Archives for posts with tag: circus

freaksI’ll admit that this is an odd topic for a post during the holiday season but an interesting one nonetheless. At Halloween, whilst re-watching the excellent Tod Browning film Freaks I recalled a post from last year entitled Zoetropes and Kinetoscopes – which I put together after visiting Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre – where I mentioned writing some articles about the history of the circus and its various offshoots, in particular the history of the freak show.

Over the following weeks a trend seemed to emerge featuring all things freaky, beginning with the fourth season of American Horror Story on FOX, which is entitled Freak Show (great concept, dull execution). FOX obviously decided that ‘freaks’ were in and aired a new reality documentary series called Freakshow, in which a man named Todd Ray and his family showcase their Venice Beach sideshow business, featuring his ‘freaky’ employees, including ‘The Lobster Boy’ and ‘The Human Pin Cushion’.

In the first episode Ray attempted to add America’s tallest man, George Bell (7 feet 8 if you’re interested), to his collection of freaks, a word that George was clearly uncomfortable with. Ray also wanted to sign up a bearded lady named Jess, and she was initiated in a scene straight out of Browning’s film (‘One of us! One of us!’). However, many of Ray’s ‘freaks’ are not actually freaks, in that their only ‘deformity’ appears to be the ability to inflict pain upon themselves in a Jackass-style manner.

‘Never seen before…’ Todd wailed as he enticed the public into his shop and displayed his two-headed bearded dragon for all to see. But we have seen it all before. Two-headed reptiles are surprisingly common. Due to fluctuations in temperature of the eggs – since, unlike bird eggs, they are not incubated – mutations can readily form. However, two-headed mammals are much less usual.

The recent death at age 15 of the cat Frankenlouie (Frank and Louie) in Massachusetts only added to the recent discussions concerning the strange and unusual. Contrary to popular belief, Frankenlouie did not have two heads but in fact two faces – a condition called diprosopia – although a creature exhibiting this mutation rarely survives beyond its first few days of life. Frankenlouie’s survival was an extremely rare case, much rarer than the mutation itself.

tomandbarnumAnother recent TV offering was BBC4’s The Real Tom Thumb: History’s Smallest Superstar. Tom was one of the world’s most famous freaks, a young man of just over three feet in stature but with lofty ambitions.

Charles Sherwood Stratton aka Tom Thumb was born in Connecticut in 1838. He was ‘discovered’ by distant relative and circus impresario, PT Barnum, who christened him with the moniker ‘General Tom Thumb’ and made him fabulously wealthy. Tom began his travelling performing career at a very young age, under the pretence that he was on the cusp of adulthood at Barnum’s request. General Tom made friends in very high places, including Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln, and his impressive former home is still intact.

 
History

According to Britannica, the term ‘freak’ comes from the Old English word ‘frician’, meaning to dance, cavort or any other capricious behaviour.

In the 18th century, ‘freaks’ or ‘freaks of nature’ referred mainly to animals, creatures whose physical make-up deviated from standard norms. Some naturalists collected these creatures and displayed them at touring shows, shocking the public with their ‘cabinets of curiosities’.

In the mid-nineteenth century, circus promoters had added human ‘performers’ to their exhibitions. PT Barnum was one such promoter, however, he did not use the term ‘freak show’. Alongside those with gigantism, dwarfism and the extremely hirsute, many of the performers were not what they seemed. For example, Barnum’s ‘Fiji Mermaid’ was merely a deceased monkey fused with the tail of a fish. There were many similar exhibits, and such promoters were subsequently labelled as frauds. Freak shows were a very American tradition, but one which permeated Europe and beyond.

 

On Film

I have included a selection of movies depicting freak shows, beginning with the seminal classic, Freaks (1932).

Can a fully grown woman truly love a midget? This, the question posed on the poster of Freaks. That midget is Hans (Harry Earles), a freak show performer, engaged to his height-matched co-star, Frieda (Daisy Earles). Despite their pending union, Hans’ head is turned by trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who is of average height. The infamous wedding banquet scene is truly brilliant as Cleo’s true motives are revealed.

Before the cinematic screenings of the film, a message was displayed for patrons, which seemed sympathetic to the plight of individuals with deformities: ‘Their lot is truly a heart-breaking one’. However, towards the end of the prologue, it goes on to say ‘…modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world.’ The effort of including such a message therefore seems inane, but during the 1930s people who were born with physical abnormalities were not readily accepted in mainstream society, hence the existence of the freak show. (The full message is included on the DVD).

The ‘freaks’ in Freaks are all real people – no special effects here – including a man named Rardion, ‘The Living Torso’, who had no limbs and performed in freak shows in Coney Island under PT Barnum. Despite his disability, he fathered five children, spoke four languages and was able to complete everyday tasks using his mouth and shoulders.

 
The Elephant Man (1980)

Based loosely on the life of Joseph (John in the film) Merrick, a young English man with neurofibromatosis, a disease which causes benign tumours to grow on the face and body. Whilst the film does stray from the truth – Joseph’s life during his freak show years was not nearly as awful as director David Lynch’s portrayal – it is a beautifully made, poignant film, with excellent performances by John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as Dr Frederick Treves, the man who saves him from his barbaric existence.

 

Big Fish (2003)

Directed by Tim Burton and based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, Big Fish is a film of tall tales told by Albert Finney (Ed Bloom) to his son, Will (Billy Crudup). The young Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor) disappears into his own fantasy and begins a lengthy journey with Karl the Giant (Matthew McGrory). On his expedition, he encounters a circus, led by a werewolf named Amos Callaway (Danny DeVito), and Siamese twin singers Ping and Jing (Ada and Arlene Tai). Edward subsequently joins the circus, shovelling elephant manure and washing obese performers in exchange for information on his dream girl, Sandra.

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And so the Sochi Winter Olympics is over, and what a joy it was. There were 12 brand new events, world records were broken, and a record number of medals won for Great Britain, including a gold in the skeleton. Presenter Claire Balding and her shopping trolley full of BBC equipment was so random but brilliant.

My favourite event was the ladies figure skating, which potentially had six skaters vying for gold. Despite the contention surrounding the winner, for me Adelina Sotnikova was the definitive choice. She not only had the most technically challenging programme in the competition, but also some of the most creative spins, steps and spirals.

The events were topped off by an incredible closing ceremony, which celebrated Russia’s cultural accomplishments. Russian authors, composers, dancers and artists were commemorated, including a Marc Chagall painting come to life. This was extremely impressive and featured upside-down houses, and dancers and stilt-walkers dressed as figures from his work. It looked to me like a pastiche of several paintings, including ‘I and the Village’, and ‘The Fiddler’ series…but I could be wrong.

chagallolympics

The Moscow State Circus was also honoured, by way of a light projection of a striped big top, complete with acrobats and performers. It was magical.

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Closing Ceremony

Coincidentally, the circus theme and the music used in the Chagall segment – ‘Polka’ by Alfred Schnittke – married to provide the backdrop of a highly expressive figure skating programme in the late 90s for probably my favourite ever male figure skater, Alexei Yagudin, from St Petersburg. Alexei won an Olympic gold medal for Russia in 2002, as well as four World Championships.

You can watch him perform this here.

If you missed the ceremony and are in the UK, it is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.