Saturday, January 17, 2009

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.


nature said...

thank you writting this about my father-in law he was and always be the best man a ever knew

Tracy Garcia said...

Your Father-in-law and my Uncle. I'm in search of photos of my Aunt Joyce.