Monday, November 5, 2007
I had arranged a ride with Bob "Odd Bob" Blackmar, and his son Tom and Tom's wife. On their way to pick me up they also picked up John Bradshaw in Virginia. Needless to say, I learned a lot on the ride to Wilkes-Barre, PA. I had known that John had started the actual sideshow at Coney Island USA, and I had known he was a master showman and pitchman, I even knew he does Jam Auctions. What I didn't know was the he was the one to teach Natasha Verushka how to swallow swords, or that he made magic mice and I never knew how genuine this guy was, I've met very few that were nicer than him.
November 1, 2007;
I had a show the previous night, and got home at 3am, I had to leave at 5am.
I hastily packed up my stuff, making sure I had enough underwear and socks. I then decided to pack some props just in case.
I didn't get any sleep.
I depart at 5am with my grandfather so that we can meet Bob and his crew at 10am somewhere in the middle of nowhere VA, when my left ear wasn't being talked off I caught a few Zs and before I knew it we were at the Waffle Inn, and about 15 minutes later there came the carny caravan. They stopped to stretch and my grandfather talked to Bob and John while Tom and I loaded the van with my shit, carefully avoiding the items to be auctioned off on Saturday.
The trip lasted six or seven hours, but only felt like one or two. Hearing Bob and John reminisce of years past was just wonderful. I was just like listening to Ward and Chris talk about days gone by.
We arrived at the Holiday Inn at around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, I still didn't have a room. So since John Bradshaw wasn't staying with anyone I slept in his room for the night (the rest of the weekend I had arranged to stay with a friend that was coming).
That evening John showed me some old photo albums he had brought along, full of pictures he and others had taken at Coney Island and the other sideshows he had owned or worked with. For the first time ever, I saw a colour photo of Bill Durks (the three eyed man, the same man whose face was so badly disfigured Ward Hall in one of his books, described it as if "...he was struck in the face with an ax." He didn't really have three eyes, and in truth he only had one that worked.) , and it has really stuck with me, I can only imagine what the marks thought what they saw him.
John gave me an old Odis Jordan pitchcard one with a story on the back, that was hastily written and printed up by John after Odis had run out of his other pitchcards.
After I had gotten settled in the room, I went down to the commons area where a group of performers had gathered, this is where I met the Cheeky Monkey Sideshow, Kathleen Kotcher, James Mundie and a bunch of others.
I had a great time bullshitting with everyone for a few hours, but I was very tired and had to get some sleep if I was to wake up in time to meet up with Mike Vitka (Who was the outside talker at World of Wonders this past season).
Mike took a bus to Wilkes-Barre from Salem. He specifically came for the auction, and walked out with some really great stuff.
November 2, 2007;
John woke me up that morning since I slept through the wake up call. It was about 11am. Most everyone was already at the showroom setting up for the weekend, so while I was waiting for Mike to get to the hotel from the bus station, John and I talked some more, he showed me his mouse pitch, which is just stellar, and then gave me a few of the magic mice (I plan to start pitching them after my performances).
After Mike arrived we all (John, Mike and I) got a ride with Bob over to the hotel where the festivities were being held.
It was around 1pm and all the tattoo artists were still scrambling to get set up in time for the doors to open at 3pm.
I wandered around a while and chatted with James Taylor and Walt Hudson (Who is just delightful), and I also got a chance to admire the Midget display that was set up, it was a collaboration of Rob Huston and Bob Blackmar, it was packed with wonderful ephemera pieces, clothing and props ranging from Tom Thumb to Billy Barty. For a meager 25¢ you could view a slide show with sound about the little people in the display.
Another feature was Col. Hunsly's two headed turtles and cyclops dog, he had a beautiful collection on display.
Toni-Lee Sangastiano had a beautiful display of her banners, along with postcards, jewelery and other fun things.
James Taylor, had a stand with great books, and his newest Shocked & Amazed!, he had some really rare, great books.
Three O'clock came and went, and people began to pour in to the convention.
From this point on the convention was a non-stop performance extravaganza!
The stage was empty until a little after 5pm when Aye Jaye, master MC graced the stage, and officially opened the Sideshow Gathering 2007. He was snazzed up in a red and white striped blazer, laden with buttons that said thing like "Trust Me", and he had a sprig of mistletoe pinned above his ass.
After the amazing introduction from Aye Jaye, the Disgracedland Family Sideshow took the stage. Their performance was something. It was probably the closest thing to a geek act that I will ever see. The main feature that I remember was facial pincushion with 40 needles, loads of blood and a gruesome bug eating act.
Bizzaro, a very original and creative guy then came to the stage with his strait jacket escape and magic act. He is quite the performer, really the only way I can describe it is, as being unique. I mean, the guy gets attacked by a bag of Doritos on stage! He performed twice over the weekend.
The Crispy Family Carnival was next, Crispy and Boobzilla head up this troupe, with comedy and quick wit, it was a fun show. They presented classic sideshow acts, along with a glass routine titled the "Masochism Tango".
Natasha Verushka performed after them, and I've got to say, it was a remarkable sight. Sword swallowing combined with belly dancing! Her finale was a neon swallow.
After her act she brought John Bradshaw up on stage to thank him publicly for teaching how to swallow swords.
After that spectacle, Tim Cridland aka Zamora The Torture King, Wowed the audience with his amazing skill. I've seen him work before and it really is incredible how he can do that act, day in and day out without having to just stop and take a break! He also had a booth set up with his books and DVDs and was being helped by Jackie the Human Tripod, who sadly didn't perform.
After the short intermission, Dr. Wilson aka Paul Szauter did his fantastic Memory routine. I've only seen a few but Paul's is by far the best of all, after seeing him perform I would without a doubt buy a case of his miracle working Elixir to avoid that awful Cataleptic Neuroplexy. I'd also like to add that he is a grade "A" story teller, the cut and restored turban was astounding.
Stephon Walker is a funny guy in his own right, but when he transforms himself into Swami Yomami, he's just plain ol' hilarious! He's this nerdy guy that comes on stage and really makes you feel better about yourself, his only nerd rival could possible be Steve Urkel. I really enjoyed his act, I really can't think of any words to describe it other than hilarious. The Bed of nails bit was by far the best way I've ever seen that act presented.
Stephon was followed by his own troupe called The Cheeky Monkey Sideshow, they are tightly choreographed, funny and original. They even had a freak! Sally the Cinch, who has two, count em' TWO belly buttons and a waist that is so incredibly squeezable it shrinks down to a mere foot in circumference.
The Cheekys closed the show that night and every one went back to their rooms at the Holiday Inn, where everyone gathered in the breakfast room to talk about the day. At around 2am we were all shooed out by a bird like woman named Henryetta, who was there to start breakfast.
November 3, 2007;
I started the days performances at around 3pm, after an introduction from Aye Jaye that made me sound so damn good, I just couldn't compete with myself. I swallowed a variety of objects, ate a light bulb and was heckled by John Strong. I'm still not sure what I did to him...
The rest of the acts that day were repeats of the previous days performances, some of them varied and were all exceptionally good.
At 9:30pm, a large group of folks from the gathering (including the Cheeky Monkies, Red Stewart, Knotty Bits and some hardcore sideshow fans) went down the road to a club called Cafe Metropolis, where a group called the Olde City Sideshow was performing. I was invited to perform as a special guest, and they certainly made me feel very welcome.
As good as The Gathering is, it is mostly the same acts over and over, just presented differently. Olde City of course had the staple stuff, but included stunts that didn't make a single appearence at The Gathering. They are great group of talent. Sword Swallowing, CLASSY bug eating, a grinder act, great blockhead variations among other things, and I did a bit of contortion, balancing and I inflated a hotwater bottle by mouth until it exploded.
Olde City Sideshow is truley one of the best groups I saw that weekend.
We all headed back over to The Gathering, to catch Dr. Wilson again and to see The Bindlestiffs.
At 11:20 the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus took the stage and performed is such a manner that I can only describe as beautiful. Keith assumed the roles of Kinko the Klown and Mr. Pennygaff, he made balloon animals and "other" things, made a candy pitch with a very funny kicker ending and did diabolo and swallowed swords. Their musician whose name escapes me (I'm sorry) played the trombone whilst riding a unicycle. Stephanie did a fantastic bullwhip act and performed an inspiring monologue about condoms. Like I said before, it was beautiful.
After their performance was over, the convention floor was cleared as quickly as possible to make way for the auction.
Before the actual auction started, John Bradshaw did a mini- Jam Auction, which was an amazing thing to behold... I've never seen a real one, and neither had a lot of the audience. It was great! He even pitched his mice, and to see the master work was, again, wonderful.
There was so much up for sale and the room was full of excitement. A porcelain fat lady figure went for $105.00!!! A husband a wife bid against each other for it, and it was one of the sweetest this I've ever seen.
I walked away with a Harper's Weekly newspaper from 1865 that has an article about Barnum's museum fire, a freeze dried turtle and some pitchcards.
My friend Mike Vitka won a miniature sideshow, that was built by John Koman in the 1950s, I have it now and I'm in the process of restoring it.
At the end of the auction most people were so tired they went to their rooms to get some sleep.
I tried that.
I found myself in Bizzaro's room, with Keith Nelson, James Taylor, Crispy and some other folks, I hung out there until about 6am!
I finally got back to my own room, with was at this point being occupied by four people besides me. I woke them all up by mistake, and we all stayed up for about an hour as our conversations became less and less lucid.
Sleep, at last!!!
November 4, 2007;
The last day of the Gathering and tattoo convention was started with the Awards Brunch, among those honoured were Bob Blackmar and John Bradshaw.
We all got to the show floor at around 2pm when the Stephon and the rest of the Cheekies graced us with another performance.
And the closing of the Gathering at 3:30 was performed by Aye Jaye.
Bob Blackmar and the rest of the gang loaded everything up in the giant van, said our good byes and hit the road.
After having this weekend, I will never miss another Sideshow Gathering.
I'd like to thank Franco for putting this together and everyone else that made it an enjoyable experience.
See You Down The Road!
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
The Sideshow Gathering is an annual assembly of some great folks. A Parliament of Peculiar and Puzzling Physical Phenomena and Prodigies!
To put it simply, I can't wait. This is the first time since the Gathering started that I'm able to go. I'm more excited about the drive up there, I'm hitching a ride with Bob Blackmar and John Bradshaw. They are two people in the community that I look up too.
There will be amazing things to see, talk about and live at this year's Gathering.
If you can make it, I urge you to go... it will be an experience well worth having. You'll get to meet great artists, visual and performance alike. Can you imagine what it is like to hang out with people that on a day to day basis, swallow swords, eat fire and glass and discuss pickled punks, mummies and strait jackets in everyday conversation?
I can and it's gonna be great!
Friday, October 5, 2007
PERFORMERS AND FANS FLOCK TO WILKES-BARRE FOR FREAKY FUN AT SIDESHOW GATHERING 2007, NOVEMBER 2nd - 4thCARNIES, FREAKS, AND TATTOO ARTISTS SHARE THEIR CRAFT WILKES-BARRE PA -
This Halloween season, this small town in northeastern Pennsylvania will once again become the world's center of weirdness when the 14th Annual Inkin' The Valley tattoo convention and Sideshow Gathering 2007 roll into town. From November 2nd through 4th, the strange, the unusual and the freakish will take center stage.
Showmen from across the country will congregate to celebrate the giddy thrills and forbidden mysteries of the circus and carnival sideshow. Over the weekend, these carnies will swap lies (or "cut up jackpots", as they say), swallow swords, eat razor blades, walk on broken glass, and invite the public to watch.
Past years at the Sideshow Gathering have witnessed world records broken, and even a carnie marriage ceremony on stage. This year's event promises to be just as unusual.Attractions at Sideshow Gathering 2007 will include: New York's Bindlestiff Family Cirkus; Col. Hunsley's Freaks & Oddities; Zamora, the Torture King; Washington DC's Swami Yomahmi and The Cheeky Monkey Sideshow; Disgraceland Family Freakshow; Natasha Veruschka, Queen of Swords; the old-timey medicine show that is Dr. Wilson's Memory Elixir; Denver's Crispy Family Carnival; Bizarro; and master of ceremonies Aye Jaye.
Vendors will also be on hand to display unusual items such as freakshow memorabilia and original artwork.
Concurrent with the 14th Annual Inkin' the Valley tattoo convention at Wilkes-Barre's The Woodlands Inn & Resort, Sideshow Gathering 2007 begins at 3:00 P.M. on Friday, November 2nd, with live sideshow performances starting at 5:00 P.M. and continuing until midnight. Performances will resume from 3:00 to 6:00 P.M. and 10:00 P.M. to midnight on Saturday, with a special after-hours auction of sideshow memorabilia. On Sunday, there will be an awards breakfast and encore performances from 1:00 to 4:00 P.M.
Tickets for the entire weekend of events are only $13 per person and provide entry to both the Sideshow Gathering and Inkin' the Valley. For more information, please visit http://www.thesideshowgathering.com/.
"The Side Show Gathering is a must for all aficionados of human oddities and performers of the strange and weird! Today's performers of the unusual entertain and amaze. Yesterday's 'greats' share past history and experiences with newcomers. It's a three-day adventure like no other I know." --Walt Hudson in Circus ReportGenerations of Americans once stood in line on their local fairgrounds to stare at human freaks and strange feats under a canvas tent.
Every big circus had a sideshow full of odd attractions, and dime museums flourished in every city. The golden days of the sideshow are long gone, but for this dedicated group of fans and performers the tradition is still very much alive. The Sideshow Gathering is a treat for the audience, but for performers it is also an opportunity to connect with fellow acts. "The Sideshow Gathering is the Switzerland of this illegitimate entertainment," says Keith Nelson, co-founder of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. "It provides a neutral ground for some of the most entertaining egos to gather. It is the only place on Earth where you will get tired of watching someone nail a spike directly into their head." Stephon Walker, whose alter-ego Swami Yomahmi will be performing at the Sideshow Gathering for the first time this year, says, "From the old pros to the new up-and-comers, the Gathering, well, gathers the most incredible group of carnies, new-vaudevillians, natural wonders, working acts, showmen, historians, artists and enthusiasts that you could ever hope to meet in one place. It's all real. It's all alive. And it's all at the Sideshow Gathering."
When asked what makes the Sideshow Gathering different from any other convention, Kathleen Kotcher (editor of the journal James Taylor's Shocked & Amazed! On and Off the Midway - which will debut its ninth volume at the Sideshow Gathering) said, "It is Christmas, your birthday and your first kiss all rolled up into one great weekend! The Sideshow Gathering is the greatest gathering of freaks (and the folks who love them) in the history of entertainment.
If you're a fan of the odd, bizarre and unusual - or if you just plain love a good time - the Sideshow Gathering is the place to be!"Franco Kossa, founder and organizer of the event, feels that the Sideshow Gathering is vital to keeping the tradition alive. "This is a tough business, and the sideshow world is a tight-knit community. The Gathering gives these folks a place to get together, cut up jackpots, show off a bit, and refresh their spirits. Not just anybody can go out there day after day pounding spikes into their face or letting people staple dollar bills to them. As they say in the business, it's a hard way to make an easy living!"
I'll be there!
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
Today I came face to face with my West Virginia roots. I went junkin' with my grandfather.
I knew about junkin' before today, usually hillbillies (I'm allowed to say that since I am in fact, a hillbilly descendant) go around and steal copper and brass off of houses, air conditioners, cars, etc. Some even make a career out of it, they go up and down the riverbanks and take the cars and other junk, haul it to the recycling center to receive payment.
So as far as I knew junkin' was a mostly illegal job. I was corrected today, as I found myself atop a metaphorical gold mine. My grandfather and I were taking an early morning walk up a mountain today, we stumbled across an old man cleaning out his fathers house in order to move into it. He had a huge amount of scrap metal and plumbing fixtures, he asked if we wanted it... Of course my grandfather (ex-con man) jumped on the opportunity. Ol' Gramps asked the man if he could give us a ride home so that he could get his truck in order to haul everything away.
The whole way down the mountain my grandfather was smiling ear to ear...he knew what he was doing. We got home, got in the pickup and headed back up the mountain.
It took about twenty minutes to put everything in the bed of the truck. Next thing you know we are drive back down the mountain, my grandfather laughing all the way.
We arrived at the recycling center, and the man could barely wait to park the car before he jumped out to get one of the scale operators. We had to wait about thirty minutes before the recycling guys were done sorting out the steel from the copper and the brass.
As my grandfather puts it:
"Hot damn! Well buddy, that was time well spent right there!"
We earned close to seven hundred clams...
Hillbillies know how to live.
Now I do too!
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
I have to tell you about the Professor, the real brains behind the inner workings of The World of Wonders; his name is James Long.
Jimmy is the man I mentioned before as the "old hillbilly", truth is; Jimmy isn't a hillbilly. He is a backwards talking, Pepsi guzzling, hard working, barn burning, truck driving, cheap cigar smoking, cancer surviving carny...and he's proud of it, or so it seems.
Jimmy doesn't really like small talk, but if you get him going...lucky you, you're going to actually hear gold pouring from his soda pop encrusted mouth, the stories he has to tell are simple yet wonderfully insightful, he thinks hard about what he says; you can see it in his eyes.
Jimmy was eight years old when he burnt down his parents barn in rural Missouri.
He had caused trouble before, so his fed up mother took him to the circus, and left him.
The circus folk took him in and put him to work washing dishes, it didn't take them long before they realized that this boy was incredibly strong. He was put on the tent crew. By the age of twelve Jimmy could swing two sledge hammers (one in each hand) one after the other, this enabled him to pound a tent steak "double quick".
Jimmy didn't take direction well and figured out his own ways to get things done using his brute strength. He could do the work of three grown men.
Jimmy was very troublesome, and even though he was a hard worker, circuses bounced him back and forth for years and years, until finally Chris M. Christ and Ward Hall were given Jimmy, they were told about his reputation but Chris (being a brutish fellow) knew he could handle him. That was about thirty years ago, Jimmy is still with them.
James Long has his own language, sort of like Yoda, it's English but his syntax is very odd. Ward, who has employed the Jimmy for the last thirty some years still can't understand him.
It took me a while, but I finally got to understand most of what he would say.
He has key phrases like; "Turn er loose!", "Go wher tha werk is!", "Goddamn actors!", "Naw!", "I'll kill ya I will!".
He has a funny sense of humor also; "Ol' man Hall says I can take yer pay I can.", "Eye'm takin' the TV I am".
Once you get him talking and looking at old photos, he takes great pleasure in pointing out dead people, saying this like; "Ol' Bitch, dead", "bin dead he is", "Had a sister he did, heh heh...she dead now though".
He also revealed that dead snakes will come back to life sometimes... "sometime thay come back thay do"
All that aside, Jimmy knows how to put up and tear down a tent... his way.
After putting up and taking down the banner line of the show thousands of times, I still don't know how to do it. Jimmy showed me a million times how to tie them off, each time he showed me the knot to use, it changed. I know he did it to fuck with me. He did it to everyone. He messed everyone up on purpose. I can't blame him for doing it, if I were him, I'd do the same thing. Fucking with people is one of the only things Jimmy enjoys, that and porn and cartoons ( "Goddamn rabbit did it again he did!").
I could go on and on about Jimmy Long, but you're confused enough as it is. You're assuming that a man like that couldn't possibly exist in today's world. I'm here to tell you that Jimmy is real. As real as you or I, I couldn't make him up. I hope you get to meet him one day.
Jimmy, you have become a personal hero, you're a tough old man. Keep on truckin' even after The World of Wonders is gone.
Friday, September 21, 2007
In a Sideshow, applause is very rare and I feel honored to have received some in that venue. Now, when I type Sideshow, I mean a real Sideshow, in a tent on a carnival, I don't mean club shows or even the Sideshow in Coney Island. People that come to a real Sideshow are promised things that they won't get on the inside. They are misled by the artful spin of the outside talker, and hit with a "steep" admission price, around three to five dollars. Now I know that isn't a lot of money to see someone swallow swords, a contortionist prance on and off stage or a stuffed spider body with an ugly human head, but to the average fair goer, a price that large is highway robbery. They don't like shitty stolen jokes, bad performers and they don't like being taken advantage of. When they walk in and see a fake ten foot tall mummy with a snatch that could swallow you whole, they are not happy, especially since just a few seconds before they walk into the tent they expect it to be alive.
Fair goers hate the Sideshows, yet they still come in.
They are against you from the get go, and it is your job as a performer, good or bad, to win them over. More often than not the audience boos you, they call out and then walk out. They demand their money back, and the little old man in the ticket box looks at them, smiles a yellow and brown toothy smile and gleefully shouts "Naw!".
The outside talkers never get applause, not like you and I would think of. Their applause is the number of folks they convince to part with their money. Their applause come in the form of angry people demanding their money back and being yelled back at at by an angry old hillbilly, that is largely in charge of the shows well being, and the only person on the show that will drive you to the laundry mat. The outside talker is lucky, they get to see what comes into the show before the cast does, they know what will happen before the cast does, some can even tell who will want their money back. They are also almost never held responsible for what they say. The inside cast is, if the outside talker Say's "Folks, you're gonna see Spidora, a beautiful girl with the body of an ugly spider!" and then they go into the show and see a stuffed animal with a tired old head that wags it's tongue at them, it isn't the outside talker's fault that they didn't see a real spider girl, it's the tired old head's fault. Outside talkers take great joy in that.
I miss the Sideshow, the real Sideshow.