Dreamland's Lilliputia, the Midget City
Dreamland Circus Side Show
Today’s speed dating craze might seem like something new. But it doesn't hold a candle to the Barrel of Love at Coney Island’s old Dreamland in New York during the early 1900s. Dreamland was the ultimate leisure park, employing over 14,000 employees and could accommodate about 250,000 visitors at any given time. Visitors flocked there daily by the thousands. Some billed it as “The amusement park for the weird.”
The Barrel of Love was an attraction with two cylinders. Each was mounted in line and rotated in opposite directions. Men went into one, women the other. Since it was impossible to remain standing, men and women tumbled out on top of each other in positions most unflattering and socially inappropriate considering the times. Often, those who might never have been introduced otherwise, continued on to the next attraction, the Love Tunnel, where their romantic fates became sealed.
One of Dreamland’s most original attractions however, was Lilliputia, “The Midget City,” a fully operative community. Residents of the community consisted of 300 midgets recruited from the four corners of the continent. Most came from various World's Fairs, travelling circuses and freak shows upon manager Samuel W. Gumpertz's request, to live in the experimental community called Lilliputia for Dreamland's 1904 opening season.
Gumpertz was born in Washington, D.C., in 1868, but his family soon relocated to St. Louis. At the tender age of nine, he ran away to join the Montgomery and Queens Circus. Gumpertz was adept at walking on his hands and doing flip-flops. Before long he was working with a family of acrobats. However, he decided to quit that particular line of work after somersaulting from the top of a human pyramid and landing on his head.He began his career at Coney Island's Dreamland in 1904, the year it opened, with his miniature village.
The cardboard city was built on a meager budget at half scale as a replica of 15th century Nuremburg, Germany. Everything was in proportional scale to the inhabitants, from the theater and lifeguard towers to the toilets in their homes.
The pint sized community had its own parliament, beach with midget lifeguards, theatre, stables with small ponies, Chinese laundrymen and a fire department that put out purposely set fires hourly. The illusion was enhanced with “giants” occasionally strolling about the city. The most famous residents were Count and Countess Magri. The countess had become famous years before when she became the wife of another midget, General Tom Thumb.
But there was also a dark side to the Midget City. It was formed as something of a social experiment. There, the concept of morality was abandoned. Promiscuity, homosexuality, nymphomania and so on were encouraged and advertised…all in the name of profit. Statistics indicate marriages collapsed almost immediately and approximately 80 percent of newborns were illegitimate.
Dreamland burned down on opening day of the 1911 season. Gumpertz, ever the expert showman, immediately set up the Dreamland Circus Sideshow in a tent on Surf Avenue. The show continued through the 1920s. For many years, Gumpertz promoted "Zip” the famous "pinhead," originally employed by famed P.T. Barnum. In 1929 Gumpertz left Coney Island to work with the Ringling Brothers Circus.
Following in a similar fashion today, a community of dwarves has set up their own village in Kunming, China. According to a village spokesman, their intent was to escape discrimination from normal sized people. "As small people, we are used to being pushed around and exploited by big people. But here there aren't any big people and everything we do is for us," he said.