On a sweltering evening recently, I took the subway to Manhattan's Lower East Side. I was headed for the Freakatorium, "El Museo Loco," a store/museum dedicated to the art of the circus sideshow.
The owner, Johnny Fox, by far the friendliest sword swallower I have ever personally met, showed me around the small storefront cluttered with fascinating artifacts. The walls were covered with old posters from circus acts of yore, advertising such feats as sword swallowing, a cracker being shot off of one man's head from a gun in another's mouth, cheeks stretched to New Jersey, and other old standbys of the sideshow biz.
A jackalope hung from one corner, and both heads of a two-headed cow had been mounted in another. In the window facing the street, a stuffed four-legged duck surveyed the scene, while a murky jar with siamese pigs rested underneath. By far the most fascinating piece of taxidermy, coming in just ahead of the rubber shrunken head, was P.T. Barnum's Fiji Mermaid, a dried-out looking creature that was made by fusing the body of a monkey and a fish together. It perched in an aquarium, locked in what appeared to be a sinister scream. It creeped me out plenty, and I knew it was a hoax. I can imagine what it must have done to people early in the 19th century, who thought it was the real McCoy.
Old glass cases housed a collection of freakshow oddities, like numerous photos of Siamese twins, bearded ladies and very hairy men. Johnny showed off with pride the vest, box and lock which once belonged to P.T. Barnum's most famous act, Tom Thumb. The vest could have fit a newborn baby. Other items of note included giant rings, which were sold as souveniers by giant men with giant fingers, and a tiny Bible which could be purchased from a midget. A midget's eyes work exactly the same as anybody else's, so why he would need a Bible with tiny print was beyond me, but in the Freakatorium, you have to let some things go. As a testament to how much harder people worked in the past, Johnny pointed out a piece of rice with the entire Declaration of Independence penned on one side. Compare that to the rice-writers nowadys who squawk about trying to fit long names on a single grain.
While I sweated away, Johnny explained to me that he still performsregularly, as an opening act for such luminaries as Dolly Parton, and at festivals, but not so much at comedy clubs anymore. He informed me of a semi-regular gig in town, at the Gaslight Pub on 9th Ave. Before the second set of a band featuring Bob Dylan's bassist and the drummer from Saturday Night Live, he comes on for about twenty minutes and puts swords down his throat for the crowd's enjoyment. I asked if the band accompanies him, with drum rolls and such, but he turned up his nose a little bit at the suggestion. They do play along, to increase the tension, but he indicated that drum rolls would be a little too showy.
To keep the work in progress financially sound, the Freakatorium sells books, videos, freak cards, novelty "Billy Bob Teeth" (for that alluring hillbilly look), and oddly enough, sunglasses. Not Siamese sunglasses for two, or bearded sunglasses, just plain old sunglasses.
The museum is not completely up and running yet, so it's a bit of a mess, and I would suggest going on a day when the temperature has not climbed above 100 degrees, because the air conditioning leaves something to be desired. Once the glitches get worked out, though, the Freakatorium definitely deserves a visit from anybody at all interested in the lore of the circus sideshow.
Freakatorium, El Museo Loco
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