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Politics

Professor Leonidas Arniotis: an Impresario of the Greek Diaspora

The history of Greek promoters and entertainers who traveled the globe from the 1870s well into 1900s has yet to be even surveyed ,let alone studied. We must quickly make the distinction between promoters and performers who appeared exclusively before Greek audiences and those who engaged any and all who sought public entertainment. Obviously, an even finer-grained study would investigate whether these same Greek entertainers working abroad were engaging diaspora communities, local audiences, or both.

Leonidas Arniotis provides a fine example of an internationally-recognized promoter and performer who moved effortlessly back and forth across all categories and nearly all continents. I did not come to Arniotis, his fabled career and the extensive research done on this single man, in anything resembling a straightforward manner. What is instructive concerning how I found the promoter and entertainer known the world over as Professor Leonidas is in the fact that while tracking one Greek performer or promoter one is very often led to yet another.

In this case, I had been searching for information about Mary Arniotis for years. All I could find in newspaper accounts and among the recollections of old Greek strongmen was that Mary Arniotis was a notable strong woman who had appeared on the American vaudeville stage. My interest in this performer was especially keen, since she was billed as the “female Sandow.” Eugen Sandow (1867-1925), born Friedrich Wilhelm Muller, was a German pioneering bodybuilder known as the father of modern bodybuilding. More than that, Sandow was the first of the modern bodybuilders to appear on stages across the globe. So notable was Sandow he even performed in one of Thomas Edison’s first motion pictures. We also know, without a doubt, that Mary Arniotis first began performing on the German stage.

Then, out of nowhere, a reference to a Professor Leonidas Arniotis. Professor Arniotis with his troupe of trained cats and dogs was among the most internationally-famous vaudeville acts of the era. When the good Professor arrived in North America he did so fresh from his much acclaimed triumphant at both the Berlin Wintergarden and the Foles Begeris Theater in Paris. Now it may be a tad difficult for the modern individual to fully appreciate the impact Arniotis had on his audiences. Please recall this was the era when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders was still a touring sensation. A time when local museums, modeled after P.T. Barnum’s New York museum, exhibited wax figures of notable political figures of the day such as King George of Greece. Or that in one town or another one the premier actors of the American stage such as a Drew or a Barrymore might be appearing in a Shakespearean drama. In 1897, Professor Arniotis frequently appeared in a small town or city when other popular entertainers and shows such as those I have listed above were also performing. The enduring popularity of Arniotis’ act all across America bespeaks of a much simpler time and place than the mass media of the Internet’s cyberspace now allows.

Arriving in New York City on March 22, 1897, aboard the SS La Champagne, the 34 year-old Arniotis took the American entertainment world by storm. Traveling from coast to coast and back again one newspaper account after another attests to the fact that Arniotis was so popular he was frequently ‘held over’ from his scheduled period of performance by public demand.

Some publicity never hurts. In the March 6, 1897, edition of the Scientific American Supplement was a full page lithograph illustration of Arniotis’ exhibition at the Berlin Wintergarden along with an extensive description. Here is but an excerpt:

“A comic scene which follows is a triumph in animal training. Cerberus is chained at the left side of the stage. Pippina takes her place on a chair at the right, and Mr. Arniotis is seated at a well-covered table in the center, ready to eat his supper. He has nothing to drink, and, as there is no one to wait on him, he is obliged to go for it himself. After he has left the stage Cerberus slips his collar off, climbs up on the table and eats the entire meal. As he is swallowing the last mouthful a thought comes to him of the punishment that must follow, and he looks to his friend to help him out of his difficulty. Pippina is then taken by the collar and set on the table, where she remains looking sad, while Cerberus resumes his collar. Mr. Arniotis returns, is suspicious of the unhappy victim sitting among the empty dishes, and is about to punish her, when she climbs on her master and whispers in his ear that Cerberus is the real culprit. Pippina’s innocence is established, and the audience thanks the performers with a round of applause.” To actually see just a few moments of Arniotis’ act one need only go to on the Internet and look under “Hurdle jumping by trained dogs” to see an all-too-brief segment.

In November 1897, once Arniotis arrived in Chicago, he headlined his own circus composed of 22 different acts at then notable Strand Theater. As we learn from one announcement under the title, “Leonidas Winter Theater”: “Prof. Leonidas with his wonderful troupe of trained cats and dogs which has been exhibited before all the crowned heads of Europe: Miss Mary Arniotis, the champion strong lady of the world, direct from the Folies Bergeries of Paris, will give some very comical and difficult acts. Wertz and Adair the wonderful acrobats and tumblers will also appear in several new acts; Mme. Ellen Vetter, “the mysterious globe,” the only act of its kind in the world; M. Langslaw, will perform rifle shooting g on high wire, and Mr. Nicholas G. Props “The Grecian Heracles” in his many feats of difficult heavy weight lifting and several other good attractions. Popular prices, 10, 20 and 30 cents (Chicago Tribune November 12, 1897).”

The Strand is undoubtedly one of Chicago’s most fascinating nearly-forgotten theaters. Built in 1885 as the National Panorama at Wabash and Hubbard Court (later Panorama Place, 7th Street, and Balbo Drive) “[T]he building’s most striking initial feature was that it was almost circular, a 16-sided polygon, with a 135-foot diameter. It had a wrought iron frame and a dome roof topped in a cupola, 96 feet tall at its apex.” Given the circular stage the effect resulted in what modern writers have referred to as having an “IMAX-type visual settings.”

Yet another way we can assess how contemporary audiences responded to Leonidas is found in Helen M. Winslow’s, Concerning Cats: My Own and Others (Boston: Lothrop Publishing, 1900): “Another European trainer who has accomplished wonders…is a young Greek, Leonidas Arniotis, and he has accomplished the difficult feat of teaching dogs and cats to work together in harmony. His dog, Cerberus, is a great diver, and to this fact owes all his success as a showman. When Aniotis was a student in Paris, he took the dog out one day for a walk. He had already taught Cerberus several tricks for pastime, and on this occasion, as they stood on a bridge across the Seine, they saw a man throw a cat into the river. A wink from the master, and the dog was in the water, struggling to get near the cat He was soon able to seize the cat by the nape of the neck, and swim back to his master, and deposit the poor half-dead creature at his feet. Then and there a deep affection sprang up between the two animals. (Who says cats are incapable of gratitude?)

The two became inseparable, and when the master put the dog through his tricks, the cat sat by and watched intently for a time; but after a while he joined in the exercises, and their performances, undertaken as a mere pastime for the master, were the nucleus of a now celebrated company. Mr. Arniotis now has five dogs and two cats, who not only live together in perfect peace, but whose performances are quite unique.

The cats ride on the dogs’ backs, and are not unseated when the latter jump over chairs or through hoops. One of their best tricks is done by a cat who climbs up a rope to a considerable height and jumps on a little platform, suspended from a parachute, on which he sails comfortably around the stage as if he enjoyed the experience (Boston: Lothrop Publishing, 1900).”

In time Leonidas Arniotis’ career as both a performer and as promoter in entertainment productions included notable ventures in Athens, England, and the United States. Greeks have long held influential positions as entertainment promoters and as world-class performers. We need to begin to not only locate these historical figures but to understand their enduring effect on world entertainment.

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