Step Right Up
The Sideshow Goes on with the Return of Shocked and Amazed
It's been a long strange trip for writer and publisher James Taylor. How long and how strange? Over the past decade, the 51-year old Hamiltonian has befriended a bearded lady, a legless "half-girl," and a gentleman whose stock and trade is pounding tenpenny nails up his nose. Along the way, Taylor learned how to lie on a bed of nails and climb a ladder of swords.
By day, Taylor is a bureaucrat--an auditor of office efficiency for the state of Maryland. Since 1995, Taylor has also been editor-in-chief of the journal Shocked and Amazed: On and Off the Midway. "It's not just a magazine about sideshows, though when people ask about it, that's what I tell them," Taylor says. "But it really attempts to throw a blanket over novelty and variety entertainment in general."
Taylor first encountered the murky world beyond the tent flap back in 1992, when a family friend and retired carnival worker began regaling him with amusing tales from his itinerant days. About the same time, Taylor was blown away by the show Mermaids, Mastodons, and Mummies at Baltimore's since-closed Peale Museum. The exhibit re-created the cabinet-of-curiosities environment of 19th-century museums--collections of oddities that laid the groundwork for 20th-century sideshows. Taylor, a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, began to seek out other carnival and sideshow vets. He initially planned to write a book about the shadowy world.
"I fell in love with the people in the business," Taylor says. "And I realized once I did a book, it was over--what was my excuse for the next book? Then it occurred to me that if I [published] an ongoing journal, I didn't have to say good-bye."
To produce Shocked and Amazed, Taylor turned to his own Dolphin Press, a literary press he founded in the mid-'70s that heretofore focused largely on poetry. He also formed a publishing partnership with Baltimore's Atomic Books. Five 100-page editions of Shocked rolled off the presses between '95 and '98. Then, Taylor took his sideshow interest in another direction: With artist/antique dealer Dick Horne, he developed the American Dime Museum in a Maryland Avenue storefront. Billed as "the world's only exhibition, research, and performance space dedicated to variety and novelty entertainment," the museum debuted in 1999 and expanded into an adjacent building a year later.
Shocked and Amazed's three-year hiatus ended in mid-January when the sixth issue hit the streets. At 128 pages, it's the biggest volume yet. The issue also contains some big-name writers. A piece about a showman who made a fortune exhibiting pickled fetuses in the 1930s came from a noted New Yorker scribe, the late A.J. Liebling. (Taylor says he had "no problems at all" negotiating reprint rights with Liebling's estate.) Sports Illustrated writer and National Public Radio commentator Frank Deford penned a gross/giggly story about Little Irvy--a 20-ton frozen whale exhibited for decades in carnivals and shopping-center parking lots. The cover story, "Monkey Business," contains the on-the road reminisces of Percilla Lauther Bejano, whose congenital hypertrychosis (extreme hirsutism) led to a decade-spanning sideshow career as the Monkey Girl. Like many ex-carnival and circus folks, Bejano, together with her husband--a sideshow vet whose scaly skin condition made him "The Alligator Man"--retired to Gibsonton, Fla., the so-called carny capital of the world. Taylor has made numerous visits to this unusual village just south of Tampa.
"[The story] is based on close to three years of interviews with Percilla," Taylor says. "You wouldn't believe what it was like editing that down."
Taylor says he penetrated the insular community of retired sideshow people with surprising ease. Many of his subjects became personal friends.
"I was told early on that the people in this business had been burned so many times that when you approach them [as a writer] they're going to freeze you out--you're going to be seen as an outsider," he says. "But that just never happened."
Taylor credits his success to an earnest, nonsensationalizing approach.
"Invariably when these folks were interviewed, people would ask, 'What's it like to be a freak?' or 'What's it like to live in that carnival town where the postman is a midget?'" he says. "I simply asked them to describe the business as they experienced it. Nobody had ever really looked at them as performers--as show[people] in what was essentially 'Hollywood under canvas.'"
Bejano reflects back on a sideshow life that had its share of hard knocks, but one also marked with camaraderie and fun. One of her anecdotes describes the problems of going out to eat with the playful Popeye, a performer who could "pop" his eyes out of his head on command. ("One time, [a waitress] run out to her car . . . and drove away," she recalls.) Bejano's career is bereft of the harsh exploitation many assume marks the sideshow life. (And don't get Taylor started about the folks who condemn sideshows on sensitivity grounds: "Invariably, the people who trash the sideshow business the loudest have never met any of the people involved," he says.)
Seventysomething Bejano died in her sleep early last year. One of Taylor's regrets is that he started his publication too late; the sideshow's glory days were already behind it by the 1950s. "I managed to capture all the old-timers who were left," he says. For instance, the second issue dealt with Jeanie Tomaini, born without legs and billed as a "half-girl" (and "one the sweetest, sharpest, wiliest human beings I'd ever met," Taylor says). Tomaini died in August '99. Issue No. 3 looked at Melvin Burkhart, whose ability to contort his face and insert large objects up his nose got him dubbed the "Human Blockhead."
"Now, they are pretty much all gone," Taylor laments. "When Burkhart passed away this past November, that was probably it for the guys who knew the business in its heyday."
Of course, the '90s saw the emergence of a number of next-generation sideshow acts. Taylor has already chronicled the life and work of Jim Rose, whose neo-sideshow troupe tours with rock bands. The Bindelstiff Family Circus is another contemporary outfit Taylor plans to examine.
Taylor admits his quirky publication has had little luck getting on big-box booksellers' shelves. Atomic Books and its Web site are a major sales vehicle, as are other comic-book and fringe-literature outlets and Web sites. Nevertheless, the first three issues of Shocked are sold out, and copies of the debut volume are selling for as much as $100 a pop on book-search Web sites. Taylor is in the early stages of negotiating with a New York publisher to produce a best-of Shocked and Amazed book.
Examination of historic sideshow figures will continue to be large part of future issues (though they'll have to be less interview-based). The next issue will focus on the sideshow-ish exhibits and performances connected with Coney Island, past and present. Fortunately for the journal, Taylor's definition of "variety and novelty entertainment" is rather squishy. He simply says it's everything but "traditional theater and traditional music performance--anything outside of people standing there doing Shakespeare."
The impresario of oddities pauses.
"But hey," he says, "you get giants, midgets, fat people, and guys with three legs to perform Shakespeare--then that's variety and novelty and entertainment."
For more information on Shocked and Amazed, visit www.shockedandamazed.com.