On Dime Museums and Side Shows

DIME MUSEUMS

The dime museum is the parent of manifold children, including vaudeville (vaudeville has many parents) and the side show.

The public exhibition of freaks and oddities dates at least as far back as Medieval times. In the United States, examples abound from the early 18th century on. It was P.T. Barnum who professionalized the practice as an industry in the 1840s, presenting it on a scale theretofore never dreamt of with his various incarnations of the American Museum, and inventing the modern art of public relations along the way. Barnum’s Museum was not the specialized, academic and impersonal institution we associate with museums today. It was a for-profit corporation combining elements of natural history museums, historical museums, zoos, sideshows, and funhouses. Barnum’s American Museum was a veritable palace of entertainment, the Disney World of its day, occupying several floors and, in its biggest incarnation, taking up nearly an entire city block.

While Barnum is famous for his humbug, plenty of his exhibitions were genuinely educational, and the institution was eminently respectable in comparison to the later dime museums and sideshows it inspired. While the American Museum did showcase such whimsical whim-wham as the Feejee Mermaid, Zip the Pinhead, and the Wooly Horse, it also offered Americans their first glimpse of a hippopotamus, an ourang-outang, a giraffe, and a beluga whale.

Initially, the Lecture Room of the Museum was just a place for talks on natural history, philosophy, and the like. But Barnum’s experience as a variety producer told him that a steady turn over of entertaining acts would drive repeat business, however, and he was in need of cash. If the “lectures” began to consist of juggling exhibitions, magic, ventriloquism and magic-lantern shows, he would sell more tickets.

The variety in Barnum’s Lecture Room was an undeniable precursor to vaudeville. Variety acts presented there (not including the human oddities) included: trapeze artist H.W. Penny, the famous clown Dan Rice, Chinese juggler Yan Zoo, the Swiss Bell Ringers, Professor Hutchings the “Lightning Calculator”, magician and ventriloquist Antonio Blitz, Benjamin Pelham the “Great Paginini Whistler”, Bini the “Unrivaled Guitarist”, clog dancer Tim Hayes, the Martinetti Family wrestlers, Young Nicolo the Great Child Wonder (an 11 year old trapeze artist), Miss Darling ( a lady magician), monologist and impersonator Dr. Valentine, ballad singer H.G. Sherman, and no end of gypsy fortune tellers, minstrels, contortionists, ventriloquists, trained animals, tattooed men, puppeteers, flea circuses, rope dancers, and automata – literally hundreds of performers.

When the last iteration of Barnum’s American Museum burned to the ground in 1868, he went into the circus business. But that did not mean the death of the Barnumism in the museum business. The vast fortunes accumulated by Barnum (and no doubt the fun he had in acquiring them) were inspirational to scores of younger entrepreneurs, and they created an entire industry out of what had once been anathema to respectable businessmen. By the 1870s, all medium and large sized American cities had museums modeled after Barnum’s. Some were similar to Barnum’s in size and scope, but most were small fly-by-night affairs set up in storefronts, familiar to anyone who has seen the film The Elephant Man. A handful of curios would be on view, wax figures, oddities of nature, sideshow freaks, and generally a variety show. In recognition of their popular prices, they were called dime museums. For a time, New York’s Bowery supported a veritable strip of them: Bunnell’s (the first, largest and most respectable, founded by a protégé of Barnum’s), Morris and Hickman’s East Side Museum, the New York Museum, the Windsor Museum, Worth’s Museum (which had a menagerie), the Grand Museum, owned by one “Broken Nose” Burke, and the Globe Museum, which was partly owned by George Middleton, who’d later play a role in the evolution of the Orpheum vaudeville circuit.

As time went on, the amusement industry began to move uptown. Huber’s was on 14th Street. The Eden Musee, a house of wax modeled on Madame Tussaud’s which opened in 1883, was on 23rd. One of the more significant players who learned the ropes there was Sylvester Poli, who later opened his own dime museums in upstate New York and New England, gradually transforming them into vaudeville theatres.

Dime museums were widely touted as a relatively wholesome alternative for a working class family who wanted to take in a little entertainment, including a variety show. In addition to the armless and legless wonders, skeleton dudes, bearded women, fat ladies, pickled embryos in jars, and mentally retarded children passed off as “Aztecs”, many future vaudevillians got their start working on the variety stages of dime museums. Among them, comedians Weber and Fields, Harry Houdini, the Three Keatons, W.C. Fields (then a juggler), blackface comics** McIntyre and Heath, acrobat Joe E. Brown, and singer Maggie Cline.

In Boston, B.F. Keith (who’d worked for both Barnum and Bunnell) and a partner named Batchhelder opened the Gaiety Museum in 1883. Here he displayed the likes of Baby Alice (a prematurely born infant), a stuffed mermaid, a tattooed man, a chicken with a human face, and acts like Weber & Fields, laying the foundation for the nationwide vaudeville circuit that would bear his name.

After the nineteen-teens, dime museums would grow increasingly rare, gradually supplanted by the various more modern institutions it helped spawn, not only vaudeville, but cinema (one of the first exhibitions ironically had been at the Eden Musee in 1895), and modern not-for-profit museums.

In New York, the last of the original era dime museums, Hubert’s (which featured a flea circus), founded in Times Square in 1924, closed its doors for good in 1965.

SIDE SHOWS

The side show as a separate, specialized variety form begins around the same time as dime museums and flourished in its original incarnation until around the 1950s. Side shows were a part of circuses, carnivals, fairground midways (including all the great World’s Fairs), and amusement parks like New York’s Coney Island. Side shows specialized in the outré and bizarre. Historically the sorts of acts presented included “born” freaks such as midgets, dwarfs and giants, limbless people, fat ladies and skeleton dudes, alongside “made” freaks like bearded women and tattooed men. Skill-based acts included fire eaters, sword swallowers, contortionists, et al. The most fabulous of the Coney Island sideshows was probably the Dreamland Circus Sideshow. 

REVIVAL

In 1980, Yale theatre graduate Dick Zigun revived the art of the sideshow at Coney Island,U.S.A. His Sideshows by the Seashore featured the occasional freak like the armless, legless “Human Cigarette Factory” and a dwarf named Koko the Killer Klown, but relied more consistently on skill-based acts: contortionists, escape artists, snake charmers, fire-eaters, sword swallowers, and fakirs that could lie on a bed of nails and walk on broken glass. Todd Robbins, Jennifer Miller and the Bindlestiffs are among his well-known alum. Zigun’s institution flourishes to this day and is now the only sideshow left in Coney Island, which used to have dozens.

Ironically, while Coney Island USA does have a museum, it is not a dime museum. I do not mean they do not charge only a dime; in fact they charge only a penny. I mean that as a modern not-for-profit, they are set up to present only legitimate, bona fide historical artifacts – no humbug allowed.

Others have attempted to revive the dime museum, however.

* James Taylor’s and Richard Horne’s American Dime Museum, which operated in Baltimore from 1999 to 2007. This was followed by Taylor’s Palace of Wonders which opened in Washington DC in 2006 (but only sporadically shows his collections).

* In New York, there was Johnny Fox’s Freakatorium, which operated from 1999 through 2005.

* In terms of chronology, if not in collections, I can claim to have them both beat, however. From 1996 through 2000 I operated a sporadic project with my company Mountebanks called the New American Lyceum.The main difference between mine and the others is there’s NO ONE gullible enough to believe in the claims for my exhibits, but I cheerfully exhibit them anyway. Some of my attractions have included:

The Genuine and Only Known Testicles of Napoleon Bonaparte

* The Genuine and Only Known Testicles of Napoleon Bonpaparte

* The Buttprint of Bigfoot (a plaster cast of an extremely large buttocks)

* The Hairy Family

* Sample of The Waters of Loch Ness

* A Piece of the Iceberg that Sank the Titanic, Unrefrigerated

* The “Real” Marie Leaveau, 160 Year Old Voodoo Priestess

The Lyceum debuted in conjunction with my American Vaudeville Theatre at Todo Con Nada in 1996, as a small scale blow-off, featuring Napoleon’s Testicles, Good Dog Jesus (genetically engineered crossbreed mutt using a DNA sample from the Sacred Shroud of Turin (below), and a Diorama depicting the recent Gulf War.

Good Dog Jesus

In 1997, it reached its apogee…a large scale exhibition of over one hundred objects at the historic Gilded-Age era Williamsburg Art & Historical Center.  I must say, this was one of the most amazing (and weird) things, I’ve ever done…table after table containing objects like the ones I described above, in this atmospheric dusty old bank building. As an added bonus the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus were performing upstairs then, drawing hundreds of patrons through my exhibit. The tv show Oddville, MTV shot a bunch of footage of it — I don’t know if it made it on air.

After that, in 1998, I operated the Lyceum as a sideshow when they performed at Brooklyn Brewery and at the Bank, a Goth club on Houston Street that closed in 1999. (My largest exhibit for those shows was the body of an Area 51 alien, which I duly rented from a prop house, which, for the record, didn’t tell me that it WASN’T the actual body of an Area 51 Alien).

The end of the line for the original iteration of the Lyceum was the Present Company Theatorium where I kept a display case when I was renting an office there. At this stage I was the father of two young boys, and didn’t have much time to dream up silly exhibits and maintain them. My exhibit fell into a pathetic disrepair (I believe I was reduced to displaying some crumpled aluminum foil as some of the UFO metal from the fallen craft at Roswell at that stage). I took it down after a time, and that, as they say, has been that for the Lyceum for the past decade. But you bet your bippy that, if the right pieces fell into place again, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

In the meantime, New York offers two excellent dime museum- like experiences nowadays right in the heart of Times Square: Madame Tussaud’s and the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Odditorium. Though each cost substantially more than a dime, I heartily endorse these experiences.

To learn more about the variety arts past and present, including dime museums and sideshows, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

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