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CARNY SIDESHOWSWEIRD WONDERS OF THE MIDWAY
By Tony Gangi
CITADEL PRESSCopyright © 2010 Tony Gangi
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSIDESHOW SCHOOL or, After Four Years of College, You're Doing What???
And the older boy, bless his soul, is preparing for his career.... Yeah, last season he was a pixiedust spreader on the Tilt-O-Whirl. He thinks maybe next year he'll be guessing people's weight or barking for the Yak woman. -Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
Four years of college; two years of grad school; six years total and untold amounts of money; classroom after boring classroom, and I have to admit that while higher education did, at times, capture my interest, there had to be a way to jazz up the method with which the information was disseminated. The college I attended for both my undergraduate degree and graduate degree was one in the same, and offered nothing more than bland rooms with walls painted in an eye-popping forgettable gray, uncomfortable seats that would ultimately lead to back problems in later life, chalkboards that produced such vast amounts of dust that you risked contracting "white lung disease," and the occasional professor who spent most of the time sauntering around death's doorstep. Rather than fire extinguishers in the corners of the room, you fully expected to find defibrillators available in case one keeled overin the middle of an exam. Alternatively, should the professor be of good enough health, he invariably wore a toupee atop his head that-possibly given his pay scale-was either too large or too small. Next to the defibrillator should have been a glass-covered box with a hairpiece in it with a note on top that read, "In case of hair loss break glass."
The American educational experience has, for the most part, crossed well over the line into the land of the mundane, a place where nothing unexpected happens and where lessons are created and presented by applying the Ben Stein/Ferris Bueller axiom of Information + Monotone (x Boredom) = Education.
It's a relief that neither Ben Stein nor any of the professors I experienced during my college years ever swallowed a sword or ate fire. I fear that they might have injected the act with boredom hereto unknown by the sideshow community.
Which begs the question: Where does one learn such things as sideshow skills? Is it in a room filled with fire extinguishers and medical gear and a nurse waiting in the wings should something go horribly wrong? The answer, thankfully, is no.
Initially, the day I signed on for the course, I went to bed that night with certain images in my head of what the class might be like for me: a man on stage swallowing a sword, a performer blasting fire into the air, a midget on a unicycle, bare feet crunching on glass, vibrant banners surrounding scads of people hammering nails into their noses, Siamese twins talking backward and reciting the Gettysburg Address, and tongues hanging from mouths like dogs panting in the heat, mousetraps affixed to each of them. And aside from the midget and the Siamese twins, my imaginings were spot on.
Tell anyone that you're attending Sideshow School, and the mind reels with the possibilities. For the most part, what the mind comes up with is in a near dead heat to being exactly what the reality of Sideshow School is. You don't find yourself in a stifling room being fed information as a mother would spoon-feed her child, nor do you find the environment overly cautious and fearful of injury. Rather, Sideshow School is a hands-on environment where the only way to learn something is to do it. And you do it all where you would perform it all: on a stage. And the stage where I went to learn it all was on Coney Island, which I'd visited more than once before and after Sideshow School to take in their sideshow.
Donny Vomit-an ideal name for a sideshow performer if there ever was one-is standing on stage juggling. It's toward the end of the show, and it's wrapped up with a unique routine in which Vomit juggles a flaming torch, a machete, and an apple. Infused with Vomit's signature wit and humor and the crossbreeding of said humor with a visceral tension felt by the audience, the act requires Vomit not only to juggle the items but to take bites from the apple while doing so.
The audience, for its part, laughs at the jokes, enjoys the juggling, and hopes secretly for Vomit's curled moustache to catch fire, for him to lob off a finger with the machete, or to see him accidentally bite the head of the flaming torch as if it were the apple-none of which happens. But the audience applauds loudly and enthusiastically nonetheless, leaving the Coney Island Circus Sideshow satisfied and pleased that they'd gotten much more than their money's worth on this bright Saturday afternoon.
Much like Vomit's routine, Coney itself is facing a bit of a juggling act. All in all Coney Island is a city in flux. That's nothing new for Coney Island though. While residents and businesses continue an ongoing fight with the city and real estate developers over the future of the city and what it will become, this place, nostalgically referred to as the City of Fire after it was illuminated at the turn of the century, its twinkling lights cutting through the darkness for miles, throbs with life nonetheless.
Seated by the sea just outside of Manhattan, Coney Island was the home for some of the most spectacular amusement parks in the world. At a time when entertainment was at a premium-hey, look at the folks in middle America, the circus or sideshow or both coming to town was a big deal-Coney Island provided a respite for people living in Manhattan, Long Island, or New Jersey. In the early part of the twentieth century, it was the place to go, where the beaches would teem with bodies clad in bathing suits designed to show as little flesh as possible, and the boardwalk was home to places such as Dreamland, Steeplechase, and Luna Park. There might be a million tales to be told of the naked city, but for Coney Island there's probably a billion-or two billion. But now in this time of change, a new chapter is being written in the history of Coney Island, and what sort of future it brings this city has yet to be written. But, certainly, one of the places that will follow through to that future will be the organization known as Coney Island USA.
Situated in a building on the corner of 12th Street and Surf Avenue on Coney Island, Coney Island USA is a nonprofit arts organization founded by Dick Zigun, who is one of those rare, true, through-and-through lovers of bizarre American culture, which isn't surprising when you take into consideration that Zigun grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the home of the original showman, P. T. Barnum himself. In his youth, Zigun attended such Bridgeport staples as the Wingding Parade and the Barnum Festival that the city hosted each summer. All of these were surely nothing more than the ingredients of a larger recipe for low-level brainwashing or, possibly, a sort of Boys from Brazil gone haywire, with the goal being the reintroduction of not Hitler but Barnum into twenty-first-century society. "By the time I was nine years old," Zigun said, "I was a Barnum scholar and convinced elephants and midgets were patriotic."
Making just as deep an impression on Zigun as the city in which he spent his youth was the first sideshow he witnessed, at which he had the opportunity to see the John Strong Sideshow. It was there that he and his family watched Melvin Burkhart, the man who made the Human Blockhead act famous in America, hammer a nail that appeared to be the size of a railroad spike into his head.
"We would go down to Seaside Park where the Straight Show would come in. And my dad was a big fan of being cheap and having us walk around and watch the Veg-O-Matic guy for free. Now, even at an early age I was always advocating to go into the sideshow. And one year my father decided we were all old enough. I have a brother that's three years older and twin sisters that are five years younger. So we all went into the sideshow. My sister Renee watched Melvin Burkhart hammer a nail into his head, and vomited. And somehow my career choice was decided then and there," Zigun said.
You can't get family entertainment any better than that, can you? That experience sealed Zigun's fate. He attained two degrees in theater, one of which was an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, and then moved to New York City. But instead of aspiring to the Great White Way, he turned his attention to Coney Island.
"I was crazy and knew that Coney Island was the place to use as a staging ground," he said. "Because here it's not art about popular culture, it is popular culture."
Coney Island USA runs their sideshow seasonally, from April until mid to late September. The shows operate most weekdays and every weekend, with performers hitting the stage at one in the afternoon. The run time of the show is approximately a half an hour, and once one show ends the next begins almost immediately (this is called a grind), thus, it's constantly running throughout the day. Showing up in the middle of one show? That's fine. Stay until you've seen what you've already seen, and then find your way to the egress (that's exit to you and me). "We're doing the same grind they were doing a hundred years ago," Zigun noted.
The only difference being that Coney Island USA's show isn't a traveling sideshow. It's stationary. The downside of which is that unless you're visiting New York City, no one else in the country has the opportunity to see exactly how good this show is.
The Coney Island Circus Sideshow operates on the 10-in-1 structure, that is, you're seeing ten acts in one show. Not all sideshows operate on this structure. Some might have a handful of acts (4 or 5) as well as a small museum of curios or other bizarre objects or might have living animal oddities such as a two-headed calf or snake. A few years back I attended a Strawberry Festival on Long Island and stumbled on something sideshow folks like to call a single-o, a single act or sideshow exhibit housed in a lone tent. On this occasion the tent claimed to harbor a giant horse. "HUMONGOUS!" and "GARGANTUAN!" the tent banners read. After paying our few bucks, my friend, Tom LaSusa, and I entered to find a Clydesdale. It's all in your perspective. In comparison to other horses, the Clydesdale surely is a giant horse. And that's how sideshows work. Sometimes they're really showing you that two-headed snake or calf they're claiming to have, and sometimes the truth is bent as far as it can be bent before it entirely snaps off.
So the structure of the sideshow is flexible. Don't have enough acts? Then make one up. Or find another act. Back in 1997 or 1998 when I first stumbled on the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, one of the acts was an insect eater, a woman who hunkered down before the audience and gobbled fistfuls of maggots and other creepy crawlies. While that act isn't in the Coney Island show's current incarnation, they've found other acts to include to keep the audiences paying to get in. There's always something people will pay to see.
The Coney Island Circus Sideshow runs on ten solid acts woven into an incredibly tight-knit show. Though it must be said that it does suffer at times from the grind. While it's certainly honorable that they're doing a constant grind similar to what sideshows did years ago, it does at times visibly wear on the performers. I had the opportunity to see the sixth or seventh show into the grind on one day, and the first show of the grind on another day. The energy level was markedly different, which when you consider how many shows they're doing, isn't unexpected. And that's not to say the show where the energy level was down wasn't a good one. For me seeing a sideshow has gotten to be a bit like sex, pizza, or hamburgers. Even the bad ones are good ones.
I've seen the Coney Island Circus Sideshow many times over the years since first seeing it, and each year the lineup of acts changes slightly. This year the acts included the human blockhead, snake charming, sword-swallowing, the blade box (an illusion), a freak act (a true human oddity), Miss Electro (an act using electricity coursing through a performer's body), a brief trap act, juggling, a whip act, and a fire act, giving us ten acts.
An offbeat thought hits me partway through the show that this strange sort of menagerie of entertainers that Coney Island USA features had all at one time or another sought to attend some form of sideshow school. Maybe it wasn't anything nearly as organized as the Sideshow School that Coney Island USA offers today, but at one time they searched for a mentor to teach them what they now feature to curious onlookers on a daily basis. They made a conscious choice not only to learn these skills but to set themselves apart from others, to make themselves different, and to feature their differences in the spotlight.
Collect these performers in one place, and what you have is a menagerie: Donny Vomit, juggler and human blockhead; Heather Holiday, sword-swallower and blade box contortionist; Serpentina, snake charmer and electric chair performer; and Jason Black, a true anatomical wonder or freak. It reads like the casting call for a B movie, but makes for the pieces of a show that can keep any audience rapt with attention.
Donny Vomit hails from Oklahoma and has the appearance of an old Western saloon piano player, his well-groomed, curled and twisted moustache underscoring his wry smile and the glint in his eyes. His love of the sideshow and desire to be in one brought him to Coney Island.
"Around 1997, I joined my first sideshow," Vomit recalled. "Rouks Circus Pandemonium. A glorious name for what was a handful of teenage friends looking to do anything different. We were living in the middle of the Bible Belt in Oklahoma and wanting to shock and amaze anyone we could. The troupe itself burnt fast and bright (sometimes literally) and only performed a handful of shows. Performers tired of the stunts or moved on to bands, or girlfriends, or school. I stuck with it.
"I continued to perform solo throughout my college years. Punk and Rockabilly shows are where I cut my teeth. Once I hit my midtwenties, I had to make a hard choice, stay in Oklahoma with my friends and family or move to the only place that I could think of to make a living hammering nails into my face. I went to Coney Island."
Within a few months of moving to New York, Vomit landed the job of talker on the bally stage at the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, where he performed (and still performs) three acts per show, eight shows per day, five days a week, six months a year. This was his dream job.
In the show, Vomit acts as a sort of narrator or host, as well as performing a human blockhead routine where he not only hammers a nail into his nose but also uses a power drill to drive a spinning bit into his head. He also recites a nasty little poem about the relationship between his tongue and a mousetrap, and does the edge-of-your-seat juggling routine mentioned earlier.
As the group's snake charmer, Serpentina dances and mesmerizes one of the largest and longest albino pythons you've ever seen. Heaving the snake over her shoulders, she towers over the audience as she moves about the stage, undulating and dancing, all the while keeping constant control of the snake and attempting to convey to the audience that, through it all, through the dance and this very different kind of grind, she and the snake are almost one. There's real danger here, as other snake charmers have been bitten quite badly. Not venomous, python bites are still powerful and can draw blood. And a rule of thumb is never to be alone with one since pythons kill their prey through suffocation via constriction. And true to her art, once the 2008 season ended, she found her way to a surgeon who split her tongue in a manner befitting a snake charmer. Her forked tongue now adds to her appeal as a snake charmer.
And despite Heather Holiday's diminutive frame, she works as the troupe's sword-swallower (gentlemen in the back row, please keep your innuendo-laced comments to yourselves, thank you very much). Using her size to her advantage, Holiday shocks the audience with her skill and leaves them wondering how she can get swords the length of the ones she's using down her throat.
Excerpted from CARNY SIDESHOWS by Tony Gangi Copyright © 2010 by Tony Gangi. Excerpted by permission.
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