I’ve wanted to do a post here on Hubert’s Museum, the old Times Square freak show, for the longest time, having written about many people who performed there and given it a mention in my book No Applause. The long delay arose from a lack of photographs. Oh, don’t get me wrong — there are plenty of photos of Hubert’s online and great ones, but they all seem to have been taken by Diane Arbus, whose estate is pretty famous for keeping a tight rein on the use of her images, and we have no budget for such things at Travalanche. And, truly, any Arbus image is as much about the photographer herself as it is its subject, and my only agenda here would be to talk about the museum. Recently, though, on a German website I found the two images you see in this post. I’ve altered them both: one for clarity, one for composition, so you can better see what was there (I know the one above looks funky, but trust me, it shows what’s there better than the faded original.)
Hubert’s is often thought of as “the last dime museum“. It was located in Times Square, roughly where Madame Tussaud’s is today, from 1925 through 1969. I wrote about the history of dime museums here. While it makes perfect, logical sense for one to be located in Times Square, Hubert’s was a bit of a an anomaly, reflective of its own time and place. By “perfect sense”, I mean, of course, because it was located in the entertainment district. When dime museums and sideshows had flourished in the past, they had sprung up in places like the Bowery area, Coney Island, or the transitional theatre districts that briefly existed in the years when Manhattan’s neighborhoods of fun inched gradually uptown to Times Square (first around 14th Street, then around 23rd Street). And the existence of Madame Tussaud’s, Ripleys Believe It or Not, and Discovery Times Square in the area today makes the sense same kind of sense.
But, interestingly Hubert’s lived the bulk of its life in Times Square NOT during the Broadway district’s first heyday (circa 1900 through the Jazz Age), but during the first phase of its decay. It arrived at the same time as the conversion of many Broadway “legit” theatres into burlesque houses and cinemas. It was thought by many to mean that the theatre district was losing its class. (A similar thing was happening in Coney Island at the same time.) The process accelerated during the Depression. And Huberts’ eventual closing in 1965 marked a similar moment, an even further “decline” as the neighborhood seemed to be surrendering entirely to porn cinemas, peep shows, gaming arcades, prostitution, drug dealing and the like. So though, Hubert’s was “the last dime museum”, it wasn’t from the original era, it was very much of the mid-20th century. It was its own chapter.
“Hubert” was one Hubert Miller or Muller, although who he was beyond this I cannot say. Previous to discovering that he was a real guy in this NY Times item, I had long suspected that the museum was named to suggest an association with Huber’s Museum [no “T”] which was one of the great dime museums from the golden age and a New York City institution. That one had been founded by George Huber, in partnership with E.M. Worth, and it existed on the block between east 13th and 14th Streets from 1888 through 1910. (Worth, who had his own museum dropped out of the partnership in 1890.) Many of the legendary freaks, like Jo-Jo the Dog Faced Boy, played Huber’s, and in the late 1890s it became one of the first places in the world to regularly exhibit cinema. For half a minute when I first started investigating this stuff many decades ago I confused the two institutions. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to speculate that when Hubert’s was founded there may have been an effort to conflate it with people’s vague memories of the legendary Huber’s which was shuttered a decade and half earlier. At least that’s what I would have done!
Anyway, prior to Times Square, Hubert Miller (or Muller) was operating out of Coney Island. He started screening films at a hotel formerly known as Wackes out there in 1914. In 1917 he opened the first Hubert’s Museum at the the corner of the Bowery and Henderson’s Walk in Coney. It was still going a decade later, when the joint was busted for exhibiting models in an “immoral art pose”.
In 1925, Miller opened his new Times Square museum at 228-232 West 42nd Street, the former site of a restaurant called Murray’s Roman Gardens. In the 1930s when the Depression hit, he moved the museum to the basement and the ground floor became an arcade.
The legendary acts who perfomed at Hubert’s included at least two from the movie Freaks: Lady Olga the Bearded Lady and Prince Randian the Human Caterpillar. Also: Zip the Pinhead, Professor Hecklers Flea Circus, William Durks the Man With Three Eyes, Susie the Elephant Skin Girl, Eddie Carmel, the “Jewish Giant,” Waldo the Human Ostrich, Lorett Fulkerson the Tattooed Lady, Albert-Alberta the half-man/half-woman, Congo the Jungle Creep (a “Wild Man” who was actually from Haiti), Lady Estelline the sword swallower, voodoo jungle snake dancer Princess Sahloo, DeWise Purdon (a man with no hands),Slydini, Melvin Burkhart the Human Blockhead, magician Earl “Presto” Johnson, the World’s Tallest Cowboy; the Backwards Man; and a man who could smoke pipes and blow up balloons using his tear ducts. Tiny Tim started out singing at Hubert’s. Athletes like boxer Jack Johnson “lectured” there.
Famous people who slummed in the audience at Hubert’s included Cole Porter (who went there in 1940 to seek out Lady Olga to invite her to a party being given by Monty Woolley at the Ritz Carlton), Lenny Bruce (who worked up a routine about Albert-Alberta), journalist A. J. Liebling, the aforementioned Arbus, Tom Wolfe, Bob Dylan, and Andy Kaufman (as a kid).
In its last years the frontage looked like this. The Playland Arcade was on the first floor; Hubert’s was, as we said in the basement.
You can catch a final glimpse of Hubert’s Museum in the movie Midnight Cowboy (1969). The museum had officially closed by then, but the signage was still up and individual exhibits and performers were still operating in the space. In 1970 the space became Peepland and we were fully in the era of The Deuce.