Monday, July 19, 2010

It's Not a Joke To Me.

Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette did a great documentary a few years ago called The Aristocrats. It’s about the ultimate joke teller’s joke. The beauty of the joke is in the individual details in the versions that so many comedians do. So to tell you the nutshell of it I will have to strip bare everything that makes it a great joke. The joke is about a family of performers that go to an agent’s office. The father and son’s tuxedos and the mother and daughter’s evening gowns all match. The agent asked what kind of an act they do. They show him, and in doing so perform the vilest and most disgusting, scatological and sexual deviant bit of performance ever conceived. When they finish, the stunned agent asks what they call the act. With a tremendous amount of pride they shout in unison, THE ARISTOCRATS!

I am the Aristocrats. Admittedly my act doesn’t evolved bestiality and the other pervert stunts often included in the telling of the story, but there are strong similarities. The humor of the joke is the juxtaposition these heinous feats and the dignified elegance in which they are presented, the capper being the ridiculously inappropriate name of the act.

I come out in a suit and tie, and with ask much class, poise and warmth as possible, proceed to eat glass and hammer a nail into my nose. I work hard to entertain the audience with these and other acts many would categorize as gruesome and “just wrong”.
My intent is have the spectators appreciate these acts on many levels and feel that watching my show was a worthwhile and rewarding experience.

And, if I do say so myself, I’ve been pretty successful at attaining these goals, even though this is about the hardest performance choice anyone could want to make. I must admit that this success has not been 100%. Far from it. But I have been able to make a decent career out of working this stuff.

The purpose of this post is not self-congratulation. No, I want to share a few things that have worked for me as I have traveled along this career path inflicting mayhem upon myself for fun and profit.

First off, I try to make the audience laugh. There is an old saying in the pitch business, “if you can make the marks smile, you can make them buy.” Laughter can take the stink off of the shocking nature of this material. And often the humor is directed at me, thus letting the audience know that I understand that these acts can be hard for them to watch. But the self effacing humor is used in small doses. It is very easy to do too much of it and end up with a message, “there’s no reason to watch all this.” And if I don’t give the audience a reason to watch, they won’t.

So this leads to the next element of my act. And it is the most important element of all. I have stepped back from my act and taken a look at it all and asked some questions. Why do I do these particular stunts? What about it appeals to me? Why do I think it is important and worth watching? I’ve answered these questions and work hard to conveying this meaning to the audience.

I love the history of these feats, the backstory and lineage of them all. I love the culture they came out of and the vanishing bit of Americana that was their natural habitat. And I love that these acts of intimate daredevilry can instill a profound sense of amazement in many audiences. Amazement can be a powerful thing.

I am currently working a gig in a tropical locale. It is the middle of the hot season and many of the venues have no air conditioning. I am performing at posh resorts for people that have been sitting out in the hot, hot sun on the beach all day. They have just had a large meal with an open bar. In other words, the audiences are practically comatose. About the last thing they would want to watch is a guy shoving swords down his throat and sticking his hand into an animal trap. But they do watch, and they send me off at the end of the act with a strong round of appreciative applause. And I think the reason for this is that I work hard to take this material farther and deeper than the shock appeal that is on the surface of classic sideshow performance material.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

It's Good To Be Back

I truly thought that I would never see the day when I was performing again in Coney Island. There were a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is that I am working on a new show for off-Broadway. It’s called Play Dead, and my co-creator and director of the show is Teller (of Penn & Teller). We have reinvented the old spook show and put a few touches on it that have never been seen onstage. The only sideshow bit in the show is me eating glass.

But Coney Island is back in my life. I am one of the producers of NY’s longest running magic show, Monday Night Magic, and our production company also provides entertainment for a number of venues including the summertime kiddy amusement park at the Wolman Rink in Central Park, Victorian Gardens. The people that run that spot got the nod from the city to redevelop much of Coney Island. The first step was putting up a new amusement park called Luna Park on the old Astroland site.

Man can not live by thrill rides alone, so when they wanted to add in live entertainment we got the call. In addition to the family entertainment during the day on Saturday and Sundays, they wanted “classic Coney Island” style entertainment during the evenings on Friday and Saturday nights. I jumped in and started the series off with a bunch of performances during June, and then was followed up by Johnny Fox and a bunch of other great entertainers. I was very flattered to hear that Lynn Kelly, the head of the Coney Island Development Corporation, was pleased to see me back out there performing.

The shows felt good and it reminded me that I built my act onstage in front of the crowds in Coney Island.

I’ll be back out there for a few performances in August before I take off for Las Vegas for the month of September to mount the full workshop production of Play Dead. And after we open the show in NYC (tentatively scheduled for November), who know what the future will bring. It is very possible that I might push for a new permanent performance venue out in Coney Island. The area could use another live show. We’ll see.

For more information about Luna Park, go to

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sideshow Books

Here is a list of some books about the sideshow and carnival life that you might enjoy:

Struggles and Triumphs of a Modern Day Showman and My Very Unusual Friends.
These are Ward Hall’s two books. The first is Ward’s autobiography and was published by Carnival Publishing of Sarasota. This was the late Joe McKennon’s company. Both books come up on eBay from time to time.

A.W. Stencell’s Girl Show and Seeing is Believing.
These are both about carnival shows. The first cronicles the strip shows that played on the midway and the second is about grind shows. Al Stencell is currently working on a book about the history of the carnival Ten-In-Ones. Both are published by ECW Press.

Shocked & Amazed by James Taylor (Dolphin Moon Press) There are a number of volumes of these bookazines. There is also currently available a compilation of the early out of print and hard to find volumes. These are very worthy reads.

American Sideshow by Marc Hartzman (Tarcher)
This is a nice overview of sideshow performers past and present. A good resource book and a fun read.

Secrets of the Sideshow by Joe Nickell (University of Kentucky)
A well researched book about the in and outs of the world of the sideshow. It is a good history book and paints a complete picture of what the sideshow is all about.

Carny Folk by Francine Homberger (Citadel)
What I like about this book is that it not only talks about the people in the world of the sideshow, but it also presents them as true three dimensional human beings.

Freakshow by Robert Bogdan. Published by the University of Chicago Press.
This an overview of the way human oddities have been presented. This is a thorough but very biased book written by a college professor. It does not paint a favorable picture of the showmen of the past. If you can cut through Bogdan’s point of view, it is a good historical resource.

Freaks, Geek & Strange Girls and Freak Show.
The first is published by Handy Marks Publications and the latter is put out by Chronicle Books. These to books deal with sideshow banner art. Both are wonderfully illustrated.

Memoirs of a Sword Swallower and Freaks: We Who Are Not As Others.
Both were written by Daniel P. Mannix. The first one is published by V/Search Publications and the second one Re/Search Publications. Though they have slightly different names, they seem to be the same company. Memoirs is just that and the other book chronicles human oddities. Memoirs has inspired many, including Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller, to pursue learning sideshow skills.

Freak Like Me by Jim Rose (Dell Trade Paperback) and Circus of the Scars by Jan Gregor (Dalsgard Publishers)
Two very different tellings of the story of the rise of the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow.

Weird & Wonderful by Andrea Stulman Dennett (NY University Press).
This is a historical overview of the precursor to the sideshow, the dime museum.

Freakery-Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body
This book is book was edited by Rosemarie Garland Thomson and published by New York University Press. It is a series of essays on freaks. Nothing within this book gives you a sense of why sideshows were entertaining.

Sideshow (Sun Dog Press) and Hurry, Hurry, Hurry (Dragon Fire & Magic).
These two books were written by sideshow magician and performer Howard Bone. The first book is his memoirs of life in the carnival and the second is a book explaining how to do some of the acts he perfromed.

Gahan Wilson’s The Big Book of Freaks (Paradox Press).
This is a very entertaining book of graphic novel/comic book telling of the history of various freaks. Great artwork in many different styles.

Step Right This Way (Friedman/Fairfax)
This is a book of the photos of Edward J. Kelty. He photographed many sideshows and circuses back in the 1920s and 30s. It is a beautiful book.

Grind Show (American-Independent Press)
Film maker Fred Olen Ray wrote this short book about Single-Os. It is a hard book to find, but worth the looking for.

Carnival (Pocket Books)
Arthur H. Lewis wrote this book about life with the carnival. It has a good deal of material about the showman Slim Kelley. This book is out of print.

Monster Midway by William Lindsay Gresham (Rinehart & Co.)
The author of the classic Nightmare Alley wrote this book. It is a series of articles about various aspect of the carnival. It’s a great book and unfortunately out of print.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby

I am no longer associated with Coney Island USA. I left there some time ago. Coney Island USA is a great group. I value the fifteen years I was part of it and appreciate all the opportunities and experiences. And being a small part of the heritage of Coney Island means more than I can adequately express. It is a badge I wear with pride...but the time had come for me to leave.

The reasons for this are complex, but the main cause is this: what I love about Coney Island no longer exists, what is there is depressing and what will come is in the hands of people with sensibilities that don't match mine.

I truly feel that Coney Island is lost. So little of what made it great is left. And the future is not bright. I don't know what exactly it will look like in the years to come, but I do know that those calling the shots about what is to come don't care about Coney Island's past glory. Now, I am not asking for a recreation of what once was (though I would love to experience some of those historic rides and attractions.)

What is vital to the future of the place is to understand why what existed existed. What function and purpose did they serve. If this is studied, I know what will be discovered is that people haven't changed that much and what they needed then is what they need now. Discover those needs, work on filling those needs in our modern world and the spirit of Coney Island will live on.

This is asking a lot. As a friend of mine who is in the midst of all the Coney Island insanity has said, "This is hard. And the people running things in Coney Island don't do hard well." So what will come will come and someone will make money off of this and speeches will be made as it all opens and big crowds will be there and there will a lot of smiling powerful people that will congratulate each other on a job well done. And what had come before, what was so magical about Coney Island of the past, will be glossed over by those people filled with the arrogance of being here and now.

And for the preservationists...a challenge. When attempting to recreate, perserve or maintain a tradition of the past, be certain that what you produce is not just "good enough." It must be the best example of that tradition that has EVER been. If your efforts are to mean anything, they must result in something that is the quintessential example of that tradition. Chances are that the project you have undertaken will result in conjuring up something that will be the only thing like it our modern world. So make it the greatest version of that Coney Island tradition that has ever existed, whether it be a ride, attraction, museum, sideshow, parade, festival, restaurant or any other of the myriad of wonders that were once Coney Island.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Ceah-zarny Speah-zeek

People that have worked in sideshows on carnivals live in a closed world of their own. A lot of this has to do with the nomad-like existence they lead. To protect themselves, carnies have a Pig Latin-esque tongue they lapse into whenever they wish to communicate with each other without being understood by the rest of the world (and the rest of the world we are mostly talking about are the police and the marks).

It’s called Carny or Carny Speak. It’s very simple. Take any word or name like Todd, and insert between the initial consonant and the first vowel the sound eah-z. The results sound like Teah-zodd. For multiple syllable words or names, like Robbins, usually just the first syllable is changed making it Reah-zobbins. Some carnies like to do all the syllables, such as, Reah-z0b-beah-zins. Until you get comfortable with Carny Speak, just do the first syllable of words. For words that start with a vowel, like of, the eah-z is added in front of the word, making it eah-zof.

So a simple (and truthful) sentence would be Teah-zodd Reah-zobbins eah-zis thea-zee grea-zatest!

It takes awhile to get good at Carny Speak. The best way to gain proficiency talking and hearing it is to learn it with a friend and speah-zeak eah-zit beah-zack eah-zand feah-zorth.

I learned Carny Speak from a wonderful carny performer named Bob Brown. Bob worked as a magician, lecturer and outside talker for Dick Best back in the 1950s.

The Art of the Bally

There is an art to the verbal elements found in a sideshow. The first contact people have with a show is usually the sound of the outside talker (please don’t call him a barker) doing a Bally. Bally is short for Ballyhoo and is a term that got it’s start at the Chicago World Fair of 1893. The manager of the Streets of Cairo pavilion, W. O. Taylor, had performers from the pavilion do short shows out on the midway of the fair. This attracted a crowd who would go into the pavilion to see what was on the inside. The performers would yell, “Della hoon” when they ran out to perform. Taylor thought they were saying “Ballyhoo”, so whenever he wanted to have one of this midway shows done, he would shout out “Ballyhoo!” The term caught on with other showmen and is still with us today.

There are five parts to a Bally. First you must build a tip. This means to gather a crowd. I use a ploy that was taught to me by Bobby Reynolds. It involves making a small cone out of a dollar bill. The sight of money gets people’s interest. If I have a few other performers with me on the Bally Stage, it makes it even easier, especially if one of them is a beautiful woman with a large snake around her neck. Next, I have to freeze the tip. I have to get the crowd to move in close and stay there. The need to see what I am doing with the dollar makes them move in closer and wanting to see if something is going to happen to the dollar is what keeps them there. I then go into my Opening, the sales pitch, describing what they are going to see on the inside. The Jam is next. The price of admission is dropped for a limited time. If the Opening creates a desire to see the show, the Jam makes them buy a ticket at that moment. I then Grind, talking about the show and keeping the excitement going while people are standing in line. This is the text of what I say:

“Okay, let’s do it. Let’s do a little free show out here to give the folks an idea of what the show on the inside is all about. Let’s bring out the sword swallower and the fire eater. Bring out the snake girl and the tattooed man. One by one, two by two, let’s bring out the whole darn crew.

I’ll get things started with something that was taught to me by our master magician. He’s one of the ten big acts and attractions we have on the inside. Watch the dollar. I wrap it around once, I wrap it around twice, I give it a little twist, and a little pull. Now for the important part. Can you all see this? Move in close, because I want you all to watch what I’m doing right now. I put a little fold in the end. That means that nothing can go in or out of that end. If anything is going to happen, it’s going to happen at this end. To make it more difficult, I’m going to stick it in this buttonhole and not touch it again.

It takes a moment for this to work. As I said, this was taught to me by our master magician on the inside. As a matter of fact, do see the beautiful banners that run from way down there to way down there? Everything you see depicted on these banners you will see live on the inside. Ten big acts and attractions.

I could tell you about them all, like the fire eater that sits down to meal of fire and flame. He practically makes an ash of himself in every show.

You are going to see the tattooed man. He’s got tattoos everywhere, on his arms and legs, his chest, back, neck, face and head. He even has tattoos on his shadow. And you’ll see them all, everywhere he has a tattoo. No, I’m sorry ma’am, you won’t see that part. It’s a family show we are doing here.

You’ll also see Electra, the high voltage lady. We sit someone in a real electric chair and shoot voltage through their system. Sparks of electricity jump from their fingertips as they light up light bulbs in their bare hands. It’s positively shocking.

Almost as shocking as the Human Blockhead. He’s the original Screwy Louie. This is the guy that takes a huge name and bam, bam, bam he hammers it into the center of his skull and lives to laugh and joke about it. He’s got so many holes in his head, he can play his cranium like a flute.

You are also going to meet out Indian Rubber Girl. She can bend, twist and contort in ways you didn’t know possible. You’ll swear her bones are made of rubber as she practically ties herself in a knot and bounces across the stage. Sir, if you could bend over the way she does you’d never leave home.

Also on the inside it Serpentina, our snake charmer. She’s more than that. She’s a snake enchantress and she is going to do a dance of death with a giant python. It’s a snake so powerful, it could kill her in an instance if it were not under her complete control. She risks her life each and every time she comes to the stage. Young lady, do you like snakes? Of course you do, look at the guy you are with. Just joking, sir. We are just having some fun.

And speaking of fun, you are going to have fun with my favorite act. Two Ton Tessie from Tuscaloosa. She the most bountiful beauty from Alabam’. 553 pounds of female fun. She so big, she was born on March 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th. It take four men to hug her, and a boxcar to lug her. That’s how big she is, and she’s doing to do a little dance for you. And when she does, she is going to shake like a bowl of your Grandmother’s jelly on a cold and frosty morning. And you know it’s jelly, ‘cause jam don’t shake like that. It’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face or there is something wrong with your smiling apparatus.

Now, I want you all to see the magician, the fire eater, the tattooed man, electric lady, snake charmer and all the other great acts on the inside, so we are going to do something special. See the sign that says, three dollars for adults and two for children? Forget about it. Our ticket taker is going to set a timer for three minutes, and three minutes only. And while that timer is ticking away, he is going to put away the three dollar tickets. He’s going to put away the two dollar tickets. He’s will refuse to sell them. Instead, he is going to let all of you, the nice people that have been standing her listening to me, he’s going to let you all in to see the show, the same show people have been paying full price for, he’s going to let you in for only one dollar. That’s right, one dollar! But you have to go now. Start the timer!

Take a dollar out of your pocket, give it to the man over there, get your ticket and come inside to see a show that’s wild, wonderful and one of a kind. It’s the world’s greatest gathering of human curiosities, a congress of oddities, all real, all live and all just waiting for you on the inside. Go now, now’s the time to go. Take a dollar out of your pocket, give it to the man over there and come inside to see the big show. You’ve heard about it, you’ve read about it, now see it live on the inside. One dollar, one dollar, one dollar, I don’t want to holler, it’s only a dollar. Go now, now’s the time to go. There’s no better bargain, no better buy. My friends, don’t go down the way and get yourself something to eat and drink and come back later and think you will get in for a buck. You have to go now. It only last for three minutes and then it goes back up to full price, and a minute or two is already gone. Go now, now’s the time go. Folks, I have to go inside and start the show. And when I go, it’s goodbye to this good buy. Last call on the dollar deal. Last call on the dollar steal. I’ve got to go ‘cause it’s show time on the inside!”

Melvin Burkhart

I have never met anyone like him. He was just the best.

I first met him when he was working out in Coney Island in the late 1980s. I struck up a real friendship with him when I spent some time in Florida. I had been doing the Blockhead Act for a number of years before I met Melvin. When I found out that he was the man who created the act, I offered to stop doing it. He insisted I continue and offered use of his routine if I want to use his words. Thought inspired by Melvin, I worked out my own rountine. He liked what I did with it and that meant the world to me. I have done Melvin's routine on occasion as a tribute to the man.

Whenever I was anywhere near his home in the Gibsonton area, I would devote as much time to seeing him as I could. He was a real inspiration.

He got his start in the 1920 while still in his teens as a professional ringer at Vaudeville amateur nights. He performed his Anatomical Wonder Act. This act consisted of Melvin distorting his body into a number of shape and included his Two-Faced Man bit where he would smile on one side of his face and frown on the other. While working his first real gig, with the Conroy Bros. Circus, he started working on expanding his repertoire of acts. The more acts you do, the more you were paid. He came up with the idea of taking the old Human Pincushion stunt of hammering a nail into your nose and making it a stand alone act. This was in 1929. A number of years later, Robert Ripley (Melvin didn't like the guy) coined the name Human Blockhead after seeing Melvin do the act.

In 1933 Melvin developed his dice routine while working a Dime Museum in Chicago. That routine was a stage version of the Sachs dice routine and the handling was very similar to the routine Bob Sheets does. Melvin worked on the sideshow for Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1936 and 1939. When he was there, he enjoyed playing soccer between shows with the various European circus performers. They liked that an American knew how to play the game, but they kicked him out when they found that he worked in the sideshow. There was a VERY strong caste system in the circus in those days and sideshow performers were considered slightly above the roustabouts. Slightly.

Melvin worked for many showmen, including Harry Lewiston. Though I never talked to Melvin about this, I think it was while working for Lewiston that the Human Blockhead Act became the classic act as we know it today. I think was a little to gruesome for most sideshows, but Lewiston put together a shock show and Melvin's presentation fit perfectly. In 1955 he started working for Slim Kelley and his partner Whitey Sutton. He worked for that show for thirty season and never missed a performance. Consider that the season ran from spring to fall with 15 or more shows a day and will come to appreciate what a track record that is. In 1985, Melvin came to work in Coney Island and retired (from doing full seasons) in 1989.

In the 1980s and 90s he did a ton of TV show, including five appearances on the Jerry Springer show. Springer was very nice to Melvin and would visit him when Springer came down Sarasota to winter.

Melvin gave his last performance on October 8, 2001. That was my wedding. He died one month later on November 9, 2001. Several weeks later, I recieved a package from Melvin widow, Joyce and his daughter Bonnie. In it was various props of Melvin's, including what he used for the Blockhead Act, and his costume. I had never been so honored in my life...until the next package came. In it was Melvin!

They asked me to sprinkle his cremated remains off of the pier in Coney Island. Melvin didn't want anything in the way of a funeral, so this was a nice way to end it all, by sprinkling the ashes at a place where he played his last season. My wife Krista, Dick Zigun and I did it on what would have been his 95th birthday, February 17th, 2002.

He was just the best.