Saturday, July 19, 2008

American Sideshow by Marc Hartzman

I've always found myself unusually drawn to the unusual. This includes, to a great degree, circus folk. So, when I saw a single copy of American Sideshow in the theatre section at the bookstore I immediately honed in. This book is a treasure chest of information about sideshow performers throughout America's history that will never leave my personal library.
American Sideshow gives us short vignettes on, easily, more than a hundred different midway "freaks". But don't let the length of these biographies, most about a page long, fool you into thinking the information is insignificant.
Where else would you find personal and professional information on Fanny Mills, The Ohio Big Foot Girl, who was earning $150 a week in the 1880's. That's 100 yrs before I was making $150 a week at my first job and feeling rich!
And look at the story of Isaac W. Sprague, The Original Thin Man. Born in 1841 he was consistantly loosing weight from the age of 12. He ate regularly and well but was wasting away, dumbfounding his doctors. He worked for his father as a shoemaker until his parents death at which time he began working at a grocery. Once this work became too difficult (he was only in his 20's) he was lucky enough to be offered a job with a sideshow. Here he was making $80/wk in the 1860's. He took a wife and had a family. His condition was finally diagnosed as extreme progressive muscular atrophy. Mr. Sprague's story, unfortunately, ends very much the way that is often assumed of many sideshow performers.
The same, gladly, can't be said for Dick Brisben, The Penguin Boy who may well still be alive and kicking, at least at the time this book was written. Born in the 1940's with feet but no legs and hands but basically no arms, Brisben began his career with the sideshows in 1960. He had been on wellfare until Ward Hall invited him to join his show. The Penquin Boy stayed with Hall for 27 years after which he was able to purchase a home in southern California.
This book contains so many amazing stories about people who could easily have lived lives as "burdens" to society and family but instead took what they had and used it to their advantages.
Marc Hartzman as divided this book into 3 sections. It begins with the "Golden Age" which encompasses 1830's-early 1900's. This was the heyday of Barnum & Bailey. It continues on to the "Silver Age" with the introduction of the Ringling Brothers and eventual downfall of the sideshow as it was known. The final section covers the "Modern Age", the new sideshows.
For me, the final section is the only failing in this book. I see the old-time performers as people who found themselves in unusual circumstances entertaining an audience. As for the modern performers, they are people putting themselves in unusual situations to entertain.
I can't recommend this book enough to anyone with even the slightest interest in this subject. I would also reccommend it to creative writers looking for springboard material.

Title: American Sideshow
Author: Marc Hartzman
Publisher: Tarcher/Penguin
ISBN: 1585425303

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