Circus World headed back to the big screen
By Ed Zagorski, News Republic Posted: Friday, October 28, 2011
Leslie Zemeckis interviewed Circus World Museum Executive Director Steve Freese on Friday. Zemeckis is currently working on a documentary film about Daisy and Violet Hilton, who were conjoined twins that toured the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s.
Ed Zagorski / News Republic
A little bit of Hollywood visited Baraboo Friday.
Leslie Zemeckis, who is the wife of Robert Zemeckis, the Academy Award-winning director of "Forrest Gump," met with Circus World Museum Executive Director Steve Freese on Friday as part of a documentary project.
Zemeckis is working on a film featuring the Hilton sisters, conjoined twins who were a popular vaudeville act during the 1920s. She said the film will be a comprehensive examination not only of the sisters, but of the circus/sideshow acts and vaudeville worlds.
Freese said the Circus World Museum staff has worked with numerous movie studios and production companies in the past. Most recently, Freese traveled to California to help with the technical aspects associated with the movie "Water for Elephants."
Freese said meeting with Zemeckis gave him the opportunity to showcase the museum's collection.
"We've kind of been the place to go for circus history," he said.
That's what brought Zemeckis to Baraboo.
"I've done a great deal of research already," she said. "I know visiting the Circus World Museum I will find much more on the Hilton sisters."
Unlike Chang and Eng Bunker, the conjoined twins born in Siam, Zemeckis said despite their popularity, very few people know the Hilton sisters went through to achieve success.
"The Hilton sisters were hugely famous during their time," Zemeckis said. "I've been obsessed about them for some time and want to shed light on their story. They were very talented jazz musicians, who became singers and dancers."
However, she said the story surrounding the Hiltons is filled with drama and tragedy.
The Hilton sisters were born in 1908 in Brighton, England.
The sisters were exhibited as an attraction beginning in saloons, small circuses and street fairs and then moved on to vaudeville, carnivals and burlesque acts.
In 1932, Daisy and Violet Hilton appeared in the movie "Freaks," which posed the question of whether or not conjoined twins could find love.
"The Bunkers had no problems getting married, but the Hilton sisters traveled to several different states because no one would issue them a marriage license," Zemeckis said. "The twins fell in and out of love. Violet was engaged to be married, but the application was denied because she was a conjoined twin."
Zemeckis said eventually Violet's soon-to-be husband decided against the marriage and split. She said Daisy tried marriage, but it didn't last long.
Despite their romantic difficulties, the two continued to work the stage and became the highest paid acts in vaudeville. The Hiltons even teamed up with Bob Hope, Zemeckis said.
"They were just a huge part of American entertainment that no longer exists like the carnivals, burlesque and vaudeville acts of the past," Zemeckis said.
The twins died in 1969.
"The two of them were really adored," Zemeckis said. "They just wanted to find love and be loved."
Zemeckis said Baraboo was her third stop after visiting Milwaukee and Florida for her documentary. She is now off to Washington, D.C. to meet with an author who penned a book on the Hiltons.
Zemeckis said she hopes to have her film edited by next fall.
Freese, who was interviewed as part of Zemeckis' documentary, said during the Hilton sisters' careers with the circus the two of them would've been treated well, almost like superstars.
"The circus people had regular work and traveled all over the United States and even different parts of the world," he said.
Freese said the circus was much different than that of carnivals.
"At a circus, people came to see a show," he said. "Going to a carnival back then meant seeing the concession stands and playing the games of chance. Going to the circus was different. It was about the performers. And the Hilton sisters were a big attraction back then."