Browsing the calendar of events at American theaters and opera houses in the late 1800’s can be an uncomfortable experience for the modern sensibility.
It was a time when stage acts were often booked for their racial and physical novelty and curiosity values. The Lobero Opera House was no exception to this trend.
In 1892, one of the most fascinating global celebrities of the 19th century appeared on the Lobero Opera House stage. Lavinia Warren was a petite entertainer who rose to fame under the promotion – and exploitation – of American showman Phineas T. Barnum. On October 19, 1892, her troupe of performers billed as “Mrs. General Tom Thumb (Countess Magri) and the Lilliputians” appeared in matinee and evening performances as a benefit to support Santa Barbara’s Free Kindergarten.
Lavinia Warren was born in Middleboro, Massachusetts on October 31, 1841. Her growth stopped before she was one year old, and as a child, she reached her full adult height of only 32 inches. At the age of 16, after a successful career as a well-respected schoolteacher, Warren decided to market her “proportionate dwarfism” and began working in show business on her cousin’s floating museum of curiosities.
After American showman, huckster, and circus pioneer Phineas T. Barnum purchased the museum, Warren went to work at his five-story “Barnum’s American Museum” in New York. Barnum’s Museum was a combination of zoo, wax museum, and freak show, and was a cultural and business sensation. It was there that Warren – who Barnum promoted as the Little Queen of Beauty – met another little person named Charles Stratton, known worldwide by his stage name of General Tom Thumb.
Twenty years earlier, in 1843, P. T. Barnum had read about a Connecticut boy named Charles Sherwood Stratton who had stopped growing at seven months old. Barnum promptly paid a visit to Stratton’s home, and incredibly, convinced the 5-year-old boy’s parents to allow him to become the child’s guardian and manager. Barnum taught young Charles to act, sing, dance and tell stories – as well as drink wine and smoke cigars – and when the boy was only 6 years old took him on a tour of Europe, where he met Queen Victoria and became an international celebrity known as General Tom Thumb.
In February 1863, Barnum introduced the 25-year-old Charles Stratton to 21-year-old Lavinia Warren. After a brief courtship, the two were married in a ceremony that was paid for by P. T. Barnum and promoted as the wedding of the century. While Barnum didn’t sell tickets to the actual wedding, he did charge a $75 entrance fee to the reception at New York’s extravagant Metropolitan Hotel, which more than 2,000 attended. Three days after the wedding, President Abraham Lincoln invited the couple to visit the White House.
When some newspapers wrote that the wedding was simply a publicity stunt, Stratton was quick to react,
“It is true we are little but we are as God made us, perfect in our littleness. We are simply man and woman of like passions and infirmities with you and other mortals. The arrangements for our marriage are controlled by no showman.”
As a married couple, Charles Stratton and Lavinia Warren traveled the world for 20 years working for P.T. Barnum. And while their marriage and affection for each other were obviously genuine, so too was their willingness to let P.T. Barnum exploit their small size to create a global business enterprise – and a fortune. As the BBC explained, “The wedding boom indeed made the enterprise more successful. The next plan to increase their fame further would be the addition of a child, and Barnum was, as ever, happy to fix this. He rented babies from foundling hospitals for photoshoots and personal appearances, and the crowds went crazy. When that idea had run its course, Barnum simply said the child had died.”
Charles Stratton died in 1883, at the age of 45, and 20,000 people attended his funeral. Two years after her husband’s death, Lavinia returned to showbusiness and married a 45-inch-tall Italian piccolo player who was known as Count Primo Magri. Together they formed a troupe composed of other little people and toured the world performing plays as an act named “Mrs. General Tom Thumb (Countess Magri) and the Lilliputians.”
Lavinia Warren died in 1919 at the age of 77 and was buried next to her husband’s elaborate cemetery monument with a simple gravestone that reads “His Wife.”
While we wait in the wings for things to return to normal, we hope you enjoy a peek into the Lobero archives.
We hope you’re staying safe and enjoying the arts from the comfort of your own home. Go ahead and read more stories below.