Archive for the Strong Men Category

Stars of Vaudeville #852: The Mighty Atom (Joseph Greenstein)

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Circus, Coney Island, Dime Museum and Side Show, Jews/ Show Biz, Strong Men, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Joseph L. Greenstein, a.k.a The Mighty Atom (1893-1977). Greenstein was not only one of the premier circus strongmen of the 20th century, but, because he continued to ply this traditional trade so late in life (into his 80s), he is a vital link with the past. Many living people remember his performances. I first learned about him this year, in the terrific documentary Bending Steel. 

A native of Poland, small, sickly and Jewish, he apprenticed himself to Russian strongman “Champion Volanko” at age 14 and spent some time with Issakoff Brothers Circus. He became a professional wrestler while still in Poland, and emigrated to the U.S. with his wife in 1911. In the States (initially in Texas) he worked as a manual laborer and wrestled as “Kid Greenstein”. In 1914 he was shot in the head by a man who was obsessed with his wife, and miraculously survived. This caused a kind of epiphany and Greenstein became a sort of performing Holy Man, growing his hair long, following a strict dietary and exercise regimen, and developing an act that combined incredible feats of strength with lectures on will power and healthy living. He was now the Mighty Atom, who could bend iron bars with his bare hands and break chains with his expanding chest.

The Mighty Atom worked in vaudeville and sideshows into the 1930s. Much like Houdini before him, he engaged in many publicity generating stunts outside the theatre, as when he stopped the take-off of an airplane using only his HAIR on two separation occasions. His personal exploits also made the headlines.  He became legendary for dispatching large numbers of foes in street brawls, usually against loud-mouthed bigots, becoming in the process a sort of real life Jewish superhero.

When vaudeville and sideshow work began to dry up, he developed his own product line and took his pitch to the streets. And there was occasional work at places like the Ripley’s Odditoriums. His last performance was at Madison Square Garden, shortly before he died in 1977.

This clip (circa 1960s?) shows him hard at work, driving a spike into a board with his bare hand, biting the head off a nail, etc. Just another day at the office for the Mighty Atom!

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

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And 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

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The de Barcsy Troupe

Posted in Bearded Ladies, Circus, Coney Island, Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Little People, Native American Interest, Strong Men with tags , , , , , , , on May 1, 2013 by travsd

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Sadly, and somewhat surprisingly, I haven’t been able to find a photo of this whole amazing family in one shot. The Baroness Sidonia de Barcsy (born this day in 1866) was a bearded lady; her son Nicu was a 27 inch tall little person. Her husband, a legitimate Hungarian Baron, six foot three and 400 lbs, was a Fat Man and a Strong Man. The whole family toured as a performing unit. The story (at least what I have been able to learn) sounds like a fairy tale; if it’s hokum, no one has taken the trouble to debunk it. The Baron Anton de Barcsy is said to have been an aristocrat and cavalry officer in Hungary. When his young wife gave birth to their two pound son in 1885, she began to sprout a beard. These twin providential miracles are said to have occurred just as the Baron lost his fortune in some bad speculations and political upheaval in his homeland forced him to flee the country. Heading west, and possessing no other marketable skills, they began to exhibit themselves in circuses in the Great Capitals of Europe. How very lucky!

In 1903, they headed to America. Nicu, now 18 took the tile of “Capitain”. For the next nine years the family toured with the sideshows of the Campbell Bros., Hagenbeck and Wallace, and Ringling Bros. Circuses. When the Baron passed away in 1912, Sidonia married “The Long Haired Cherokee Buck Man”, a.k.a “Buck” or “Cherokee Buck” a half German-half Native American trick roper whose real name was Frederick Valentine Tischu. The reorganized family continued to play circuses like the Campbell Bros, and Coney Island for the next eight years until Sidonia began to get sick in 1923 and Buck left her for a performing dwarf named Doletta Boykin (or Dodd). Sidonia passed away in 1925. Nicu continued to exhibit himself solo as the Baron de Barcsy until the mid 1930s, whereupon “Little Nick” retired to the family’s house in Drummond, Oklahoma. He lived in that town as a local character until he passed away in 1976.

To find out more about the variety arts past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And 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

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Rasmus Nielsen, The Danish Strong Man

Posted in Dime Museum and Side Show, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Strong Men, Tattooed People with tags , , , , , , on April 22, 2013 by travsd

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Rasmus Nielsen (1874-1957) was one of America’s first extreme tattooed and pierced individuals. Billed as “the Danish Strong Man” he was tattooed from head to toe, and had two nipple rings which he used to lift objects up to 250 lbs. such as a blacksmith’s anvil.His nose and tongue were also pierced, and he could lift with these parts of his body as well.  When he lifted weights with his rings, he would make a loud succession of gutteral screams “to transcend the pain”, but undoubtedly for the entertainment of the audience as well.Organizations that employed him included the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus sideshow and Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Odditorium. He was also known as “the Scandinavian Strong Man” and the “the Tattooed Water Man.”

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.

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For more on silent and slapstick comedy 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

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Stars of Vaudeville #391 : Alan Corelli

Posted in Acrobats and Daredevils, Circus, Strong Men, Vaudeville etc. with tags , on November 19, 2011 by travsd

A rather staged looking photo of Mr. Corelli and Worcester’s finest, taken in 1926

Alan Corelli (ca. 1895-1980) had an unusual act: essentially he was a strong man who specialized in lifting other people up…and rendering himself almost impossible to be lifted up himself. We know about him chiefly through an interview in Bill Smith’s book The Vaudevillians. Apparently this unique skill was quite genuine, developed during idle moments as an ambulance driver during World War I. In his act, he would call to the stage three or four brawny volunteers, who would try and then fail to hoist the uncooperative Mr. Corelli off the ground. Corelli’s ability to withstand the exertions of four Ringling Bros. razorbacks got him a job in the circus. From there he worked a lot of private parties and toured vaudeville, strictly small time it seems, such as the Delmar Circuit in Texas, and Mike Shea’s upstate New York chain. He also toured Europe extensively before retiring as a performer in the 1940s.

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

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Stars of Vaudeville #145: Eugene Sandow

Posted in Dime Museum and Side Show, German, Strong Men, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on April 2, 2010 by travsd

Sandow Strongman

Born Freiderich Wilhelm Muller, in 1867, in Koenigsberg, Prussia, Eugene (pronounced “oy-gun”) Sandow was Flo Ziegfeld’s first p.r. masterpiece.

Ziggy billed him as “physically perfect. Acknowledged by anatomists to be the strongest man in the world.” His feats were the stuff of legend. He is said to have been able to juggle with one hand while holding a man in the palm of the other. In his act, he would carry a 350 pound pony across the stage, and lift a 269 pound barbell with one arm.

As if this wasn’t spectacular enough, it was Ziegfeld’s idea to make him into a sex symbol. Ziegeld presented him at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, naked but for a loin cloth, his body powdered to resemble white marble. Rich ladies paid extra money to sneak backstage and feel his muscles after the show. Talk about “dynamic tension!” Ziegfeld later toured Sandow throughout the U.S. in a show entitled “Sandow’s Trocadero Vaudevilles”.

Even Sandow’s death made good physical fitness copy. He died in 1925 when his brain ruptured as he single-handedly pulled a car out of a ditch. (What, no Triple A?) Harry Langdon memorialized him as the character “Zandow” in his 1926  film The Strong Man.

Marginally interesting note: My voice was heard in the Museum of Sex’s inaugural exhibit in 2002 as a carnival barker (or talker) hyping the sex symbol Sandow. I’ll link this entry to that audio track in the days to come, for what earthly purpose I have no idea.

Check out this actual footage of him in action circa 1894, courtesy an Edison film crew:

To learn about the roots of variety entertainmentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Requiem for a Strong Man

Posted in BROOKLYN, Circus, Coney Island, Dime Museum and Side Show, Strong Men with tags , , on January 17, 2010 by travsd

Several people alerted me to this gentleman’s passing this week. I didn’t know him but am glad to have heard about him and sorry not to have met him. Coney Island strong man Joe Rollino was felled this week at the age of 104, and apparently nothing short of an errant automobile could fell him. It’s not to late to acquant yourself with this interesting character. The Coney Island Oral History Project was fortunate in capturing him in conversation. And there are excellent obituaries at the NYTimes and NYPost. The lesson of this story is EAT YOUR WHEATIES!

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