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Canadian Carnival Freaks and the Extraordinary Body, 1900-1970s
by Jane Nicholas
“This book represents the first in-depth scholarly examination of the freak show in Canada, an institution with deep roots in our popular consciousness. Jane Nicholas has produced a significant addition to our understanding of the history of Canadian entertainment, attitudes towards children, and the social construction of able-bodiedness.”
Keith Walden, Department of History, Trent University
“In Canadian Carnival Freaks and the Extraordinary Body, 1900−1970s, Jane Nicholas seamlessly weaves together multiple histories: the history of the body, of children and childhood, of the working class family, of the cultural and social history of the carnival and the ‘freak show,’ among a number of others. Meticulously researched and sensitively argued, Nicholas adds immeasurably to our understanding of the central role that marginalized Canadians, particularly those with embodied differences, played in shaping broader ideas of normalcy, social acceptability, productive work, and cultural consumption.”
Mona Gleason, Department of Educational Studies, University of British Columbia
“Working backwards from the last CNE ‘freak show’ in 1973, Nicholas demonstrates the workings of state and business that made the shows fundamental to a burgeoning modern popular culture − hence consumer culture. She positions the freak show as integral to a ‘modern exhibitionary complex’ focused on the body as spectacle, an innovative approach to the power relations inherent in race, gender, and class, as well as the lesser discussed, but nonetheless critical, categories of age and ability. In this provocative and exciting book, above all a welcome addition to the growing historiography on disability, the author adds much to understandings of the ‘normal’ body as historically contingent, socially defined, and culturally performed.”
Cynthia Comacchio, Department of History, Wilfrid Laurier University
“Original, careful research combined with insightful analysis makes this book an important contribution to our understanding of popular culture and human variation.”
Robert Bogdan, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Syracuse University
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By Andrea Stulman Dennett
Dioramas and panoramas, freaks and magicians, waxworks and menageries, obscure relics, and stuffed animals–a dazzling assortment of curiosities attracted the gaze of the nineteenth-century spectator at the dime museum. This distinctly American phenomenon was unprecedented in both the diversity of its amusements and in its democratic appeal, with audiences traversing the boundaries of ethnicity, gender, and class. Andrea Stulman Dennett’s ‘Weird and Wonderful: The Dime Museum in America’ recaptures this ephemeral and scarcely documented institution of American culture from the margins of history.
Weird and Wonderful chronicles the evolution of the dime museum from its eighteenth-century inception as a “cabinet of curiosities” to its death at the hands of new amusement technologies in the early twentieth century. From big theaters that accommodated audiences of three thousand to meager converted storefronts exhibiting petrified wood and living anomalies, this study vividly reanimates the array of museums, exhibits, and performances that make up this entertainment institution. Tracing the scattered legacy of the dime museum from vaudeville theater to Ripley’s museum to the talk show spectacles of today, Dennett makes a significant contribution to the history of American popular entertainment.
“The book should prove interesting to readers of American social history, and particularly enjoyable for museum and entertainment professionals.”
“This book was a great read and provided the information I was hoping to learn about nineteenth-century dime museums. All the information on the subject seems to be scattered about and often lacking. This book ties it together in a succinct yet informative text.”
“Weird and Wonderful is a well researched and very readable account of the (mostly) 19th-century phenomenon commonly known as dime museums. While they were themselves short-lived, the influence of dime museums extends far and wide throughout our culture – from Discovery Channel programming and blockbuster museum exhibits to freak show revivals and viral videos.”
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Some wonderful videos here for those that enjoy ‘sideshows’ & ‘carnivals’.
An excerpt from History Channel’s Weird US series focusing on the American’s sideshow. Featuring a wonderful interview with Ward Hall. From 2007.
A walkthrough of the Gibsonton, Florida sideshow town museum. Originally broadcast on Travel Channel.
A Carnival Museum! | The International Independent Showman’s Museum | Riverview, FL – Shot by ‘ViewfromTheCheapSeats‘.
From the wilds of Coney Island, some history here in a few videos to whet your appetite for sideshow!
Coney Island Sideshow and Amusement Park – New York City History 1940
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Dominque Rabideau performed a lovely skilled hat juggling act.
From the wilds of the UK Jon Udry performed a wonderful ‘juggling/striptease’ routine and then a charming teacup and teabag juggling routine.
Ermiyas Muluken performed a feat of balance and then juggled clubs while being 4 levels up on a rolla-bolla.
The performers in this show would usually be on stage getting a nice salary for their act but due to the ‘shut down’ they are here for your entertainment. Please consider donating at the options listed above!
Drew Nugent played a song on the piano and performed with the cute little teacup and mouthpiece. (A unique instrument for sure!)
Brian and Tyler play some ‘technical wizardry’ in their act!
They proceeded to take the ‘blockhead’ once step further using an electric drill!
Keith attempts the ‘exquisite failure’ routine with the apple and knife. Watch next week because he ‘failed’ this time again. (this time he had his shoes on!)
Stephanie Monseu talks to the audience about ‘giving a hand’ in making the show better!
Kelsey Strauch performs her delightfully funny ‘long arms’ dance routine.
David Darwin requested a volunteer (virtually) and had her projected on his wooden wall pretending to be ‘walking dead’ and threw his knives at the wooden wall. Wild!
Salih Mahammed performed a very skilled juggling act with some props.
Stephanie Morphett-Tepp (Flying Brain) performs a traditional hair hanging act.
The performers take the ‘virtual’ curtain call.
Watch the show next Monday at 7:30pm – Different Acts Every Week!
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A formerly conjoined twin in a carnival sideshow feel the pang of cut ties!
A young woman is haunted by the ghost of her conjoined twin, in Lisa Brown’s The Phantom Twin, a sweetly spooky graphic novel set in a turn-of-the-century sideshow.
Isabel and Jane are the Extraordinary Peabody Sisters, conjoined twins in a traveling carnival freak show―until an ambitious surgeon tries to separate them and fails, causing Jane’s death.
Isabel has lost an arm and a leg but gained a ghostly companion: Her dead twin is now her phantom limb. Haunted, altered, and alone for the first time, can Isabel build a new life that’s truly her own?
Interview with the author Lisa Brown
Q: The Phantom Twin is about sisterhood, loss, and identity. How do you think young adults will relate to Isabel’s story?
A: I think that all those elements resonate in just about every human’s life; family, death, and loneliness. I know that they resonate with me. As for young adults, they’re in the middle of an enormous identity shift from childhood to adulthood. It’s an evolution that sometimes feels like a loss, other times an achievement. It’s really a bit of both.
Q: The setting of The Phantom Twin is very unique. Why did you choose it?
A: I’ve always been enamored of carnivals. They perch on the edge of wholesome and seedy: innocent fun on the outside and perhaps more sinister behind the curtain. The lives of the sideshow performers themselves were also a muddle of contradictions: beauty and talent, exploitation and bigotry, and, for some, success and happiness. In the end, it’s complicated, and I am drawn to what is complicated.
About the Author
Lisa Brown is a New York Times bestselling illustrator, author, and cartoonist. Her work includes a slew of illustrated books including Goldfish Ghost by Lemony Snicket; The Airport Book; Picture the Dead with Adele Griffin; and Mummy Cat by Marcus Ewert. For adults, Long Story Short is a collection of comic strips about classic novels. She lives in San Francisco and teaches in the illustration department of the California College of Art.
“In the tradition of Ransom Riggs’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, Lisa Brown’s The Phantom Twin explores the behind-the-scenes lives of performers in an old-timey circus sideshow, tapping into our fascination―and on some level identification―with these obvious ‘outsiders.'” ―New York Times
“Skating the line of unsettling and adorable, Brown’s trademark tidy artwork and straightforward, emotional text will make readers wrestle with what it means to be a ‘freak.’ Step right up.” ―Daniel Kraus, New York Times–bestselling coauthor of The Shape of Water
“Lovely. A fascinating and heartfelt tale of two sisters, beautifully told, beautifully drawn.” ―Ransom Riggs, #1 New York Times–bestselling author of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
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Wonder through the carnival grounds to the sideshow and feast your eyes on the amazing curious people that perform for your entertainment.
~ Jeff Krulik on Traveling Sideshow-Shocked and Amazed ~
I trace it all back to buying a paperback of Very Special People on a 7th-grade
field trip. On the bus back to school, my classmates and I sat mesmerized by the
human oddities within. Or maybe it was an animal freak show under a tent at the
neighborhood carnival one year, with the five-legged cows and pickled pig
fetuses on display. My Dad even collected stamps that were known as freaks, or
oddities, that were just mechanical mistakes, and I of course followed suit at my
junior stamp club. So maybe there’s something in my DNA that drew me to the
Shocked and Amazed book series as a customer at Atomic Books in Baltimore,
where I soon after made the acquaintance of one James Taylor since I felt
confident we’d speak the same lingo.
At this time in the mid-90s I was also winging it as a freelance producer after a
multi-year stint on staff at Discovery Channel; I had wanted to get my hands dirty
making TV documentaries instead of watching other people have all the fun (or
misery), so I dove headfirst into the world of independent production, successful
or otherwise. Cut to 1999 when James’ American Dime Museum opened up right
next door to Atomic Books, and I showed up with my new camera to record what
was unfolding. About this time, a benevolent friend (and the man who came up
with Shark Week for Discovery Channel) became head of programming for
Travel Channel, and I pitched the idea of taking “Shocked and Amazed” from the
printed word to the TV screen. It worked. And a TV gig was born, modeled after
my lifelong interest and partnering with James’ brand. It should have just been
called “Shocked and Amazed!” but because Travel Channel was commissioning
it the full name became “Traveling Sideshow: Shocked and Amazed!”
Fine. We could live with that title compromise because here was a chance to go
as far and as wide as we could on the subject of freaks and circus sideshows,
hoping it could turn into a multi-part series. We shot glorious amounts of footage
from road trips to the Sideshow Gathering in Wilkes Barre, to Manhattan and
Brooklyn and Gibsonton, Florida. I kept thinking what we don’t use here will be
for parts 2, 3, etc.
Any production features many peaks and valleys and this one was no exception.
Many of the high points are right on the screen, and additionally, I had enough
foresight to save copies of all the footage. Most TV works-for-hire require all
source material turned over, and I obliged. But not before making copies of
everything, hence my ability to preserve Ward Hall’s roast at Inkin the
Valley/Sideshow Gathering in 2002, as well as his tangential connection to the
Rolling Stones, both of which I have posted on YouTube.
But there were some disappointments too, including our very first ambitious
crew shoot, a four-hour drive to Bloomsburg PA Fair to see the California Hell
Drivers, ruined by torrential rain. Or even more heartbreaking, my production
assistant unable to rendezvous with Presto the Magician to reunite him with his
Hubert’s Freak Museum colleague Hovey Burgess. Oh what could have been.
And of course, the whole thing was shelved right after production because Travel
Channel went in another direction (word had it that some hi-level suit took
offense at the “Jim Rose Twisted Tour” series already being aired). Nothing
personal but that’s showbiz. Our program eventually aired a few years later on a
digital channel so obscure I can’t even recall by name, but I since took to sharing
it online via YouTube, Vimeo, etc. which is how it continues to find new audiences
There are a few people that need special mention, and I couldn’t have done this
without them. My “with it and for it” coproducer Adam Eisenberg who turned over
the bedroom in his house for an edit suite. And to the dear departed Kathleen
Kotcher, James’ publishing partner who was such an asset to the production, as
well as the preservation of sideshow history.
My thanks and good wishes and I hope you enjoy Shocked and Amazed!
Traveling Sideshow – Shocked and Amazed!
by James Taylor – May 2020
I can’t tell you when nor where I met Jeff Krulik, filmmaker to the real world, you know, the folks who seek the “other” showbiz, the other forms of education that come from discovering the strange, the bizarre, the weird, the odd and the unusual. All us oddballs. I’d known of Jeff for years c/o his cult classic, “Heavy Metal Parking Lot,” but no, I can’t say when nor where he and I first connected, but I can tell you what we talked about: We talked about sideshow. And “weirdness as entertainment,” to re-coin filmmaker Fred Olen Ray’s line.
And the topic of discussion between Krulik & me centered on the idea of a show that would air not as a single doc (which you’re about to watch) but as regular programming, airing weekly, a show that presented novelty & variety acts in all their glory, connecting all the talent across the broad spectrum of the “new” sideshow that was being ushered in at the beginning of this century. That was the idea, anyway, Jeff having crossed paths with my “Shocked and Amazed! On & Off the Midway,” still the world’s only journal devoted to the history of novelty & variety exhibition; ok: sideshow. And Krulik was ready to rock & roll.
Sadly, we – Krulik, Kathleen Kotcher (my late partner and this documentary’s co-producer), and I – watched the project go from a proposed series to, well, this hour-long doc. Which wasn’t aired for nearly two years after production wrapped. But that doesn’t diminish the product one iota. Not one jot. You see, still, “Traveling Sideshow – Shocked and Amazed!” is one of a damn tiny number of essential documentaries on this end of the showbiz, picking up on the business at that seminal moment when the business, about to explode into the mainstream, was starting to boil up, attracting more & more talent into this strangest – but oldest, historically – form of distraction. Of amusement. Of entertainment. And while we were (and remain) disappointed that our dream of a series didn’t pan out, there’s this visual record of not only what was but what is, since the business we all love – in its current iteration – was birthed, as much as, in front of Krulik’s cameras. And we should all thank him for that.
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Certainly one of the most interesting forms of popular entertainment America has experienced. Now – with the pandemic and final curtain call for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus…what is next?
Here is a wonderful excerpt from the American Experience special titled “The Circus”.
This four-hour mini-series tells the story of one of the most popular and influential forms of entertainment in American history. Through the intertwined stories of several of the most innovative and influential impresarios of the late nineteenth century, this series reveals the circus was a uniquely American entertainment created by a rapidly expanding and industrializing nation; that it embraced and was made possible by Western imperialism; that its history was shaped by a tension between its unconventional entertainments and prevailing standards of respectability; and that its promise for ordinary people was the possibility for personal reinvention. For many Americans, the circus embodied the improbable and the impossible, the exotic, and the spectacular. Drawing upon a vast and richly visual archive and featuring a host of performers, historians, and aficionados, The Circus follows the rise and fall of the gigantic, traveling tented railroad circus and brings to life an era when Circus Day would shut down a town and its stars were among the most famous people in the country.
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Host Keith Nelson introduces the acts of tonight’s show.
Magic man Torkova performs two different amazing feats. One with multiplying candles and the second producing two bowls of oranges.
Erin Stephens performs a very skilled juggling set in a beautiful studio setting.
Patrick Garner performs a ‘tribute’ to Senior Wences ‘one-handed’ ventriloquism act
Presenting a show has many costs. To help defray these please see the above methods for donating to this cause. Bindlestiff Family Cirkus is a ‘not-for-profit’ 501(c)3 organization.
Fernanda Sumano performed a high energy hula-hoop act that allowed us to follow her through the house she was performing into the street and then the roof!
Wilfredo sang a lovely song for the viewers which included the ever-present “I”.
Keith Nelson introduces the ‘Ask Hovey’ segment of the show.
Justin Weber performs his amazingly wonderful Yoyo act with colored light projections.
Keith Nelson catches all six spoons and keeps all 6 plates spinning!
Alisa Mae performs a ‘satirical’ aerial act with rolls of toilet paper.
Host Keith introduces the last act. The Kalvan Family!
The Kalvan Family had all the right moves and everyone had great skills!
The online Virtual curtain call for all the performers from the show. (and tech crew!)
Come back next Monday for another great Bindlestiff Open Stage Quarantine Edition Variety Show!
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~ Performing at The Southern Sideshow Hootenanny ~
Reggie is an American entertainer based in Los Angeles, California. She is ½ of Philadelphia’s Olde City Sideshow and has been performing in a sideshow for over a decade. As a solo performer, she travels the country working everything from midway to nightclubs and variety shows. Reggie is one of the few women in the world performing several unique acts such as the anatomical wonder act and riding a motorcycle in a high wire thrill show. She has appeared on The Gong Show, Americas Got Talent, been featured in stories by news outlets from Fox to NPR and in books and magazines on Tattoos and Sideshow. She has opened up for Primus, suspended for Jane’s Addiction, performed for Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and at Tattoo Conventions across the globe. She is committed to community building in the sideshow arts.
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