? How are you, honey?
Ms. TOMAINI: I was just coming over there to meet you. How are you doing?

RICHMAN: When Melvin the human blockhead comes over to Jeanie's for a visit, the conversation always leads to two things; their health and the old days in the sideshow.

Mr. BURKHART: [chatting] And they found out it was real and they confiscated it. Who was it had that- the famous half and half out on the West Coast?
Ms. TOMAINI: Well, you remember Esther Lester? Frieda Fred?
Mr. BURKHART: Frieda Fred? No. Esther Lester used to tickle the dumplings out of me. He used to come- `Ladies and Gentlemen, on this side I am a woman. On this side I am a man.' [laughs]

RICHMAN: They trade stories about Grady the lobster boy and Priscilla the monkey girl. Melvin remembers the time he got Bill Durks, the two-faced man a date with Mildred the alligator woman. The two ended up getting married. And, because I'm there, Melvin and Jeanie talk about how they first got into the business, show business they call it. Jeanie started before she could even spell her name. Her father was an alcoholic. He ran off and left the kids behind and so 3-year-old Jeanie became the family's bread-winner.

Ms. TOMAINI: No matter what you made back then, it was big money and when you had a whole flock of kids, like my mother did, big money sounded good. And I would do a little acrobatic routine. I don't do it any more, don't ask me. And I'd go from Indiana, Ohio, Michigan - all around there, those little fairs. That's how I got started in it, when I was three. So many people say, `Oh, how horrible, how terrible.' You know, I was three years old and people came in and- being- no legs, I was about yay high, and they thought that was great and they'd bring me dolls and candy and gifts. And one of the men that had a miniature pony used to come out after we closed at night and he would let me ride his pony. That was heaven to me - any kind of a horse. So I had no problem with it. I enjoyed it.

RICHMAN (to Tomaini): Did you continue to enjoy it as the years went on?

Ms. TOMAINI: Yeah, I did. I did. Even when we were on the road. We used to look the people over and say, `Well, this one looks like a doctor. This one, he must be a butcher,' things like that. Because you had to keep yourself entertained. You couldn't just sit there all day long and stare into outer space. We had a lot of little methods like that that would take our minds off of whoever was staring. You know: the crowd looks at the freaks and the freaks look at the crowd. And that's about how it is. You'd be surprised how many weird looking people you can find in an audience. They think they're perfectly normal.

RICHMAN: But around the 1960s, it began to get harder for the freaks and human oddities to work. Florida and other states started enforcing old laws barring the commercial exhibition of people with deformities and, around the country, more and more people were objecting to the sideshows. They said the performers were being exploited. In Gibsonton, these people were given a name: "the Do-Gooders". And to this day, that's still the worst slur in town.

Ms. TOMAINI: Well really, the Do-Gooders didn't do any good, coming in to try to run our lives for us. They don't even know what they're doing.

Mr. BURKHART: And it hurt a lot of show business careers, because at one time we had a little man, called Otis Jordan, that could roll up cigarettes with his lips and light it, you know, and he had little skinny arms and he had legs that were all- all screwed up, you know, scrooched up like that. He couldn't move them or couldn't walk on them or anything. But he did a hell of an act and he was excluded from our show. He couldn't work at all because the Do-Gooders had said he was being exploited. And he had been on our show for about- about 10 years. He didn't have any place else to go. You know, he couldn't understand it: "Why in the hell are they doing this to me?"

Ms. TOMAINI: Every once in a while, Mother Nature makes a goof and produces one or the other and then where are they going? What are they going to do? But on the show, they could earn their livings and very, very few of the sideshow people I ever heard of asked for food stamps or anything else for help. I'm very proud of the people I know that they do stand on their own two feet.

Mr. BURKHART: I had no qualms about introducing myself as a freak. It's the way we would be presented to them, you see. We would never get up there and just say, "Come in here and see a horrible person." We would put up there like, "The fattest girl in the world. She doesn't do the hula, she does the hoochie-koochie on the inside." And you excite their curiosity to get them in, see. You wouldn't tell them you're going to go in and see a big fat slob of a woman. You wouldn't go in there and say, you're going to see a girl with no arms doing everything with her feet. [puts on his carnival voice] "You're going to see the armless wonder who does fantastic things right before your eyes using nothing but the tootsies on her feet."

Ms. TOMAINI: I don't know if it's a matter of they feel sympathy or if it's a matter of they feel superior because they're not that way, you know - there but for God go I, something like that - but people like it. They definitely like it. I think right now if I was shapelier, in better health and all and went on the sideshow with the same acts that we had, I think we would make a good living and earn good crowds. I really do.

Here is an excerpt from her obituary (Associated Press):

Although 2-foot-6 in stature, in spirit Mrs. Tomaini is remembered as a
giant - a matriarch who helped shape this tiny hamlet into an off-season
haven for circus workers.

Mrs. Tomaini never saw her disability as a stumbling

"Only if I meet a person who is morally, spiritually and physically
perfect will I ever hang my head in shame,'' she said. 

Jeanie doing a handstand, 1940 (Photo from the Tomaini Archives courtesy Judy Rock)

The Ringling Brothers Circus "Congress of Freaks"

(The Harry H. Laughlin Papers, Truman State University, Lantern Slides, Brown Box,1507)


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