Human Frogs in the History Collections!

The New York State Museum’s history collections contain two frog costumes for humans and one frog costume for a dog. These costumes belonged to Harry and Friede DeMarlo, a vaudeville couple that once played circuses and vaudeville houses all over the world, ultimately retiring to a farm in Walton, N.Y., where they trained dogs for circus work.

Friede and Harry DeMarlo toured the globe between 1910 and 1928 performing aerial contortions and acrobatic tricks for sold-out audiences. The couple became famous with an act known as “Frog’s Paradise.” The act consisted of a stage set as a woodland scene with leaves, trees, a full moon, and worms and bugs that were lit by tiny light bulbs. Friede, dressed as a frog, emerged from a giant water lily in the center and began dancing and bending about the stage. In a short while, music identified a storm approaching and Harry appeared on stage as a frog, contorting his body in a variety of poses. After the storm passed, Friede morphed into a nymph with more dancing and bending about the stage. The couple performed this act for the King of Siam, the Queen of Holland, the Czar of Russia, and several other important officials worldwide.

Friede Gobsch was born in Germany in 1890, and Harry was born in West Virginia in 1882. The two met in Copenhagen in 1910 while they were performing for separate vaudeville troupes and were married a year later. The DeMarlos’ contortion performances were known as “dumb acts” or “sight acts” because they did not need to use speech as part of the performance. “Dumb acts” included a wide variety of performers such as jugglers, tumblers, aerialists, wire acts, cyclists, balancing acts, and animal acts. One of the advantages to being a “dumb act” is that there were no language barriers, allowing the performer to work all over the globe with both vaudeville and the circus.

In addition to the frog outfits, the DeMarlo Collection also includes costumes from the couple’s other acts: a red devil costume, a snake costume, several dancing costumes, trapeze ropes, props, photographs, broadsides from performances, scrapbooks, letters, and personal belongings. Some of these artifacts are rare in museum collections because props and costumes from this time period were usually used until destroyed or taken apart and sewn into something else.