172 Bradford Street

172 Bradford Street Condominium

172 Bradford Street. [2013, Dunlap]

The divorce proceedings between Howard and Ruth (Lema) Knowles were covered — with perhaps a bit too much relish — by The Salt Lake Tribune on 3 July 1932.

Text last updated on 7 September 2018 | The most interesting couple in Provincetown? Designating the winners would be too daunting a task. But among the finalists, you would have to count the vaudevillian Howard Atkins Knowles (1884-1954) — who played a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz, among other roles — and his wife, Justina Laura “Ruth” (Lema) Knowles (±1871-1948), who lived here in the 1930s and ’40s. Ruth Knowles’s parents, Antone Lema and Mary Silva Lema, had both been born in the Azores.

“After education in the Provincetown schools, she toured the country as a stock company actress with the Sam T. Jack stock company,” the Advocate obituary noted, avoiding the use of the word “burlesque,” even though that was what Sam T. Jack was known for. His “living statue” tableaux vivants, featuring young women dressed only in tights that matched their skin color, were damned by the gatekeepers of morality. Members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union attended a performance in Chicago and concluded: “The whole performance was plainly designed to inflame the passions of the men, who had evidently come in for that very purpose. … These are places where moral leprosy is cultivated and spread.” Was Ruth Knowles a “living statue”? That would be hard to square with her membership in the Catholic Daughters of the Americas and the Confraternity of the Most Holy Rosary. But she must at least have been exposed to some of the more raffish elements of show business.

Howard Knowles, whose family came from Truro, was the star in the household. He was 3 feet 8 inches tall, and weighed 67 pounds, according to his draft registration card. Born in Maine, he grew up in North Truro and Wellfleet. In the early 20th century, he toured with the Royal Lilliputian company, and was described by The Boston Globe in 1901 as “one of the most popular fun-makers in the organization.” When the company hit Baltimore in 1904 with its staging of Gulliver’s Travels, The Sun said: “The little people are remarkably clever comedians, and enter into their work with a pleasing dash and swing.”

Before the decade was out, Knowles had paired with the much taller James Marco, a contortionist, and they performed as the Marco Twins, a cheekily ironic name. Catching their act at the fabled Auditorium Theater in Chicago in 1907, Variety reported that their “eccentric nonsensicalities” had “created a furore of laughter.” Not bad, considering that W. C. Fields was on the same bill. At the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Knowles was temporarily trapped in Austria-Hungary, unable to leave.

Census takers in 1930 found Knowles living here, at 172 Bradford Street, with his wife and 85-year-old mother. But it was in their Truro home that things seemed to fall apart, according to a divorce suit that Knowles filed in 1932. On one occasion, he testified, his 5-foot-4-inch wife had hurled him through the kitchen. “I soared across the room like a rocket and landed in a chair,” he told the judge in Barnstable. At other times, he said, she had thrown a kettle of boiling water at him, threatened to hit him over the head with a frying pan, and routinely addressed him as “runt” and “shrimp.” She denied everything, and told the judge the tension in the household was caused by Knowles’s “niggardly attitude about money.” I don’t know yet when the divorce took effect, but in 1941, Knowles signed a declaration renouncing any claim to 172 Bradford Street.

By that time, he had joined the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, making his home in Tampa, Fla. Under the stage name “Howard Marco” — though uncredited — Knowles was one of the many Munchkins in the fabled 1939 movie version of The Wizard of Oz, according to British Film Institute: Film Classics (Volume 1). He retired from the circus around 1946. Two years later, Ruth died. Knowles followed, in 1954.

“Showman Brought Joy to Thousands,” was the headline in the Advocate over the article reporting his death, which said that Knowles “was so identified with Provincetown and Truro that the Lower Cape has always claimed him.”

The Lema family owned 172 Bradford until 1970. The property was purchased in 2005 by Vincent J. Cottone and John Spazzarini. The next year, they converted it into a three-unit condo. The current owners live in Boston; Key West, Fla.; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Thomas Saudade wrote on 6 September 2018: You should seriously consider adding 172 Bradford Street, once owned by 3-foot-8-inch-tall vaudeville stage and screen actor Howard Knowles, a/k/a Howard Marco, most famous perhaps for playing the part of “So Shorty” in the Marco Twins comedy act, and also a Munchkin villager in the classic 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz.

¶ Republished on 28 September 2023.

172 Bradford Street on the Town Map, showing property lines.

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