Archive for the Dime Museum and Side Show Category

Three Terrific Trav S.D. Talks on Coney Island

Posted in Amusement Parks, BROOKLYN, Coney Island, Dime Museum and Side Show, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Hollywood (History), Human Anomalies (Freaks), Little People, ME, My Shows, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2017 by travsd

Look, Looka, Looka! Come One, Come All! Come to the Coney Island Museum 3 Saturdays in August and Hear 3 Great Trav S.D. Talks! Stay all day at the beach! Go on the rides! And cap off the day with informative and coolicious true stories in my Fun-Filled Fact-o-rama! Here’s what’s coming up:

Saturday, August 5, 5pm: Coney Island 101

A rare chance to get the big picture of The People’s Playground’s many incarnations as an amusement district, from its early days as a resort with hotels and racetracks, to its numerous storied amusement parks, sideshows, vaudeville and burlesque houses, cinemas, restaurants, and of course, beaches, right up to the present day (and guesses about tomorrow). Trav S.D., author of the books No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous and Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nicklodeons to Youtube lays out the whole amazing narrative in this colorful illustrated talk.

Saturday, August 12, 5pm: Coney Island and the Movies

It stands to reason that America’s premiere Amusement district would play a key role one of America’s favorite entertainment pastimes: going to the movies. Coney’s amusement parks were a center for some of the world’s first nickelodeons, and many cinemas graced the neighborhood through the first half of the twentieth century. At the same, Coney Island was immortalized in films, from the earliest silent days, all the way to Woody Allen’s upcoming period comedy Wonder Wheel, scheduled to be released in November, 2017. Author and blogger Trav S.D. leads this entertaining illustrated talk, and shares some entertaining clips.

Saturday, August 19, 5pm: More than Munchkins: A History of Performing Little People 

For centuries Little People have been a mainstay of popular entertainment. In this illustrated talk, author and performer Trav S.D. traces the historical ups and downs of very short-statured entertainers from medieval times through the era of P.T. Barnum and dime museums, to side shows and circuses, to vaudeville, to movies and television. Along the way, we trace the evolution of the Little Person’s image in popular culture, from one of cruel derision in the age of the court jester…to one of glamour, as personified by sex symbol and Emmy-winning actor Peter Dinklage…to a virtual return to carny days on reality tv.

Admission to the Coney island Museum and these talks is a mere $5 for Adults, $3 for Seniors, Kids (under 12) and residents of  Zip Code 11224. More info and directions about the Coney Island Museum and Coney Island USA are here.

The Five That Survived: On The Dionne Quintuplets

Posted in Human Anomalies (Freaks) with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 28, 2017 by travsd

As you can see from our “Human Anomaly” section of Travalanche, the Born Different have always occupied a cherished, if sometimes controversial show biz niche. The spectacle of the “grotesque” is naturally a major factor, but often the appeal can be simple rarity. Such is the case with multiple birth babies. Here, rarity is the bottom line. Twins, even identical ones, no matter how amazing they are to those who experience that miracle firsthand, are generally considered too commonplace to be worth exhibiting. It has been known to happen, though. The Dolly Sisters were perhaps the most famous such in show business. (Conjoined twins, are of course a special case — these are ALWAYS considered remarkable). What has always fascinated the public are the outer limits, the world records. In the case of multiple births, for a variety of reasons, the bar is always changing. We live in the age of Octomom — her brood of surviving Octuplets were tabloid fodder throughout 2009. But as of May 28, 1934, medical science being what it was, the outer limit was a surviving set of QUINTS. That was the day an Ontario woman, Elzire Dionne (already a mother of five), gave birth to an additional five: Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie, and Marie.

The event became news around the world. Some exhibitors at the Chicago Century of Progress fair immediately reached out to the family to secure the babies to show to the public. But a new arrangement rapidly superseded it. Since the Dionnes were people of modest means, unable to support ten children, the babies became wards of Canada. But they went on to live very public lives anyway. A special nursery, with adjoining school and playground, was built for them to live in. The area surrounding the complex became a tourist attraction named Quintland, full of shops and concessions. Millions visited the nursery’s observation gallery and surrounding shops through 1943. The Dionne Quintuplets remain the most famous set of multiple birth babies, mostly because they were the first to come along in the age of mass media. The girls were in numerous movies, and endorsed products like Quaker Oats, Colgate Dental Cream, and Karo Corn syrup. And throughout their lives there were photo ops:

This continued for 20 years, until 1954 when Émilie became the first of the five to die. She had been prone to seizures, and accidentally suffocated during ones of these while unattended. But interest in the sisters continued. A Dionne Quints Museum opened in 1960 and remained in operation for over 50 years. At this writing, only two of the quints, Annette and Cécile, remain.

The Ongoing Saga of the Hottentot Venus

Posted in African American Interest, Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2017 by travsd

First of all, we no longer say “Hottentot”. The proper name for this tribe of Southern African hunter-gatherers is Khoikhoi; Dutch colonists dubbed them “Hottentot” in mockery of their click-based language shortly after first encountering them in the 17th century. In the 19th century, when Africans were often exhibited in Europe and America as curiosities and “missing links”, khoikhoi were among the more popular examples, due to their small stature and the condition present in many of the females known as steatopygia, which refers to large accumulations of tissue in their buttocks and thighs.

More than one woman was exhibited by Europeans as a “Hottentot Venus”; the best known was a woman named Sarah (sometimes Sara or Saartje) Baartman (sometimes Bartman, Bartmann, or Baartment), ca. 1790-1815. Baartman was brought to London in 1810 by two unscrupulous men and exhibited as a freak on the stages of Picadilly for four years. In 1814 she was acquired by another man who brought her to Paris where she was exhibited by an animal trainer and examined by scientists from the Museum of Natural History. When she died in 1815 her body was dissected and a plaster cast was made of her body, and the results were on public display in Paris for over a century. Her remains were finally returned to South Africa for a proper burial in 2002.

In 1995 Suzan-Lori Parks fictionalized Baartman’s story and transferred its themes of racist colonial exploitation to her OBIE-winning play Venus. The Signature Rep has revived the work as part of their season devoted to Parks’ plays. Performances began this week, with an opening day announced for May 15. Tickets and more information are here at the Signature Theatre’s site. 

When Did the Circus Become Un-American? (Keynote Speech, Congress of Curious Peoples)

Posted in AMERICANA, BROOKLYN, Circus, Coney Island, CULTURE & POLITICS, Dime Museum and Side Show, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, ME, My Shows with tags , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2017 by travsd

New Sideshow Hall of Fame Wall of Fame

This past weekend was the annual Congress of Curious Peoples at Coney Island USA. I was honored to be asked to give the keynote address this year on the topic “When Did the Circus Become un-American?” My speech followed the public unveiling of CIUSA’s new Sideshow Hall of Fame Wall of Fame (above). The content of my speech is here. Thanks Norman Blake and Carolyn Raship for photos!

WHEN DID THE CIRCUS BECOME UN-AMERICAN?

…Before we tackle the main question we should point out, and maybe some of you are way ahead of me, that the modern circus in and of itself per se is NOT by definition American, as much as it pains me to point out.  The modern circus was invented in England by equestrian Philip Astley and later improved upon in America even as it was simultaneously evolving all over Europe. There’s plenty about the American circus that may well not speak to Europeans, and they have the right to their erroneous opinions even as I have the right to my infallible ones. At any, there are plenty of the oldest circuses in the world that have ALWAYS been un-American.

But let’s tweak it a little for clarity – WHEN DID THE AMERICAN CIRCUS BECOME UN-AMERICAN?

As P.T. Barnum famously said, the American circus hangs on two pegs: clowns and elephants. And all at once, the American public seems to be becoming terrified of clowns, and morally outraged at the presentation of elephants. We’ll get to both directly, but I’m going to broaden it somewhat. As we all know, the American circus is in jeopardy: our largest, oldest and best known circus, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey is closing in a matter of days. Cole Brothers and Clyde Beatty both seem moribund. Big Apple Circus went bankrupt although some new owners promise to resurrect it this fall. But these recent developments are part of a process, a multi-pronged assault that has been going on for the better part of a century. Different aspects of the American circus have been under attack, sometimes perhaps with justification, but the bottom line is that it hurts the circus. So different aspects became “un-American” at different times, so there will be many different answers.

My first answer (and many of my answers will be contradictory) is that circus became un-American as long ago as a century, when it began to be superseded by new-fangled inventions, better mouse-traps, and lost its age old primacy as often the only entertainment medium for the masses in the hinterlands. It lost an economic competition! What is more un-American than that?  Starting in the 1920s and 3o’s it began losing ground to movies, and radio, then TV, and then to home video, and now to hand held gadgets! Circuses and sideshows died, some survived by merging, and those that survived did so by figuring out that its traditional nature was its very charm. It’s nostalgic, and there’s a market for that, although it’s no longer a universal market. We have niches now. Some people won’t even watch a black and white or silent movie nowadays, while other people are at this very moment rediscovering the joys of old time radio shows over the internet. Once populist, a lot of surviving circus is now elitist, and some could say THAT’S un-American, and I would tend to agree. It’s expensive to attend the big top and a lot of the surviving shows feel a need to be self-consciously artistic in a way that frankly turns my stomach, far more than any amount of popcorn or cotton candy.

Next, the Americana aesthetic has been under attack since the mid-20th century. By that I mean: the tent, the sawdust, the midway, the circus that Toby Tyler ran away to join. My feeling has always been that culture must maintain some tradition even as it evolves. It’s the theme of Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy: you change, yes, but you don’t throw out the essential parts. To cut the umbilicus that connects us to Barnum, to be tied to nothing emotionally significant, makes the American circus vulnerable to destruction.

My first visit to Ringling was in the mid 1970s. I was about ten years old. And I was enormously disappointed. Not sure what I was expecting. My head was full of circus images from stage, screen, books, old photos, and poster art: Magic and visual poetry. But what I got was something impersonal, corporate, amplified, loud, obnoxious and disconnected from its own history, from any history, and from me. And over the years I felt that whenever I saw their three ring show. So when I read the headline about Ringling’s imminent closure, I wept all morning, but when friends were making plans to see it one last time, I was like, “Nah, I don’t want see that fuckin’ thing.” I cried for the loss of continuity and history and so forth, but the reality was that the things I actually cared about were out of it long before I was born: a steam calliope, a brass band, red white and blue bunting, a tented menagerie, a sideshow. Visually I get more of the circus I’m looking for from the picture on a box of animal crackers than from the Ringling shows.

And not to single out Ringling. You don’t get that stuff much of anywhere. Until recently you got even less of it at Big Apple Circus, whose entire aesthetic scheme: costumes, sets and music seemed really European to me. It had the look or feel of Paris or perhaps dare I say Montreal. It looked insecure to me, as though it were seeking validation from a superior culture. We have no need to do that. CIUSA’s motto: “Defending the Honor of American Popular Culture”.  It is Honorable, it is Valid. As Emerson wrote in “The American Scholar”: “We have listened too long to the Courtly Muses of Europe… We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.” But some circus seems to have backslid. So when did a lot of circus become aesthetically un-American? If you equate “American” with Americana, as I tend to: decades and decades and decades ago. 50 years ago.

These decisions I know were made for marketing reasons at a time when the country was changing. These changes were happening everywhere. At around the same time, In the early 1970s, Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, all had popular variety programs on CBS, and there were these rural comedies like The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres and then some younger executive came in and pulled the plug on them all at once to accommodate fresher, hipper, more topical shows like All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Show. I really love those new shows but there’s something kind of Chairman Mao about feeling a need psychologically to completely eliminate the more traditional programming and wipe it off the face of the earth. That was happening everywhere in music, movies, tv and in the circus. It was like a cultural purge. Is The Beverly Hillbillies the hill I will die on? Actually, yes!

I grant you it’s complicated: 19th century entertainment was not just patriotic, but jingoistic, and even racist and many other things. Maybe trying to separate the patriotic imagery from heinous attitudes at the time, in the Civil Rights and Vietnam era, seemed like trying to separate Siamese Twins. But by burying the traditional visual iconography it lost the connection to its origins. I have zero emotional investment in a circus that lacks those connections. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t care if it lives or dies because as far as I’m concerned it’s already dead.

When Cole brothers came here to Coney Island a few years ago, it was quite a shabby show, but it opened with a single lady riding around the ring on a horse, carrying an American flag – I loved the simple, ritualistic, solemnity of it. I decided that shabby as it was it was my favorite circus. That was pretty much what I wanted.

Know that my point isn’t strictly about patriotism; it’s about symbolism. There are plenty of left wing and anarchist circuses I love: Circus Amok, The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, the NoFit State Circus. The point is integrity. A large establishment circus that seems to stand for nothing is more like a monster truck rally at the mall than what I am looking for at a circus.

Something else that turned me off during that first visit to the circus, and has never ceased to disappoint me, although I understand it more nowadays – was the existence of safety wires and safety ropes and nets underneath the trapeze and wire walkers. While we’re all smart enough to know there is still a risk in those undertakings even with the safety devices, at some primitive level, I am convinced that these precautions effect the audience psychologically. “So they lack that much confidence, huh? So the guy could do the trick, not do the trick, call in sick and the janitor stands in for him, whatever”. I understand why the measures are in place. Workplace issues, lawsuits, bad publicity or whatever (and some artists still take such risks, the Flying Wallendas recently were hurt rehearsing a trick), but I guarantee at some animal level, to some degree, it effects audience psychology. It’s less impressive, entirely, intrinsically much less thrilling. What is a daredevil with training wheels?! If risk-taking is American, especially risk-taking on OUR behalf, then I leave you to draw your own conclusion about what “safety” is in this context. So whenever they started doing that is another date when the circus became un-American.

That’s aesthetics — So now we come to ethics. And the way Dick has framed the question is interesting: “When did the circus become un-American?”  (note: this talk was prepared at the invitation of CIUSA founder Dick Zigun, who suggested the topic). Because there are actually two conflicting American ethics. One is just as American as the other, and they have been wrestling with each other for centuries, never more so than at the present dire political moment. To put them in circus terms: it’s the Right to Exploit vs. the Right Not to Be Exploited. I have evolved quite a lot on this, and I’ve come to see the light, but God forgive me, purely out of romanticism I used to be 100% pro 19th century circus, which is to say 100% capitalist exploitation in the service of the circus. What is the circus, or what was the circus if not that? The apparatus exists to make its nut. Every single circus movie is about debt and creditors and foreclosures. So much can go wrong: bad weather, townspeople who attack you and chase you out of town, crooked local officials, bad luck: injury, death, sickness, fire. And circus is in the business of presenting living breathing beings as spectacle. Humans and animals are not just your product but also your equipment, your infrastructure. It’s all in the cause of providing amazement to audiences – but it is still a situation where the circus owners own not just canvas, and trucks and trailers but also individuals and creatures. For a time, the circus was the closest thing to a slave plantation there was. Dependent on the circus for food and shelter and far from your point of origin, if you were unpaid or otherwise dissatisfied, it was very difficult to escape. And because everyone agrees that the mission – creating happiness – is Holy, sacrifices are made in its service.

Truth is the first casualty. Entertaining claims of a thousand kinds are made on behalf of the shows and its performers in the form of advertising. And the performers suffer all kinds of privations and discomforts just for a few minutes of glamour and glory each day. And it becomes easy for the impresario to rationalize anything in the name of The Show.

That’s really American. It so American that it might be tempting to call anything else un-American. But the concept of Individual Rights is every bit as American. It’s enshrined in our founding documents, although at first we used to make all sorts of exceptions for African Americans and women and the poor and immigrants and children etc. But progressively we started eliminating the loopholes, and laws were made to protect people and social mores started to change.  And bit by bit these laws came into conflict with things that were uniquely characteristic about the circus. Consumer laws. Truth in advertising! I love food and drug laws but not when they hurt the medicine show! If you can’t claim your tonic is a miracle cure, you might as well pack your sample case and go home! And so it affected the circus in ways big and small, especially the sideshow. If you can’t claim these microcephalic kids from New Jersey are from a missing South American civilization, you are beginning to lose the intrinsic point of the entire enterprise, which is imagination. You need the wiggle room to claim that the seven foot man is a nine foot man!

One of the few cool things RBBB did in the late 20th century was heavily advertise that they were presenting a unicorn. It was a one-horned mountain goat, but it passed muster with lawyers, because well “unicorn” means one horned beast so you can get away with that. And STILL there was controversy and complaint! “Why that’s fraudulent! I thought this was a genuine zoological exhibition presented by scientists!” So some combination of lawyers and the people who use them to sue other people are inimical to the circus arts.

[At this point I produced a glass of water to use as a prop]. Ladies and gentleman, I beg you to direct your attention to this miracle, all the way from the North Pole, this genuine portion of the polar ice cap, exhibited to you in the exact state in which it was found!

And the culture grew so humorless and ill-natured that now you have to advertise in literal language who you are presenting in spite of the obvious fact that everyone knows that Daniel Day-Lewis is not Abraham Lincoln. It’s suddenly quite sinister if you say a 90 year old woman is 200 years old. But it’s very hard to sell tickets to a glass of water!  Puff is extremely American.

But so is muckraking. To flip it, there is the dignity of the performer that needs to be respected and which used to get short shrift as part of that process. The born different and people of color used to get seriously ill-used as part of that process, and by the mid 20th century, the freak show died out. In modern times it’s being reclaimed in a more sensitive way. Is it un-American to respect all people, no matter what they look like? Quite the opposite. But it took a little time to sort out a way to do that in the context of this traditional art form. And now we’ve gone from African Americans being presented as wild men and exhibited as zoological attractions to the Universoul Circus.

Ditched my costume somewhere around here

This eventually led to the expansion of the concept of rights to include animals, and this has proven to be near catastrophic to the art of the circus. To be super obvious, circus is Latin for circle, or ring, that large ring that was devised especially for horses to run around. Eventually this came to include far more exotic creatures from distant climes, such as elephants, apes, lions and tigers, the kinds of beasts people buy tickets especially to see. In a way these became the heart of the circus. Humans had domesticated, trained and exhibited animals for centuries. But starting in the 1970s, the animal rights movement began an unrelenting campaign to end the practice and its manifold forms of documented mistreatment. By recent times the internet and then social media transformed the movement from a fringe cause to one with widespread support, to the extent that sufficient financial pressure could be wielded, finally forcing the major circuses to retire their performing animals or close entirely. (There are still some regional circuses with trained animals, but I would imagine their days are numbered. For example, Kelly Miller Circus and Carson & Barnes Circus, both based in Oklahoma. That’s where they have rodeos and wild west shows, so they might hold out for a while there).

So to return to the opening question: is exploiting animals American? Or is protecting them? I used to work at Big Apple Circus about 20 years ago and I used to become extremely indignant at the hate-mail we would occasionally receive with all of their allegations. (“That’s Mr. Woodcock, he’s not doing what these people are accusing them of!”)  But even without actual torture, you do have to concede that elephants need wide open spaces to be happy, and the minute you realize how unhappy they must be, unless you’re a sadist, all the pleasure goes out of it.

That said, when you take all the animals out of the circus, what are you left with? Much of the thrill and magic is gone. The current touring show Circus 1903 has a wonderful solution, with puppets supplying the missing elephants. I have long thought that circuses could do amazing things with animatronics, and there would be no need to stop at elephants. You could have mastodons. You could have fire breathing dragons. You could have dinosaurs, and there is no need to restrict yourself to the dimensions of actual dinosaurs. Puny things, really. There are ways in which a lack of imagination has been the curse of the circus at least over the past century or so. Presenting the same acts for 200 years!?  That’s one of the things that killed vaudeville! Why shouldn’t it kill the circus? And the application of imagination could be its salvation. Free the animals, enslave the robots. It’s a win/win.

And the subject of imagination brings us to our last topic. A second ago, I asked rhetorically what we’re left with in a circus without animals? (Don’t say Cirque du Soleil. Not a circus, not a circus, not a circus.) But clowns are also under attack! For the past few years there’s been this apparent mass psychosis/ fad involving terror of clowns. When you say this, the clown-phobes are always like, “No, I’ve always been afraid of clowns.” Well, that may be so, but there is a distinct difference between a FIVE year old being irrationally terrified of a children’s birthday clown, and a THIRTY FIVE YEAR OLD needing to be held.

That said, I find the indignation of clowns equally amusing. They always take this tone of, “What do you mean being afraid of clowns, who only bring joy and wonder to the world?” That, too, is a disingenuous self-denial. Anyone who has studied the history of clown, knows that it goes back to the earliest origins of mankind, and it’s always been intrinsically a little scary. That too is part of its function. You don’t put on that grotesque make-up because you want to make people super-comfortable at their familiar surroundings. You’re throwing things off base a little, knocking the globe off its axis. Otherwise there would be no outlandish get-up. You would just be an actor or a stand up comedian! The clown has always been a mix of funny and scary: always. Al Lewis in the Ric Burns Coney Island documentary talks about loving the scary leering face of the Steeplechase Clown over the gates as you walked in.  It’s fun, but it’s also unexpected, otherworldy, abnormal. DESIRABLY so. Otherwise stay home, under the covers.

That said horror and science fiction and even reality started to hit the sinister side a little hard in the 20th century: Batman’s Joker, Stephen King’s It, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and the clown guy Captain Spaulding in House of 1000 Corpses. And the music group Insane Clown Posse and their army of Juggalos.  And there’s the fact that serial killer John Wayne Gacy was a children’s clown, and Brian Dennehy played him in that tv movie. But frankly that’s getting to be a cliché. If I see a scary clown, I’m less likely to go, “Oh scary” then “Oh, what a cliché!”

But then a few months ago it was taken up a notch in the “clown sighting phenomenon of September 2016”  When for pranks people started dressing as scary clowns and hanging out in unexpected places like schools and graveyards and scaring people. This account from Wikipedia made me roar with laughter:

“A person in clown attire was spotted in a cemetery in Chicago, Illinois in July 2015. This occurrence involved two residents who spotted the “creepy clown” scaling the gate at the Rosehill Cemetery late at night. After the clown entered the cemetery, he or she turned to face the residents and began waving slowly as they made a video recording. After waving for a few seconds, the clown ran into a dark wooded area and was not seen again. Police investigation of the sighting did not lead to any arrests.”

“Arrests”?! Has no one ever been a teenager? I don’t know how many times I’ve played pranks of that nature. Perhaps a hundred? Like, why do we even know about this? This is a story? That gets reported as news around the world? A kid dressed as a clown was in the graveyard? That is at best a story for your friends at the bar.

And then there was this follow up: “In October 2016, McDonald’s decided that Ronald McDonald would keep a lower profile as a result of the incidents.”

So because of social media, granted there have been hundreds of these incidents, but what’s more intriguing is the widespread panic and terror to the extent that in some places you can’t rent a clown costume and that people who work as clowns have seen a dip in demand for their services.

You don’t have to be some kind of major sociologist to see what’s going on here. One is that this is age of the helicopter parent and the coddled child and now coddled children who grow into infantilized adults. And far more terrifying to me than any losers running around in clown outfits is the idea of all these legal measures empowering police to chase clowns. That is literally a Mack Sennett movie with a tragic ending. And secondly it is an obvious if amusing parallel to living in the age of terrorism, clearly inspired by it and fed by it. “If you see something, say something.” “I saw a clown!” It’s like a parody of the real situation where people are getting really freaked out by people who are different from them in their vicinity and reporting them to police. Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, and that’s not so funny.

I cant help but contrast that spirit with Reverend Billy’s wonderful invocation at the Gala here a few weeks ago, when he sang the praises of Coney Island as the home and haven for freaks, that what the circus teaches us to do is appreciate those who live outside “normal straight society”. Coney Island’s mission again: “defending the honor of American popular culture”. And so my ultimate answer is that in certain ways the circus didn’t become un-American — America has.

 

MEM’RIES OF THE 2017 CONEY ISLAND USA SPRING GALA

Posted in Amusement Parks, Coney Island, Dime Museum and Side Show, SOCIAL EVENTS with tags , , on March 27, 2017 by travsd

I believe The Wizard of Oz put it best: “A heart is judged not by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.” The phrase never made a lot of sense to me until Saturday night at the annual Coney Island USA Spring Gala. A lot of people were showing a lot of love for the old sideshow. It was a lot like the atmosphere at a wedding, when you encounter people from every phase of your life. I saw lots of old pals and collaborators I’ve known for 15, 20 years along with plenty of new ones. The tentacles of the octopus that is CIUSA are just out there everywhere…all of these different subcultures (sideshow, circus, burlesque, fashion, history, vintage, indie theatre, performance art, visual art, CULINARY art, rock and roll, and I know I’m leaving some out) all coming together, not just being under one roof, but really coming together, as though to have this place in common is to have everything in common.

And then all of the SUB-disciplines: “”Ah, I see all the sideshow and variety show PHOTOGRAPHERS are here!” Because there is a freak paparazzi. I only took a handful of snaps (I was having too much fun) and they don’t even begin to convey the craziness to be had. Fortunately, others captured it all for posterity. Perhaps because world affairs are so grim, there was plenty of happy madness afoot. There’s something extremely special about the transformation of the already surreal Coney Island USA complex into a landscape even more dreamlike and liminal.

For a supplemental visual record I highly recommend checking out Jim Moore’s post at Vaudevisuals.com, which is especially strong on the all-star  variety show on the mainstage, which included host Adam Real-Man, Mat Fraser of American Horror Story: Freak Show, Circus Amok’s Jennifer Miller, the amazing Velvet Crayon, the Great Fredini, etc etc etc. While Jim was taking those pix, I was over in the VIP room, where the performances were more burlesque oriented (and watched the sideshow on a video monitor). I saw Gal Friday and Julie Atlas Muz and Shelly Watson and Jo Boobs Weldon and several Miss Coney Islands take the stage. I got to chat with most of these folks as well as Juliet Jeske, who did face painting, Gary Dreifus who did walkaround magic. Dame Cuchifrita provided high end consumptibles, and I’m inevitably leaving many people out.

At any rate, I urge you take the whole ride right down to the bottom. It gets wilder as you go. Raymond Adams got some of the best party pix. The uncredited ones are by me, and there are also some by Jim Moore and Norman Blake, and like I say, Jim Moore’s pix of the show itself on his his blog are amazing.

Original sideshow art by Marie Roberts on the auction table.

An array of delicious cakes. Uncharacteristically I didn’t take any. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. Life is full of regrets.

A close up of a cephalopod cake decoration.

A mer-drink.

Photo by Norman Blake taken early in the evening of myself (right) with CIUSA board chairman Dr. Jeffrey Birnbaum and Jim Moore. Shortly after this, Dr. Birnbaum started running around wearing a pinhead mask.

Hydra-Headed vintage entrepreneur Don Spiro was on hand with his lovely companion to dispense absinthe. The line for his product was deep. If you want to see what all the fuss is about, attend one of his monthly Green Fairy Absinthe Tasting Parties at the Red Room.

These gents are the Apple Boys, a Barbershop Quartet

The inevitable Reverend Billy was on hand to give the proceedings his blessing.

Billy and his congregation hoist CIUSA founder Dick Zigun into the sky and throw him around the room some.

 

Go-Go Dancers on the Freak Bar.

Me with burlesque biologist Pinkie Special and Collective Unconsciousness’s Caterina Bartha.

Took this one shortly before I slipped out. If you missed the gala, don’t worry you can still give them money! All you need to know is at the Coney Island USA web site.  The sideshow opens for business next month and the Mermaid Parade, as always, will be in June.

Happy Valentine’s Day from the Littlest Lovers: Tom Thumb & Lavinia Warren

Posted in BUNKUM, Dime Museum and Side Show, Little People, STEAMPUNK/ VICTORIANA with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd

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“There’s someone for everybody” goes the old matchmaker’s expression, and perhaps no words rang truer on February 9, 1863, the day that professional little person Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton) married Lavinia Warren at Grace Church, New York. (I believe that’s Lavinia’s sister Minnie Warren as Maid of Honor; and Commodore Nutt as Best Man). This little stunt, the “Fairy Wedding” by the press, lightened people’s hearts during the depths of the Civil War. We present it to you in the same spirit today.

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It wasn’t just a publicity stunt, however; the two were a real couple. But even so, their boss P.T. Barnum was probably not too unhappy when the big event resulted in coverage like this:

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“I love you completely, my own, my all. But above all, I love this front page coverage in Harpers!”

This Monday: A Talk at the Morbid Anatomy Museum

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Dime Museum and Side Show, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Jugglers, ME, My Shows, PLUGS, Vaudeville etc., W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2016 by travsd

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Monday, December 12, 7pm: “W.C. Fields: From Dime Museums to the Jazz Age” an illustrated talk by Trav S.D., sponsored by Zelda Magazine 

A look at screen comedian W.C. Fields’ growth from humble sideshow and dime museum juggler to sketch comedian and one of the biggest stars of sophisticated Broadway revues like the Ziegfeld Follies, George White’ Sandals and Earl Carrol’s Vanities. Along the way meet the glittering stars he shared the limelight with like Louise Brooks, Fanny Brice, Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor. Admission: $8. Location: Morbid Anatomy Museum, 424 Third Avenue, 11215 Brooklyn NY. Tickets and information here. 

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