Curtis Eriksmoen, Published July 26 2009
Silent-movie giant grew up – and up – in North Dakota
Johan/John Aasen, who was reputed to have been 8 feet, 9 inches tall, found himself in big demand at circuses, fairs, carnivals and promotional events. He is most remembered for his appearances in movies starring Harold Lloyd, W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy and the “Our Gang” ensemble.
In Aasen’s first motion picture, “Why Worry?” starring Harold Lloyd, he received favorable reviews from most entertainment publications, including Variety, which reported, “The big hits are given over to Lloyd and the giant (Aasen).”
Aasen was born March 5, 1890, in Minneapolis to Kristina (Danielsen) Aasen. When Johan was 10 years old, his mother moved to Sheyenne in Eddy County to operate a restaurant. Her family, which included Johan and two younger siblings, lived above the establishment.
In fall 1902, Aasen’s mother died and friends tried to help raise the three children. Aasen initially lived with Tom Eikom in rural Foster County, and was then sent to live with the Anders Bymoen family northeast of New Rockford.
Aasen was small for his age and became good friends with Lawrence Buck, who was a dwarf.
In 1907, Gudbrand “Gilbert” Bymoen, a son of Anders, moved to Leeds to operate the Gloppen House, which he renamed the Leeds Hotel. Aasen helped at the hotel, and he remained there for three years before returning to the farm near New Rockford.
Aasen began to grow rapidly in his teens because of a malfunction of his pituitary gland. He said that by the time he was 15, he stood 6 feet, 8 inches tall. As Aasen’s height soared, he realized that he could make some easy money working in carnivals.
By 1917, Aasen was employed by the Sells-Floto Circus that two years earlier featured Buffalo Bill Cody as one of its attractions. Later in 1917, Aasen became a traveling salesman with the Midway Chemical Co. of St. Paul. His territory was the region around Huron, S.D.
Aasen soon quit the job because of the strain of traveling. He went to Minneapolis, where he was reunited with Buck at exhibition shows. He then joined Clarence Wortham’s traveling carnival and became its highest-paid performer. Wortham died in 1922, and the carnival was disbanded. Aasen returned to Minneapolis.
Meanwhile, movie producer Hal Roach was preparing to film the comedy “Why Worry?” One of the major roles called for a giant who helps the star, Harold Lloyd, as they escape from a foreign prison and fight revolutionaries. The producer read an article about the enormous shoes a cobbler needed to make for Aasen. Roach scheduled a meeting with Aasen in Chicago and hired him on the spot.
During the rest of the silent-movie era, Aasen teamed up with some of the best comedians in the business. But his film work was limited because he was typecast based on his size. Besides films, Aasen did promotional work, played the role of the giant in a stage production of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and made appearances with circuses, including Al Barnes, Barnum & Bailey and the Foley Burk Show.
Aasen loved Los Angeles because he never had to look for work. He said, “When there’s a job, people will look up a giant.” Aasen was also well off financially, having invested most of his money in the stock market.
That changed in 1929 with the collapse of Wall Street and the onset of the Great Depression. It was also when “talkies” came on the scene. Aasen’s style of visual comedy was greatly reduced because more emphasis was placed on dialogue.
Aasen had a minor role in the Tod Browning cult classic “Freaks” in 1932, but waited four years before appearing in his next movie, “Charlie Chan at the Circus.”
At the same time, his health began to rapidly deteriorate. During the last years of his life, Aasen was in and out of the hospital for foot infections, an enlarged liver, secondary anemia and cancer.
To help pay for rising medical bills, Aasen willed his body to Dr. Charles Humberd in Barnard, Mo. He died on Aug. 1, 1938. After he was dissected for research purposes, the soft parts were cremated and buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, Calif. Humberd kept Aasen’s skeleton, which he hung from his living room ceiling.
Last week I reported that Bismarck State College was the first two-year college in North Dakota because of legislation passed in 1931. Two-year colleges in Wahpeton and Bottineau existed long before 1931. They were authorized by the state constitution ratified in 1889. What Senate Bill 209 provided in 1931 was a mechanism to allow cities to authorize a two-year college in their community if the vote and financial mill levy were sufficient.
“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at firstname.lastname@example.org