"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Sideshow Memories

The Minnesota State Fair is approaching and I was just thinking about the midway attractions. There's still the remnants of a sideshow, full of poor magic and stunts, but I remember when I was a child and it was filled with people born with unusual genetic defects. Political correctness removed that element from it, so I thought it would be worthwhile to explain what it was really like.

What I remember were the Alligator Lady, Lobster Boy, Pop-Eye and, briefly, Blockhead. The first was a woman with ichthyosis, a skin condition now readily treatable and even at the time usually controllable. The second was someone (actually a series of someones) who had two digits on each hand, which struck me as nothing particularly interesting, as I grew up next to a family that had mondactyly (I still see two of them occasionally) and this guy had twice as many fingers. Pop-Eye had the ability to make his eye protrude about an inch from his head, which was a real show-stopper of a stunt; what shocked me was that the poster outside showed him to be of the wrong race - I've seen four people who had this same ability and all happened to be black, probably distantly related - except for the two weeks of the fair, he (I think his name was Mike) worked as an accountant in Minneapolis and no one would ever know he had this second identity. Blockhead was a true geek, in that he was in no way special except for what he was willing to do; his main claim to fame was driving a smallish railroad spike through his nostril into a sinus cavity (hence, "Blockhead"), far further than you would imagine possible; he was not a very likeable guy and seemed to drift in and out of various circuses.

There was trepidation on entering the sideshow, fear of the unknown. Then, on meeting the performers, you realized they were quite average and boring people and you had been duped out of your money. It is that actual face-to-face contact with people born with deformities, however, that is missing in our lives now and I think that's a real loss. Sure, there were kids who would taunt or tease, but they were generally scolded by an adult for their bad behavior; it was a learning experience in tolerance. Today, we are distanced from such things; seeing something on the internet is not the same and you lose the touch of humanity, of "we're all in this together and basically the same and, well, I'm glad I don't have that particular problem, but I'm glad to see it's not the end of the world to have it and they seem to be doing okay." That, of course, is an oversimplification and rationalization. For example, I remember being fascinated by a performer with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome ("Plastic Man?" "Elastic Man?" "Rubber Man?"), who could stretch the skin on his neck up over the tip of his nose, like it was a turtleneck sweater; if you knew that it also caused such joint pain that he had was addicted to heavy narcotics, it was less fascinating. You had to get to know them - that was the point (for me, at least).

When all the "freakshows" closed, the performers had to retire and their options actually became lessened. Many of the famous circus sideshow people ended up in Jupiter, Florida, where they had their own little community. Most tried things like telephone sales to make a living, but they never made the same money they made on the circuit (This is according to "The Two-Faced Man," who I met; the poor guy very rarely went out in public).

The closest one can come to the old shows now is Tod Browning's 1932 film "Freaks." It takes a bit to get used to the various performers, but then one sees that they're all pretty decent people and it's the "normals" that aren't. I actually met two of the actors from that film. Angelo Rossitto, a dwarf, when not acting in one of the 50 movies he was in in a 50 year career, ran a newsstand in Los Angeles. Johnny Eck, whose torso appeared to end just below his ribcage, lived with his brother and supplemented the family income by selling paintings he made (I had one, now lost).

Otherwise, your best bets are the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, which has a very scientific view of the subject or very old medical texts, such as "Medical Anomalies and Curiosities" by Gould and Pyle (1901) [Entire text available here]

I promise I'll warn you next time I post something like this.

Today, sideshows are starting to edge back to where they once were. The Coney Island Circus Sideshow and the Jim Rose Circus started with the usual stunt artists, though usually more risque than sword-swallowing or contortionism, but have started to employ people doing those things who also were born with some unusual characteristic - dwarves, bearded ladies, etc. Even the State Fair sideshow employs a dwarf (or did, Pete "Pooba" Terhune must be almost 90 years old by now).

Hmm. I could go for a corn dog just about now.

1 comment:

JojaJogger said...

If you can find a copy, you might find the book "In Search of the Monkey Girl" of interest. (sounds like you may have met some of the folks in the book)