Anyone familiar with the 1932 cult-classic movie Freaks has seen members of the Doll Family — a family of “little people” (two brothers and two sisters) who performed in films and circuses for more than half a century. Grace, Harry, Daisy, and Tiny adopted the stage name Doll, but their real last name was Schneider, and they were born in Germany and then brought to America at an early age.
And why am I telling you this? Because I stumbled upon a 1936 Memphis Press-Scimitar article that discussed the Dolls’ “foster parents” — who just happened to live in Memphis, in a very unusual house on Poplar. The article was written by Eldon Roark for his popular “Strolling” column, and here’s what he had to say. The headline was “Business Good With Midgets”:
“If you want to know how business conditions are, just ask any sideshow midgets. They have a most reliable barometer. And if you don’t know any midgets to ask, then see Mr. and Mrs. A.E. Willis, 2599 Poplar. They are the “foster parents” of the famous Doll family of midgets, now on tour with the Ringling Circus, and they get regular reports from them. There are four in the midget family — Daisy, Grace, Tiny, and Harry. Professionally they go by the name of Doll, but their real name is Schneider. They are from Germany.
“They call Mr. and Mrs. Willis “mom and pop” and they write to them every week. And in their letters they give reports on the sale of their souvenir postcards — you know how they sell postcards in sideshows. This year they are doing so much better than they have done the past few seasons. When people buy those postcards, you know that the country is in pretty good shape.
“In the backyard of the Willis home are four wiggly little Pomeranians. They belong to the midgets.
“‘So many of the show people wanted to take dogs and other pets with them that the show just had to put a check on it,’ Mrs. Willis explains. ‘So they started making a charge of $5 a week for the board and transportation of every pet that wasn’t a performer, and the midgets decided that was too much to pay. They left their dogs with us.’
HOUSE BUILT AROUND OAK
“Mr. Willis operates several concessions at the [Tri-State] Fairgrounds Amusement Park — the airplane swing, the miniature railroad, and the shooting gallery. Years ago he operated East End Park. …
“Probably you have noticed the Willis home on Poplar. It’s the last house before you turn in to the Alicia Golf Course, going out — the house with the enormous oak tree growing through it. The tree isn’t actually growing up through the house, although it appears to be, but the house was built around it. That was in 1916.
“Both Mr. and Mrs. Willis love trees and flowers. And when they built their home that oak was right on the building site. But they couldn’t think of cutting it down. They just built the rear of the house in the shape of a “U” — with the tree between a sleeping porch and a breakfast room. They also built an upstairs rear balcony in the shade of the tree.
“After the Fairgrounds closes down for the winter, Mr. and Mrs. Willis will light out for Sarasota, Florida. They go down there every year. That, you know, is where the Ringling Circus winters. The midgets have their little winter bungalow there, too, and it will be a great reunion with the Willises and the Pomeranians.”
The Willis house was apparently torn down many years ago. I’ve included a somewhat grainy scan from the original Press-Scimitar article.