Happy 150th Birthday, Colonel Speck!
Today is the 150th birthday of Fleming W. Ackerman (1863-1946), known professionally and informally as Colonel Speck. The son of a prosperous Moravia, New York businessman, Ackerman was normal sized until he reached the age of four years old, whereupon his growth slowed down considerably. His tallest height in adulthood was four feet four inches. Extremely gifted at music he began singing and playing in local amateur theatricals at around age 8 or 9. His first professional engagement was at a local theatre in Owego with the Tremaine Brothers in 1875. He undertook a regional tour with one Mademoiselle Leon the following year. In 1876 he received an offer of work from P.T. Barnum (he had not yet reached his full height). The family turned it down because the boy was only 13. In 1878 he attended a music conservatory in New York City. While there he not only studied, but he performed professionally and became friendly with the happy quartet of General Tom Thumb, Lavinia Warren, her sister Minnie, and her husband Major Newell.
This association was fortunate, for the following year Warren engaged him as a performer with the Liliputian Opera Company, which toured all over the U.S. and Canada. In 1882 the company folded when their unscrupulous manager fled with the box office take, stranding them in Chicago. They played another season as the Pigmie Picnic Party [sic] under new management and then disbanded. Following this, Speck worked for several months in solo engagements, but overworked himself to the point that he permanently blew out his voice and was forced to retire from show business.
Fortunately he had inherited his father’s acumen as an entrepreneur, and became a successful local businessman in Moravia and surrounding towns operating a photography studio, a telephone exchange and a bus line. He also kept a hand in performing as the Drum Major of a local brass band, Huff’s Cornet Band, which played parades, fairs and other events.
For all the information you will ever need on this interesting character, I recommend The Drum Major of Company A: A Biography of Fleming W. Ackerman a.k.a. Colonel Speck by Frank S. Foti, which may be purchased here.
To find out more about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc