City Paper is not for tourists
Magazine editor Kathleen Kotcher documents the amazing! stupendous! incredible! oral history of American sideshow.
We didn’t lie to you, folks. We told you we had living, breathing monstrosities. You laughed at them, shuddered at them, and yet but for the accident of birth you might be even as they are. They did not ask to be brought into the world, but into the world they came. Their code is a law unto themselves. Offend one and you offend them all.
In the world of Tod Browning’s Freaks, that sideshow-barker’s warning makes a lot of sense. Just look at what happened to the poor Woman in the Box at the end of the film: She ticked “them” off and they tore off her legs.
But Kathleen Kotcher sees things differently. “That is not a good sideshow movie,” she groans, “but it is the image everyone has.” A woman who has made a career documenting what she calls “very special people,” the 31-year-old Columbia Heights resident isn’t offended by the 1932 classic. Mostly, she’s just tired of its legacy.
She and partner James Taylor are the proprietors of James Taylor’s Shocked and Amazed! On & Off the Midway, the world’s only periodical dedicated entirely to sideshow. That means Kotcher knows the real deal—but also that she also gets a lot of phone calls from people who don’t.
“A week doesn’t go by that someone making a movie doesn’t contact us and say, ‘We need to talk to freaky people. Find some freaks for us!’ They all have that Tod Browning image of this world that they think we can open a door to,” she says. “But that world never existed. You have to explain that to them and work from there.”
This clear-eyed view of the sideshow trade is the basis of Shocked and Amazed!, which the pair has self-published quasi-annually since 1995. Each 100-plus-page issue combines interviews with sideshow performers past and present with photos and memorabilia scavenged from estate sales and private collections. And though the magazine certainly celebrates the sensationalist traditions of the midway, it places an emphasis on first-person accounts intended to decrease the usually comfortable distance between freak (a perfectly respectful term) and mark (not so much).
“So often, these people have been dismissed, treated like they don’t know their own lives,” explains Kotcher. “They are better able to tell their stories than we ever could.”
Take ’40s-era freak Percilla “the Monkey Girl” Bejano, cover star of S&A’s most recent issue. The hirsute wonder is painted to look like Bettie Page gone feral: straddling a palm tree with a flower in her flowing hair, her pouty lips framed by a beard-and-mustache combo, her furry curves clad in a tattered leopard-print swimsuit. “It’s Wild!” the cover text promises.
Inside, however, the tone is different. In a 13-page interview—the last she granted before her death in February 2001—Bejano shares tales from a life under the sideshow tent: She began performing at age 5, later eloped with the love of her life (the Alligator Man), and suffered the death of their child after the girl caught pneumonia while their troupe was in D.C. Her story could be that of any traveling performer—except, of course, for the whole hypertrichosis thing.
American sideshow blossomed during the Depression, capitalizing on the axiom that when people are poor, they need distraction, however morbid. Performers who were there at sideshow’s beginnings—many of whom helped give S&A its start—are now nearing the ends of their lives. “Not to give the new generation short shrift, but there is a certain urgency to get the old-timers,” says Kotcher, who notes that it was one older sideshow performer in particular who inspired her and Taylor to start S&A.
When Kotcher first met Taylor, in 1993, he was a guest lecturer for a publishing class she was taking at the University of Baltimore. At the time, Taylor was working with Jeanie “the Only Living Half Girl” Tomaini on her autobiography, and Kotcher offered to help transcribe tapes. Their research took them to Gibsonton, Fla., where Tomaini and her husband, Al “the American Giant” Tomaini, operated a campground. “Gibtown,” a famed freak-vacation-spot-turned-retirement-village, is the home of more freaks per capita than anywhere else on earth. It soon became clear to the pair that Jeanie Tomaini’s life story was just one part of the larger oral history of sideshow, which had never been systematically recorded.
But S&A’s unprecedented access to this insular world didn’t come overnight. “Initially, it was difficult to get people to talk to us, because they have been burned,” says Kotcher. But “once people there read the magazine and saw we wanted to preserve the contributions they’ve made to this uniquely American art form, they have been overwhelmingly kind.”
Over the years, Kotcher has proved that she’s “with it and for it,” to use the lingo: She’s a card-carrying member of the International Independent Showmen’s Association and is an “honorary sword-swallower.” She can also handily smash a cinder block over her business partner’s chest while he lies on a bed of nails.
And so she and Taylor keep making their yearly trek down to Gibtown, and Tomaini’s aging friends keep opening their homes. “It’s funny: In all of our travels, we mostly just go to Florida,” chuckles Kotcher. “God’s waiting room for freaks—just like every other old person in America.”
Down the steep basement stairs of Kotcher’s Victorian row house, past the candy jar full of communion wafers and the banner advertising a giant snake called Big Tom, is the crowded office that is S&A’s editorial hub.
Files are carefully labeled: “F: Fats-Giants.” “Midgets: Female.” Among the books on the reference shelf are Heavily Tattooed Women and Men and Headhunting in the Solomon Islands. Faces stare up from the unmarked photos strewn around the room: A man covered in boils grimaces into the camera; Siamese twins in matching sausage curls smile cherubically. Somewhere in here is a copy of Anna: A Souvenir Pitchbook, a chapbook on 19th-century Nova Scotian giantess Anna Swan that Kotcher put together a few years ago, between volumes of S&A.
The magazine’s masthead is short: Kotcher and Taylor share writing and editing duties, a few researchers dig up documents and photos, and a small crew of artists produces original work for each issue. Many of the contributors are based in Baltimore, and a few others recently moved out West, but Kotcher coordinates the publication from D.C. via e-mail and the Web.
Though S&A is Kotcher’s full-time job, it is, as she puts it, “in no way a break-even situation.” Contributors are paid, she says, in “undying gratitude” or with free ads for their own projects. The magazine’s biggest expense is purchasing materials from dealers and private collectors. “It defies logic, the things we end up buying,” sighs Kotcher. She recently procured the files of “Freak Doctor” Charles Humberd, who kept fastidious case studies on the many giants he treated in the ’30s—with the occasional aside concerning a giant’s tap-dancing ability or “commensurate” bodily proportions.
Kotcher can’t even ballpark the production costs of an issue, but she notes that each one has cost more to make (and to purchase) than the last. Fortunately, demand keeps increasing, too: Print runs have climbed steadily since Vol. 1 and now stand at 5,500; the first four volumes are out of print and can command up to $100 on collector sites. Since the magazine’s inception, Taylor’s Dolphin-Moon Press has distributed S&A to independent bookstores nationwide through Baltimore’s Atomic Books.
But a sad event recently expanded the publication’s reach: When Melvin “the Human Blockhead” Burkhart died last year at age 94, the New York Times ran an obituary in which Taylor discussed his relationship with Burkhart and the work S&A had done with him. Upon publication of the article, the Connecticut-based Lyons Press contacted Kotcher and Taylor with an interest in reprinting portions of their magazine’s out-of-print issues in book form.
The 269-page collection, also titled James Taylor’s Shocked and Amazed! On & Off the Midway, has been out for two months now, bringing the behind-the-scenes dirt on Mortado the Human Fountain and the Embalmed Bandit into more bookstores than the self-published numbers ever could. The National Enquirer even printed an excerpt in its Dec. 3 issue, alongside tidbits about the JonBenet Ramsey investigation and Michael Jordan’s alleged love child.
Though she agrees that it could be nice to turn a profit for once, Kotcher is philosophical about working with a larger imprint. “From the start, you have to decide what success means. If you have to sell Stephen King numbers or anything else is failure, you are gonna be disappointed,” she says. “I just hope this gets us into the hands of more people, because this is really part of American history.”
“Snakes drool, apparently, and that was a problem,” Kotcher explains matter-of-factly. She’s talking about Serpentina, a performer in the Coney Island Circus Sideshow who recently shared her trade secrets with Kotcher while the S&A editors were on a weekend research mission. “The snake likes to have a drink before he goes onstage, and Serpentina would hold his head up to kiss him during the act, and the snake would just drool everywhere. So she stopped putting the water dish out before the show.”
Kotcher and Taylor were gathering material for S&A Vol. 7, a showcase of the current acts in Coney Island’s famous sideshow, which has operated in various incarnations since the ’50s. So far, the pair has interviewed 15 of the show’s performers—including Eak the Illustrated Man and Tyler Fyre, sword-swallower extraordinaire—for the issue, which should be out in the spring.
Vol. 7 won’t be the first S&A to give the new generation its due: Vol. 5 featured the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, with plenty of wince-inducing photos of Mr. Lifto dangling heavy objects from his nether regions. Because modern medicine has, Kotcher says, diminished the number of those “born different,” this new school of performers comprises mostly “made freaks”—normal-bodied people with a flair for munching light bulbs or gulping flames. And though Kotcher is quick to defend their freakishness, she acknowledges that they have an advantage the Monkey Girl never did: They can take the subway home after work and no one looks twice.
But working acts have always been a credible part of sideshow. And freakdom, born or made, has always been a lifestyle decision. “It’s all the same urge to perform,” says Kotcher. “Some people gotta sing. Some gotta dance. Some gotta do sideshow. This is the thing they can do. The older generation had choices, too, just not pleasant ones. They could be institutionalized or live with people staring at them for free, or they could live how they wanted and charge people to stare at them.”
British performer Mat Fraser has brought this old discussion into the world of contemporary sideshow. Fraser was a thalidomide baby, born with malformed arms that resemble flippers. In his act, he claims he channels the spirit of Sealo, a similarly bodied performer who took legal action when Florida decency laws threatened his livelihood in the ’30s. Fraser will perform in New York later this month, and Kotcher plans to interview him for Vol. 7 then.
“His attitude is that he is an actor, but he’ll never be seen as a leading man because of his arms. So he’ll use them to his advantage,” says Kotcher. “It’s so important to have someone like Mat performing today. It’s what [Taylor and I] have tried to do all along: We can say that these people aren’t exploited until we are blue in the face, but it’s their own words that have the credibility.” CP