Around The Town

Harley Newman, Professional Lunatic

By: Alix Cohen

April 21, 2024, on Coney Island, performing artist Harley Newman will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from Sideshow Hootenannyduring a weekend long celebration.

Harley Newman

By: Alix Cohen

April 21, 2024, on Coney Island, performing artist Harley Newman will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from Sideshow Hootenannyduring a weekend long celebration.

“In the many decades since live theatre began certain rules, conventions, and norms took hold. These conventions would change over the years, but as these customs were formed there were always those who pushed back against the hegemony. There were always … people… that rebelled against the status quo and wished to push the boundaries of the theatre. This is where the anarchic clown enters the fray.” William Browning- Playful Rebellion: The Anarchic Clown and Pushing the Boundaries of Contemporary Theatre

Harley Newman was an ADD kid among “generations of educated women.” There were expectations. He intended to be an orthopedist, but was thwarted by chemistry. The young man had no alternative in mind. A dorm trip to the circus reignited childhood attraction. Clown Pio Nock’s Swaypole act particularly affected the young man. A 50 plus foot, flexible pole made to look like a lamp post was climbed by its ostensibly inebriated lamp lighter. As he swigged from a bottle acrobatically hanging on, the pole bent to dangerous extremes. “It took me as an audience member, between terror and pee-in-your-pants comedy,” he says.

Not only was it Newman’s first time seeing the stunt, it was as if Pio was surprised by the irrational lamp. “If we performers treat a thing as first time, it removes it from the world of bragging and gives it far more power as a stage piece,” Newman comments. 

The Clown, 1977 (Photo courtesy of Harley Newman)

He changed his major to theater and read every book he could find on clowning – all of seven at the time. It was 1972. Armed with what he felt were necessities, a unicycle and the ability to juggle, he started to perform. When Hoxie Brothers Circus – then the biggest, non-corporate, European style, one ring show – passed through his college town, he went to talk to the clowns. As one, they advised not joining Ringling Brothers, but rather a circus like Hoxie.

Still in costume after a show, Newman went to a newspaper office to place his regular entertainment ad. He was serendipitously photographed. The image went out on Associated Press. As a result, the performer was offered a mascot job for The Indianapolis Clowns Baseball team. The organization barnstormed with its own competition putting on exhibition games. Alumnus included Satchel Paige and Hank Aaron. For ten weeks, “I did things like put firecrackers under the umpire’s ass. It was a job I had to invent.”

A Festival, 1986  (Photo courtesy of Harley Newman)

The next year, having graduated, he joined Hoxie Brothers. Newman observed every clown. Rooming with sideshow performers – sword swallower, fire eater – he learned techniques. “I file things away.” Initial duties included acting as special assistant to the manager, doing a bally, getting animals into and out of trailers…He was a dogsbody, in circus terminology, a “first of May,” a boy who runs away from home to become a clown. Eventually, he entered the ring as a thespian. Backstage politics didn’t sit well.

Sword Swallowing (Photo by Hub Wilson)

Newman left the circus, got a research assistantship, and became a Community Agency Counselor. “I worked in a program with hearing-impaired mentally-ill folks, but then Reagan got elected, and the program evaporated.” He also continued to freelance. Being a kids’ babysitter at birthday parties was problematic. “I was in a business where I supposed to be an extrovert all the time and I never was,” he says.

“There’s an adult way of clowning,” he thought. Notoriously well read, Newman recalled Alfred Jarry “who invented pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions, which is the essence of clown logic. An example might be: A hole can be defined as nothing with an edge around it. My question becomes – if it’s nothing, why does it need a definition?” And Antonin Artaud, “who believed that theater should essentially present a realistic face, a practice that became somewhat confrontative as others played with his ideas.”

Opening a lock with his tongue (Photo by Paul Cofield)

The artist delights in making an audience uncomfortable, even fearful, then presenting a solution through laughter and amazement. He’s drawn to escapes. Make-up and slapstick were jettisoned – the latter difficult to unlearn. He began to play colleges. It was a show in Alabama, then Maine, then Florida. One month he’d be busy, the next at leisure. “Either I flew with hundreds of pounds of equipment – I love props – or suffered a grueling drive. Flying I could look out the window and say, ‘Oh, I know that truck stop, the coffee’s terrible,’ but I was never sure whether my stuff would get there.” Additionally, during this time, he toured abroad and made a spate of television appearances.

Spitting up tennis balls- Photo courtesy of Harley Newman

New shows challenged both himself and audiences. “Reading that someone was going to break the record for minimum number of nails with eleven spikes bothered me because I saw the need for bilateral symmetry. So I figured out how to do ten, and worked down to four.” In 1987, talking his way into the office of the editor of The Guinness Book of World Records, Newman lowered himself onto just four of these. The maneuver wasn’t published for fear of emulation, but he was given a letter of recognition. 

Later, the extreme stunt performer accomplished his feat with a single nail. “The question was not whether I could do it. With just one point of connection, I had to have people help keeping me stable.” The two men pictured are not holding him up. Newman has suffered his greatest injuries from being “unclear about my directions.”

Photograph ©Jim R Moore From his book Don’t Miss This! A Decade of Eccentric Performing Arts

There were escapes like the Saran Wrap Cocoon: Almost a half mile of plastic was wound around his seated body by audience members. A snorkel allowed for breathing. When the cocoon was complete, the snorkel was corked. Minutes were counted. “I twitch, tip over, struggle, and don’t get out till over five minutes which violates everyone’s expectations as they know how long they can hold their breath- usually a minute and a half.” I watched a video of this. It’s thoroughly unnerving.

How does one even conceive of lying on a bed of nails with a Harley Davidson and riders on his chest?! “That Bed of Nails has about 1300 nails, and 30 years of shows. It folds in the middle to become its own travel case,” he says. “Over a million pounds of stuff has been piled on me on that bed…mostly people in groups of five. I’ve cracked ribs a few times. I used to show anybody who was interested how to lie on the bed as an after show thing. I figured it was a way I could teach another way of dealing with fears in a fun and slightly subversive way.”

“The bike ends up parked over my face, braced by a support person on each side.” (Photo courtesy of Harley Newman)

Newman has danced barefoot on glass and stopped a fan with his tongue. “Once I was bound with 100 feet of chain and a dozen locks and tossed in with sharks,” he says. “I’ve dangled upside-down on a burning rope in a straitjacket on The Today Show. I hung things from my eyes with fish hooks on The Tonight Show…Most of my personal material is either thought-provoking or beautiful, or both. I wanted something different. Being disturbing has its place, but there are also other things to say.” Presentation style is theatrical, often accompanied by mythical stories or tribal talismans. The artist put his body through provocation after provocation. Audience reaction was its own reward.

Harley Newman (Photo by Jim R. Moore)

As time passed, Newman almost completely stopped performing. He taught, consulted, and created shows for others; started a book about our relationship to time and one about theories of side show/variety entertainment; became a woodworker. Among the annals of unique theater acts, Harley Newman’s was the rare confluence of intellect, alchemy, comedy, fright, and entertainment. There’s no one like him.

Opening photo by Norman Blake

GO. Treat yourself to entertainment you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere.

Sideshow Hootenanny: USA’s only large-scale gathering of sideshow performers, producers, and fans from around the world- is coming to NYC for the first time ever! Join us for a night of sword swallowing, fire breathing, flesh piercing, contortionists, magicians, feats of strength, jugglers, human blockheads, broken glass walkers and more. April 5 through April 7