Archive for the Bone Conditions Category

The Elephant Man

Posted in Bone Conditions, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Dime Museum and Side Show, Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Human Anomalies (Freaks), Movies, Skin Conditions with tags , , , , , on January 20, 2014 by travsd

The-Elephant-Man-Movie-Still-the-elephant-man-11130922-800-364


Today is the birthday of the brilliant film maker David Lynch (b. 1946). I was all of twelve when his first movie Eraserhead (1977) came out, and that only played the art circuits. Like most others, my introduction to Lynch came with his first mainstream success The Elephant Man (1980). I just watched it again a couple of weeks ago after not having screened it in many years. It is absolutely timeless. Based on the real life story of the exploited human curiosity Joseph Merrick (called John in this film), a man who suffered from multiple extreme deformities, for this film Lynch intelligently drew from the masterpieces of Gothic horror from the late silent through early sound eras for his aesthetic model. Shooting in grainy black and white, he evokes the gritty, industrial landscape of Victorian England where the tale is laid, but also puts you in mind of the carnivalesque nightmares of Tod Browning and James Whale. And while the film is acted realistically, there is more than a smattering of the old melodrama in this poetic fairy tale. Much like Quasimodo, Merrick is literally pushed to the wall, yelling in the film’s most quoted scene “I’m not an animal! I’m a human being!”

Cast with a hugely solid ensemble of prestige acting talent (John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Hopkins, Ann Bancroft, and John Hurt) the real star for me is the wizard behind the camera. This is a gorgeous movie to look at. As invariably happens when something I deem revolutionary comes along (especially when I was younger) I thought the film portended change and naively believed one was coming. That is, I thought we were looking at a new rebirth of black and white Gothic horror and that I might get to see many more films like this. But Lynch’s next film was the 1984 space opera Dune — a different flavor of weird altogether.

And now, the famous scene:

Don’t miss 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

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man

Posted in Bone Conditions, British Music Hall, Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Skin Conditions with tags , , , , on August 5, 2013 by travsd

Pg-25-elephant-man

Today is the birthday of Joseph Merrick (sometimes known incorrectly as “John”, 1862-1890).

Born normal, the physical deformities that gave him his nickname began to emerge in childhood and were fully manifested by the time he was an adult. After years of attempting to make his living first as an apprentice cigarmaker, then as a street hawker, he endured periods of homelessness and spent several years in the work house before embarking on a career as a human oddity in 1884 at the age of 22. Several music hall professionals collaborated on the enterprise, showing him in converted storefronts and billing him as “The Elephant Man, Half a Man and Half an Elephant.” His career as a professional freak was short, lasting about two years. By then attitudes about the exhibition of human curiosities were changing; and Merrick’s was a particularly shocking case.

The remainder of his short life was spent in a hospital under the care of the physician Sir Frederic Treves — as you no doubt know if you’ve seen either the 1979 stage play or the 1980 film on the subject. Before the play and the film, Merrick was not as well known in the United States as Barnum’s most famous prodigies such as Tom Thumb, Chang and Eng, Zip the Pinhead, or Jo-Jo the Dog Faced Boy. Now I daresay his name is roughly as well known, for better or worse.

It should be said that Merrick was a most singular case. Many people have gotten the false notion from the film that special people were invariably cruelly used and exploited in show business. Having investigated the lives of over 150 of them by this point, I have found that to be the exception rather than the rule, and a rare one at that. At any event, Merrick was treated with terrific humanity by society during the last four years of his life. His death at age 27 was self-inflicted. Throughout his life his condition had demanded that he sleep upright due to the weight of his head, which would either strangulate him or break his neck were he to lie down. One night — for whatever reason — he decided to lie down.

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

On the Night They Murdered Lobster Boy: The Karmic Boomerang of Grady Stiles, Jr.

Posted in Bone Conditions, Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Limbs, Missing or Small, Skin Conditions with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2013 by travsd

GradyStilesAsATeenager

Grady Stiles, Jr. (1937-1992) was born on June 26. Stiles was the sixth in the bloodline of a family prone to ectrodactyly, a condition in which the extremities are hardened and fused, somewhat resembling the claws of a crustacean. Stiles, like his father before him, worked in carnival sideshows; two of his children, having the same condition, joined the family business. Billed as the Lobster Boy, Stiles worked for a number of traveling shows before he started his own personal family operation, over which he exerted tyrannical control. Despite what might be thought to be a handicap, Stiles grew unbelievably strong in his upper body, and the claws were tough and hard. He used them to strike and terrorize his family on an almost daily basis over a long period of years.

After years of drunkenness and physical abuse (including the murder of his own son-in-law, for which Stiles only received probation), Stiles’s wife and son hired a 17 year old hitman to shoot him in the back of the head in his Gibtown trailer. This of course yielded a sideshow of a different order: media coverage of the trial, books, television shows and movies about the lurid story were turned out with great profusion and rapidity. Several of his offspring continue to perform to this day.

The character of Jimmy Darling in American Horror Story: Freak Show seemed pretty clearly inspired by Stiles.

To find out more about  the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Serpentina the Serpent Girl

Posted in Bone Conditions, Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Women with tags , , , on April 12, 2013 by travsd

serp_exercise[1]

Unlike our contemporary Serpentina, snake-charming star of the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, the original Serpentina (possibly named Irene Ferrill, b. circa 1898), was billed to be boneless, lacking any bones apart from her skull. Thus she was billed as a snake girl or serpent girl, because she had the ability to sort of bend her body every which way — she was the snake. It was said that it was necessary for her to be carried from place to place. (It’s a clumsy fit, of course. Snakes most assuredly do possess bony skeletons. And for that matter, I’m sure that so did Serpentina, whatever it was that ailed her).

References emerge to her playing in a place called the Globe Cafe in Oakland, California around 1920, and in the late 30s she played a touring “Marine Hippodrome” were she was billed as a “Sea Tiny” (the photo above, from that show, seems altered to represent her as some kind of scaled sea creature.) By 1940, she was with a Ripley’s  Belive it Or Not Odditorium.

To find out about  the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

safe_image

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

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

Jonathan R. Bass, the Ossified Man

Posted in Bone Conditions, Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks) with tags , , , on November 25, 2012 by travsd

Today is the birthday of Jonathan R. Bass (1830-1892). Bass was one of a sub-branch of exhibited peoples known as “ossified men”. Afllicted with rheumatism since childhood, he managed to work on the family farm in upstate New York most of his life (eventually reduced to book-keeping), until he was 57 years old, when his body seized up entirely and cataracts took his eyesight. With most of the family who had cared for him now deceased he decided to allow himself to be exhibited at dime museums and sideshows. All over the country, people would come to look at his frozen, emaciated form, which was usually propped up and strapped to a board. Because of his all-liquid diet (his jaw was frozen too) he only weighed 75 pounds. He endured five years of this, apparently with remarkably good cheer, until he passed away of pneumonia in 1892.

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, 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 don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.

safe_image

%d bloggers like this: