Friday, May 23, 2008

Send In The Freaks

Reposted from

Didn’t Sinatra sing a song named that? Send in the freaks? Something like that.

There are subjects I cannot help but be fascinated with. Monkeys, Old West gunfighters, Ernest Hemingway or the Loch Ness Monster. Can’t help it. I’m riveted like R. Kelly at a Chuckie Cheese. (Too far?) Two other items that I am interested by are the circus and the odd. Not the modern politically correct circus, the old-timey circus with colorful tents filled with exotic animals and trapeze artists, sideshow barkers, snake oil salesman selling magical tonics and most important, the freak shows.

You know what I’m talking about. For a few extra bucks, the curious were herded into a tent to see the pinheads, bearded ladies, Siamese twins and other assorted oddities.

I think we should bring the freak show back.

My fascination with the weird and unique goes back to my early childhood. I was raised in the Seattle suburbs, and often my family would go into the city for the day. Most visits we would have lunch at the best fish and chips joint on the planet, Ivar’s. A few doors down from Ivar’s is Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe. A wonderland of the odd and ridiculous. Besides the Kingdome to see the Seahawks or the Mariners, the Curiosity Shoppe was my favorite place in the world as a child. Inside those doors was a magical world of shrunken heads, fake mermaids, a five foot long whale penis (or an oosik to the educated), two headed sheep and the stars of the place; two real mummies. The mummies are in the back. Sylvester and Sylvia. Actual dead bodies naturally mummified by mother earth. Sylvester has a bullet hole just below his ribcage. As a seven year old, it was the incredible thing I had ever seen.

I’m not talking about exploiting anyone. We shouldn’t call them freaks anymore. Maybe they could be called Human Marvels or something. A celebration of the unique. It would give those with a certain challenge the chance to make a good living. What was John Merrick (The Elephant Man) going to do for a living without the circus? An accountant?

We could bring back the showmanship of P.T. Barnum with a little modern compassion. Barnum was a genius. Even his hoaxes were brilliant and entertaining. The Fiji Mermaid, for example. Another beauty, not by Barnum but he copied it, was the Cardiff Giant. An atheist tobacco farmer named George Hull had men carve a ten foot tall man, telling them it was a statue. Then he stained it with various chemicals and buried it for a year. After that time he had some patsy’s dig a well in the spot it was buried and presto; “proof” of the giants spoken of in the Old Testament. He put the big fella in a tent and charged two bits to the curious to take a look. Now it wasn’t real, but you have to admire the effort.

Also when I was a kid, we went to California for a vacation. We took a walk on the Huntington Beach Pier. The details are a little hazy, I was only eleven or so, but there was a souvenir shop on the pier that had a “special exhibit” in the back. For an extra three bucks, you stepped behind a maroon velvet curtain and they had a huge great white shark’s jaw displayed. The theme from Jaws played ominously overhead. I waited till the lady running the shop wasn’t looking and snuck inside. It was amazing. Huge. Rows of serrated teeth that I imagined had eaten four or five surfers in front of me. Then the cranky lady caught me and chucked me out. It was worth the lecture from my Mom.

I want to bring that excitement back to the children. This is really for the kids.

There are a handful of freak shows still going, but they’re not any good. I saw the Jim Rose Circus Side Show as a teenager but didn’t like it. It was just people grossing out the audience. I wasn’t interested in the guy that drank what was pumped into his stomach and then regurgitated or throwing darts into a guys back. Where’s the Lion Faced Boy? That’s what I wanted to see.

(By the way, the people eating gross stuff was in the old freak shows. The performers were referred to as the geek. Yep, that’s where the modern term comes from. They would usually bite the heads off live chickens while women fainted.)

Some of my favorite freak show performers/human marvels of all time include;

The Elephant Man is the king. He’s Babe Ruth.

Zip the Pinhead. He was an all-star. Apparently a very kind man, born to former slaves, that happened to have a very small, slanted head.

Juan Baptista dos Santos; The Man With Two Penises. You read that right. The dude was swinging double junk.

Wang; The Human Unicorn. He had a fourteen inch growth on top of his head. You know, like a unicorn.

General Tom Thumb. He was Barnum’s golden boy. He stood 2 feet 3 inches when he started to perform. His wedding to fellow dwarf Lavinia Warren was a media sensation. Barnum sold tickets to the reception for 75 clams a pop. In 1863, that’s quite an expensive night on the town.

Robert Wadlow; The World’s Tallest Man. Robert reached a staggering height of 8 feet 11 inches. That’s more than a foot taller than Yao Ming. A lifesize mural of Robert is on a wall in the Pike Place Market across from the magic shop.

And my favorite, Francesco Lentini; The Three Legged Man. Apparently he was a good humored chap. When a reporter asked him if it was difficult to buy three shoes, Frank said he buys two pair and gives the remainder to a one legged friend. Zing. While he did show his ability to kick a soccer ball with all three legs, he was known for was his juggling. Seems to me a three armed man should have focused on that.

I dig the artwork of the old side shows. They really were something, stylish and edgy. Plus, there was something cool and exciting about the perceived danger and taboo nature of the shows. I love the romanticized Damon Runyon-esque world of seedy grifters and confidence men running shell games and three card monte. The carnies running the rigged carnival games. Barkers yelling to the masses, “Step right up!” I’m the guy who liked Vegas a lot more when it was shady, dirty, and run by the mob as opposed to the sanitized corporate Sin City we have now. Times Square was better before it was cleaned up and made respectable.

Think of the stylized work of Tim Burton. Especially Big Fish. We could bring that back to the circus and give the, uh, differently advantaged a chance to shine. We add some two headed snakes, an albino alligator, some shrunken heads, a sword swallower (how much guts does it take to try swallowing a sword for the first time?), a snake charmer and a couple sleight of hand magicians and we have a show for the whole family.

There is the possibility that with modern medicine, there are less physical oddities than a century ago, but that just means we have to work harder. Scour the globe for worthy participants. If NBA scouts can find 7 footers in Namibia, surely we can discover a two head guy in India somewhere.

Some of you may think a modern day freak show is in poor taste, but I pose this question; Is it any different than laughing at the idiots on reality television? The brilliant Ricky Gervais said it best. Instead of ripping off his thought, I’ll just quote him. “The Victorian freak show never went away. Now it’s called “Big Brother” or “American Idol,” where in the preliminary rounds we wheel out the bewildered to be sniggered at by multimillionaires.” He’s right. On MTV, “The Real World” continues to roll on, only instead of having real people that have actual jobs, they cast narcissistic, mentally unstable drunkards who want their job to be on MTV and see if they can get them to have an orgy. With cameras rolling. The ridiculous and idiotic will go on the telly and spill their sordid life’s details for 50 bucks and a six pack of Coors.

At least with The Lobster Boy or The Camel Girl, you knew what you were getting. There is an honesty in that.

No comments: