Tiny Kline, Daring “Iron Jaw” Aerialist
Tiny Kline (1891-1964) was a Hungarian-born Jewish immigrant (birth name, Helen Deutsch) who came to America in 1905 (see ship manifest) as part of a dance troupe. She became a well-known and popular burlesque dancer, and caught the attention of a well-known Wild West trick rider, Otto Kline, whom she married. Five weeks after the wedding, Otto Kline fell off of his horse during a trick riding performance at Madison Square Garden, dying instantly. (See New York Times article about the accident). Tiny Kline was left alone to build her own career in the circus.
Starting at the bottom of the circus as a virtually nude, painted “statue girl,” she worked her way up to “Roman rider,” standing atop a charging steed in the chariot races.
Eventually, desiring to move up in the Barnum & Bailey circus, she developed her signature “slide for life” stunt, an “iron jaw” act in which she slid to the ground while dangling from trapeze rigging by her teeth.
Tiny Kline and Pepito both appeared in the Santos & Artigas circus in Cuba during the 1917-1918 season. Tiny mentioned Pepito on page 224 of her autobiography Circus Queen & Tinker Bell: The Memoirs of Tiny Kline. Tiny Kline wrote:
“The [circus] train stopped, then started switching to a sidetrack. Those stops and starts, using no air brakes, were enough to tear the entrails out of one. I grabbed my bucket and walked on ahead to the engine to get hot water for a bath, ignoring the hissing that came from the curious by-standers to attract my attention. They always awaited us in every town, peering in wherever they’d see an open curtain to see the artistas and screaming with delight when they recognized a favorite clown: Pepito or Guerrerito.”
They always awaited us in every town, peering in wherever they’d see an open curtain to see the artistas and screaming with delight when they recognized a favorite clown: Pepito or Guerrerito.— Tiny Kline
“Manolin was the newest of these native products, who did practically everything their high-priced European prototypes could do.* But Santos & Artigas spared no expense. They had contracted a team of those comicosor payasos (as they call them) at fabulous salaries. Their patter must have been as good as their tumbling. In addition to the dialogue, juggling, sleight-of-hand, ventriloquism, and what-have-you, they were also versatile musicians, playing various instruments. With their large repertoire, they could remain for several days in a town, changing their act, drawing the same crowd — truly a one-man show, any of those Spanish payasos.“
*Janet M. Davis, the editor of Circus Queen & Tinker Bell, caught Tiny Kline’s error about Pepito’s nationality and added the following footnote on page 337: “Kline refers to Pepito Perez as a ‘native product’ of Cuba, but according to Variety, he was born in Spain and came to the United States, where he was billed as “Pepito the Spanish Clown” in the 1920s. He appeared in the prologue for Charlie Chaplin’s stage production, The Circus, at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood in 1928, and thereafter did pantomime and appeared in movies and on television. He died in 1975 in Santa Ana, California, where he had lived for fifteen years.”
By the early 1930s, Tiny Kline had left the circus and was booking and performing her daring “slide for life” iron-jaw act at outdoor venues throughout the United States.
In 1932, as a publicity stunt for her appearance at the RKO Palace Theater in NYC, Tiny Kline famously slid 1,134 feet across New York’s Times Square at a height of 600 feet, hanging by her teeth. She had planned her stunt to be a descent from the 28-story Edison Hotel to the roof of the Palace Theater, where the show in which she was appearing, was to open.
The police, to prevent the stunt, stationed a man on the hotel roof. However, Tiny got into a hotel room on the 27th floor beneath the wire, tossed a rope over it, climbed the rope, then slid down the cable to the 12th floor rooftop of the Palace Theater, as photographers took pictures, traffic stopped, and reporters applauded.
Tiny Kline ended up being arrested amid a glare of publicity, for violating a city law. See the newspaper photo above, and the YouTube video, below.
In 1933, Tiny Kline spent the summer season working at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Her act consisted of dangling in a variety of ways from ropes and gymnastics rings, beneath an offshore zeppelin balloon which was tethered to the end of the pier. The British Pathe archive contains “Balloonatics,” rare newsreel footage of her stunts.
Tiny Kline renewed her spectacular acrobatics in 1961 at the age of seventy (see article from 1963), when she became the very first Tinker Bell at Disneyland, in the “Fantasy in the Sky” fireworks show. Suspended 146 feet up in the air, she glided down a long wire from the Matterhorn to Sleeping Beauty’s castle to signal the beginning of the fireworks. In that same year, she also began writing her life story. Tiny Kline died from cancer in 1964. (See Tiny Kline obituary).
Extensively annotated by Janet M. Davis, Circus Queen & Tinker Bell: The Memoirs of Tiny Kline documents twentieth-century changes in popular amusements, while providing fresh insight into circus personalities such as John Ringling, acrobat Lillian Leitzel, and big cat trainer Mabel Stark, as well as mainstream entertainers like Florenz Ziegfeld, John Philip Sousa, and others. Kline also provides intimate details about the daily machinations at the circus, including fascinating accounts of its sexual politics, racial dynamics, risky nature, and labor relations.