Around The Town

Sideshow Hootenanny 2024

By: Alix Cohen

April 15, 2024: “The sideshow as a separate, specialized variety form begins around the same time as dime museums (mid 1800s)… relatively wholesome alternative for a working class family who wanted to take in a little entertainment, including a variety show (often featuring future vaudevillians). It flourished in its original incarnation until around the 1950s. Sideshows were a part of circuses, carnivals, fairground midways (including all the great World’s Fairs), and amusement parks like New York’s Coney Island.”  Trav S.D. for Travelanche; His book: No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

By: Alix Cohen

April 15, 2024: “The sideshow as a separate, specialized variety form begins around the same time as dime museums (mid 1800s)… relatively wholesome alternative for a working class family who wanted to take in a little entertainment, including a variety show (often featuring future vaudevillians). It flourished in its original incarnation until around the 1950s. Sideshows were a part of circuses, carnivals, fairground midways (including all the great World’s Fairs), and amusement parks like New York’s Coney Island.”  Trav S.D. for Travelanche; His book: No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

American sideshows featured “people defined by extraordinary appearance – victims of accidents, disease, or physical deformities” (Coney Island Circus Sideshow site). Gradually ethical and moral issues interceded. When medical advances explained and in some cases repaired abnormalities, they were often recreated by illusion.

Annie Jones 1887 (Public Domain); Zelleno, the Mystic 1905 (Public Domain); The Girl Who Defies Electricity 1914 (Public Domain)

As so-called “freaks” diminished in numbers, performers offered acts of “amazing dexterity and unthinkable risk” (Coney Island Circus Sideshow site), magic, comedy, and circus skills. Most frequent are: bed of nails, walking on or eating glass, sword swallowing, contortion, fire breathing, body hook suspension (hanging something heavy, say a cinder block from a body part), human blockhead (hammering a nail into one’s nose, for example), the electric chair, and the blade box (someone lays in a closed box which is then penetrated clear through by steel blades). Mores changed shuttering most shows in the 1970s. In 1985, the art formally returned to Brooklyn. For an almost forty years, Coney Island USA has produced the nostalgic form of amusement.

J.B. Garrison, the Living skeleton, New York Popular Publishing – Public Domain 1883 Poster Egyptian Hall-licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license

Sideshow performers are one of the closest knit communities in the arts. Artists are unfailingly supportive and respectful of one another. The genre remains one in which both physical and emotional outsiders remain welcome. Some of these practitioners taught themselves with trial and error including injury, others began with (more recently available) classes. They come from all walks of life. Sideshow is a calling.

Sideshow Hootenanny is an annual gathering of artists from all over the country. Tattoos, piercings, colorful hair and partially shaved heads, imaginative make up and extraordinary outfits pepper the venue onstage and off, side by side with those who look like our neighbors. Atmosphere is celebratory, audience vociferous. Host Adam Realman, artistic director of the not-for-profit Coney Island USA, begins, “I’d like to welcome you to what is an absolutely safe space to be who you are.”

Adam, who grew up in the neighborhood, was drawn to being “transported to another time.” He watched shows with both legends and newbies. At thirty with a civilian job, he attended Coney Island Sideshow School. “I then spent the better part of a year on figuring out how to present. My first ever performance was at a sideshow banner exhibition in a Red Hook poster gallery.” That lead to appearing in the city, shows elsewhere as performer and/or MC, and volunteering at Coney.

Adam Realman (Photo: Norman Blake)

The enthusiast started to fill in and then to host. Fifteen years ago, Adam took over the bookings and school. “It was a twenty year roller coaster. You know what happens at a not-for-profit, you hang around long enough and you’re working for it…We’re at the point now where we need to look seriously for grant money again. The building is 107 years old and she’s showing her age. We want to make this a centerpiece for Coney Island.” As an arts organization, ideshows, variety shows – drag shows, live bands, burlesque, storytelling events, film nights and The 42nd Annual Mermaid Parade are some offered events. (June 22, 2024) 

Two storytellers open the festivities. Lady Aye regales us with the tale of Elmer McCurdy, an outlaw whose corpse – exhibited, cast in films, and finally used as an amusement park prop – wasn’t buried for 66 years. (McCurdy’s history is currently a Broadway musical called Dead Outlaw.) Christian Cagigal shares the chronicle of Canada Bill Jones & The Three Card Monte – his exacting scams and adventures. “I gave a lot of dishonest men good hard work,” Bill said.

After lighting, puffing on, and swallowing multiple cigarettes, “It smells like 1989,” Adam Realman introduces 2023’s Carney Carnage Award Winner, everyone’s favorite oxymoron, The Loud Mime. Dressed in period attire and artful make-up, the artist launches into nonstop patter and ba-dump-dump jokes. “I’m going to push myself through this tennis racquet,” he boasts, grasping a stringless frame while mounting a precarious balance board. And he does just that, starting with sliding it under one foot, up and over one side of his long frame, back down the other!

The Loud Mime (Photos by Norman Blake)

Boston born, New Orleans based Will (the mime) began with magic tricks and juggling, busking when he was eight years old. “I was all tricks and no personality at the beginning, then did a complete flip flop.” At 26, the act is the only way he’s made a living. His parents, of course, thought this would be a phase, but as Will takes care of himself, they remain supportive.

The confident young man is flown out to street performance festivals and every year appears at The Fringe. “They bring a crowd to you, but it’s your job to make money off them.” He does the occasional stage show, but “my bread and butter is on the street, that’s where I get my strength.” Will spends summers entertaining Europe. I ask him what’s on his bucket list. “I want to influence street performers who come after me.”

Lunival Lousion (Photo: Norman Blake)

From Peoria, Illinois, where they must’ve been non-plussed, comes Lunival Lousion with a head of pre-Raphaelite blond curls wearing only gold, burlesque-like chains. The performer simultaneously spins illuminated Hula Hoops from every graceful limb while whirling and posing. As if trained, the hoops cascade down his back, are juggled, and, at the end, form a slinky around him. Captivating.

Broken Skabz= Kriss Broken (in black) and Skabz the clown (in regalia) place a ten foot solid, steel rebar at their throats and – hug! bending the bar down its center. Flirting with a woman in the front row, Kriss then bends a second bar with his mouth as well as arms, creating a large heart shape he gives to the stranger in lieu of flowers or candy.

Dr. Finnegan’s Circus, tonight comprised of Reverend Sean Theroux and Chip Rascal, comically offer glass eating “bite into it like a freshly picked apple,” a nail in a nostril, and the blade box inhabited by President of Sideshow Hootenanny, Kita St. Cyr. (Earnings and donations from tonight’s performance will be donated to the missing Dr. Billy Finnegan, who is ill. Both speak with deep affection about their colleague.) The three have performed together 15 years. They heard about one another, discovered they lived next door, then cohabited before spouses.

Sean, Kita St. Cyr, President Sideshow Hootenanny, Chip (Photo: Norman Blake)

Sean and Chip are quick with vaudeville-ish patter. “We do a bunch of sideshow stuff and magic tricks and we think we’re funny.” Sean taught himself glass eating by doing it. “I bled a lot over the years.” Chip chipped a tooth when a mousetrap snapped on his tongue. (No, he had not swallowed a rodent, but there’s an idea.) “Chip ran for student government at the college only Billy attended,” Sean notes. They’re easy going pranksters who finish one another’s sentences, yet adamant about using a script. In the end, “you don’t have to learn how to dance and sing to do sideshow.”

“The happiest couple in the business,” Atlanta based Captain and Maybelle”- a shock and a laugh – have been together 26 years, performing as a duo since 2008.  The two offer a perfect balance of magnetic bravado and Lucy Ricardo innocence. He announces and explains, she reacts and aids. Warming up by dangling a brick from his tongue, the Captain then swallows a sword centered in a cross bar. At either end, cinder blocks hang by chains. Later he downs three swords. Maybelle swings a 14 inch crate from her ears – sometimes it’s bricks.

Captain and Maybelle (Photos by Norman Blake)

When he was a child, Captain (Chris) told his mom he wanted to be covered in tattoos (he is; they both are) and join a circus. To pacify her, he attended college for graphic design. “But it didn’t fill my soul. I was a natural born entertainer.” Gravitating towards unnerving his audience, aware of safety issues through body piercing experience, Captain developed a plethora of sideshow skills, all self taught. During the week, he manages a tattoo shop.

Maybelle (Elena, called Maybelle by Chris to embarrass her. It was unsuccessful) managed retail stores for a decade and loved working with people. She’d never considered entertaining. After hiatus due to his injured esophagus and a second daughter, captain’s swords called to him like Poe’s Telltale Heart. Having his wife “my best friend” in the act smoothed return to the stage. “We cut up together. She reminds me to do things. It’s really who we are.” Breakthrough as a brand arrived with America’s Got Talent. (They made it to the top 48.) They’ve been on film, done motivational speaking, and play sideshows all over the country.

Alaska Lostboy and Nati Amos (Photo: Jim Moore)

Nati Amos, the diminutive Patchwork Girl, is also aPhD candidate, born with amniotic band syndrome and not expected to live very long. Enduring multiple surgeries, she suffered cruelty in school because of her appearance. Serendipity took her to the sideshow where, taken under its wing, she started performing while in medical school “getting reckless with herself-in a constructive way. She learned to dance with fire. She learned to extract herself from a straitjacket—gifted to her by a magician … She even got into suspension…hanging from the ceiling by hooks.” Quote from an article in Vice Magazine

Now a working scientist, she tells us she wants to do something healing. What follows is tender, choreographed pas de deux movement with Alaska Lostboy. Just as we find ourselves sighing, Nati lays on a bed of nails with a cinder block on her stomach. Lostboy breaks it apart with a sledgehammer. They curl together on the floor. 

The Three Legged Dog Sideshow=Texans Dan Block and his new wife, Carmen Getsun, present something “considered cruel and inhumane in most parts of the world,” based on force-feeding A disgusting concoction of liquids is pumped through Dan’s nose and esophagus – and vacuumed back up. Don’t ask.

Harley Newman, James Taylor (Photo: Norman Blake)

Highly lauded sideshow historian James Taylor, this year’s recipient of The Golden Schmoozer Award, in turn presents the Lifetime Achievement Award to “living legend” Harley Newman. (See my article on Harley below.) Newman, he says, “has taught hundreds of students the art of sideshow presentation, giving of himself and his knowledge.” The honoree undoubtedly imbued his lessons with integrity and an invaluable sense of wonder.

Because of toll taken by illness, Harley no longer fully commands his lean body. Performing tonight means drawing on different skills. With Buster Keaton-like  expression, the performer successively disgorges two tennis balls we haven’t seen him take in. Eyes scrunch and bulge, smile is mad. He whimpers, coughs, then, surprise! a third one emerges. Philosophizing about the nature of a hole, he asks, “If it takes six men to dig a hole, how many does it take to dig half a hole?” Here’s the Zen approach that made his acts unique.

Harley Newman (Photo: Jim Moore)

Next are silly tricks. A green and yellow silk handkerchief are placed in an ordinary paper bag and voila! they change colors. “Some people actually don’t get this,” he wryly notes. A rice paper ball almost inflates by means of blowing through a straw from across the room. (The artist is working on this one.) A plastic pineapple is employed as a test of gullibility. During this last segment, Harley brings to mind Charlie Chaplin in City Lights. He’s immensely moving.

Both Harley Newman (Photos by Jim Moore)

My piece on Harley Newman, Professional Lunatic

The amazing showcase of talent, met with whoops, cheers, shout-outs and applause, was facilitated by Kita St. Cyr who could probably run a small country, General Manager, Patrick Wall, her stern, effective Prime Minister, and Stage Manager, Benjamin who not only keeps things humming onstage but clowns with deft, sexual innuendo.

Finale (Photo by Norman Blake)

Coney Island USA Sideshow by the Seashore Theater is home to the last permanently housed ten-in-one sideshow in the country. It opens Memorial Day weekend with presentations at 2pm, 3:15, 4:30, and 5:45. Weekday schedule is somewhat different. Check the site for information and tickets. The Sideshow School will be running a four day session starting July 29. 

Performance Photos by Norman Blake and Jim Moore
Hootenanny Logo by Paigey Pumphrey courtesy of Sideshow Hootenanny
Coney Island logo courtesy of Coney Island USA

My review of Jim Moore’s splendid book: Don’t Miss This! – A Decade of Eccentric Performing Arts