Clarence E. Willard (1882-1962) was billed as “The Man Who Grows Before Your Eyes”. By manipulating his spine (elongating and contracting the space between his vertebrae) he could grow from 5’10” to 6’4″ in a short time, even as the audience watched. He could also make one leg 4 inches shorter than the other, and do the same with his arms. Watching grass grow is famously boring…but what if it grew half a foot in a matter of seconds?
Willard claimed to have developed the skill in childhood in order to compensate for a left side that was entirely paralyzed. When a boy he had worked for the Barnum and Bailey Circus and been an assistant to Alexander Herrman. He toured American vaudeville and English music hall with a 12 minute spiel full of amusing anecdotes about how he had alarmed people with his unique skill, even as he demonstrated it to audiences. In later years he worked the 1939 World’s Fair, and Ripley’s Believe it Or Not, was a guest on the Ed Sullivan Show, and was even a fortune teller in Atlantic City. According to Ricky Jay, who devotes a chapter to him in Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, he spent his last years in Oakland, California where he managed real estate and owned a restaurant. Today is his birthday.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, including freak acts like Clarence E. Willard’s, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.