Johnny Eck, King of the Freaks
Today is the birthday of the amazing Johnny Eck (John Eckhardt, Jr., 1911-1991), best known for his role in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). It is often assumed that Eck was born “cut off at the waist”, but in fact he did have miniature, non-functioning legs, which he had strapped close to his body with a special contraption. Born with a fraternal brother named Robert who closely resembled him and was fully-formed, the two staged a notorious act in Rajah Raboid’s magic show in 1937. Raboid would pretend to saw Robert in half; then Johnny would emerge from the box as though his legs had been cut off. Spectators were known to faint or flee the theatre during this act.
Johnny had first joined a sideshow as a single-o in 1923, with this brother coming along to watch after him. Billed as “The Half-Man”, he also worked at Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey, as well as Ripley’s Believe it or Not and the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. In addition to Freaks he also appeared as a Gooney Bird in three Tarzan pictures: Tarzan the Ape-Man (1932), Tarzan Escapes (1936) and Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941). After this, he returned to his hometown of Baltimore, living in a house with his brother Robert. The two men operated a penny arcade and a children’s train ride in a local amusement park (which Johnny operated as the engineer). In his last decades, he concentrated on his hobbies of screen painting and putting on Punch and Judy shows for the local kids.
Here are some home movies of Eck clowning around for the camera, thoughtfully cut to some rockabilly, with some bonus footage of Willie “Popeye” Ingram:
To learn more about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc