Shocked and Amazed! #6

Written by John Strausbaugh on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.



Percilla
and Emmitt Bejano were a celebrated show-business couple, kind of like Tom and
Nicole were, though I’d say neither as glamorous nor as monstrous as Tom
and Nicole. The Bejanos’ branch of showbiz was the sideshow biz. An authentically
"bearded lady" with dense black body hair, Percilla was billed as
The Monkey Girl. Because of his permanent skin condition,
Emmitt
was known as The Alligator Man. When they appeared together, they were The World’s
Strangest Married Couple. Today, they’d undoubtedly have made it onto Maury
Povich’s show.



Percilla
was born in Puerto Rico. She was still a baby–a very hairy one–when
her father got her into the business. He died soon after–shot to death–and
she was adopted by sideshow impresario Karl Lauther, who remained her father
figure, employer and jealous guardian to the day he died.


Percilla
and Emmitt met on the midway, of course. Later he would always say it was love
at first sight, and when skeptics asked what he saw to love in that hairy Monkey
Girl, he would talk about the eye of the beholder. They eloped in 1938 and remained
happily married until Emmitt passed away. Percilla retired to Florida, where
so many circus and sideshow people do. As an older lady she shaved her beard
off, but did nothing to hide the fur-like hair on her arms and hands, which
made her something of a personality at the local supermarket.


It was in
Florida that my friend James Taylor met and interviewed Percilla numerous times
over several years leading up to her death in February 2001. Excerpts from those
interviews form the lead story in the new Volume 6 of his sideshow journal Shocked
and Amazed! On & Off the Midway
(Dolphin-Moon Press/Atomic Books, 128
pages, $19.95). She tells priceless anecdotes of sideshow and carny life from
the 1920s on. There’s a touching story of her teaching Emmitt to dance,
and a funny one about how he ran from the house as she gave birth to their only
child (who died young).


Along with
insider anecdotes on the carny business and tent shows in the mid-20th century,
Percilla sketches wonderful little portraits of fellow performers like "Mortado
the crucified man" (he had holes in his hands and feet, and also appeared
as "The Human Fountain," with water shooting out of him), Cuckoo the
Bird Girl, geeks, sword swallowers and "Flip and Pip, the pinheads, they
weren’t ours. We rented them. A woman had them. She’d change their
diapers, see that they eat. You have to put diapers on them or they’ll
mess up. They’re like kids. You have to walk them, take care of them. They
didn’t like the police either. They didn’t like them. They didn’t
like the pants they wore or something. Every time they saw them, ‘Goddamn
cops.’" She also discusses fake pinheads.


Percilla’s
just one of the interesting characters in Volume 6, the largest and I think
best issue of Shocked and Amazed! since James began "perioddically"
publishing it in 1995. There are excerpts from the annals of Dr. Charles Humberd,
a physician who took special interest in freaks and human oddities. The passage
here, from 1937, is about the seven-and-a-half foot giant Henry Marion Mullins,
who did vaudeville as Henry Hite with the midget Stanley Ross and the average-height
Tommy Lowe. "It is indeed amazing to watch so vast a personage doing a
whirlwind acrobatic act," Humberd writes. "His agile and acrobatic
tap-dancing, in shoes that are 16 1/2 inches long, is phenomenal. With all his
nimbleness he has much histrionic ability, and can do a ludicrous skit, by impersonating
a girl, that ‘rolls ’em in the aisles.’"


Volume 6
reprints A.J. Liebling’s portrait of showman Lou (or Lew) Dufour, who "[v]irtually
single-handedly…brought the pickled punks as a spectacle to the carnivals…earning
him the title The King of the Unborn Shows." Besides bottled embryos, Dufour
and his cronies shocked and amazed the rubes with electric chair acts and giant
snakes, gangsters’ cars and midgets billed as "leprahons." ("‘A
midget is not worth feeding,’ Mr. Talvin, who was working at the Flushing
Fair, wisely observed. ‘Everybody knows what is a midget–a little
man. But when I said, "Come and see the leprahons," the customers
came.’")


There are
reproductions of antiquely racy old pitch-cards for half-man-half-woman acts
like Lu Verne and James Muldoon, aka Swarzette. There’s Howard Bone, The
Man Who Can’t Be Hung, whose act consisted of having "a pair of burly
towners, chosen at random from the crowd, attempt to choke him to death with
a 15 [ft.] length of hemp," a routine he taught Teller of Penn & Teller.
There are two articles on "Little Irvy," a 20-ton whale corpse that
was hauled around to carnivals in an 18-wheeler in the 60s before eventually
getting a decent burial in Goshen, CA. And elsewhere in the issue one finds
"living bronze statues," a midget strong lady, "Unzie, the hirsute
wonder," Saidor the Indian snake charmer and Mr. Western, a sharpshooter
who wrote his name in bullet holes.


James lives
in Baltimore, where he’s co-proprietor, with Dick Horne, of the fabulous
little storefront odditorium the American Dime Museum (www.dimemuseum.com),
which ranks up there with L.A.’s Museum of Jurassic Technology as one of
the strangest, most fun (and smallest) museums in the country. He’s currently
negotiating with a New York publisher to put out a long-overdue booklength collection
of Shocked and Amazed!, and is planning a New York coming-out party for
Volume 6 in the spring. There’s talk of some sort of Shocked and Amazed!
tv show, which makes total sense in today’s market. You might see Volume
6 in a few local stores like See Hear, but it’s maybe most easily ordered
through www.atomicbooks.com, a fine source for all sorts of outre and "alternative"
titles.


Afterwords


Another
sign of how lame Rolling Stone has become: A young acquaintance tells
us that interns at the mag are assigned the sole task of scouring daily newspapers,
alt-weeklies and other magazines around the country for word of new bands and
acts, so the aging boomer rag doesn’t fall too far behind the curve. Sad.
Rolling Stone used to set trends. No wonder we keep seeing bands
we’ve written about appear in RS a few weeks later.




Speaking
of, Kevin Kosar’s a former New York Press intern who must really
dig his research: he’s the editor of AlcoholReviews.com, which has just
launched a downloadable magazine for Acrobat Reader, called The Review of
Beers, Spirits & Wines
. In the first issue there’s news on a new
mead from Colorado and the return of the top-shelf Rock Hill bourbon, ratings
of new wines and reviews of Eastern European beers, British ales, single malt
scotches and flavored vodkas. Hey Kev, you need an intern?






Selwyn Harris
(Mike McPadden), his own kind of one-man freakshow, recently put out two new
issues, #9 and #10, of his once-infamous zine Happyland. The covers tell
you all you need to know about Selwyn’s humorously dyspeptic view of life:
one declares MORE WAR PLEASE (…it’s still too crowded) with a
Tony Millionaire illo, the other has a space alien declaring "Mars needs
douche bags! …Take me to a TODD SOLONDZ premiere!" Inside, one finds
disses of Jim Knipfel and Dave Eggers, "Harmony Borine" and Michael
Moore ("Fortunately, obesity at this level is usually fatal") and
many other personages.



Interestingly,
Selwyn has revived Happyland just as he announced plans to bugger off
again to L.A., where he lived for a couple of years in the mid-90s after making
a really bad name for himself in NYC publishing and bar-hopping circles circa
’91-’93. It’s unclear how soon he’ll make his escape–he
says it could take up to 15 months to wriggle out of his lease in Brooklyn–but
in the meantime he’s planning a special "I Hate New York" issue
of Happyland he hopes to release in February. I suspect he may get more
than one response like mine, explaining why I hate New Yorkers who escape to
L.A. because they’re too pussy to live in New York anymore. You can order
issues #9 and #10 for $3 each from Happyland, 141 29th St., Apt. 2F, Brooklyn
11232.




Kurt Thometz,
editor of Life Turns Man Up and Down, the magnificent collection of East
Nigerian market literature, is giving a reading at the Court St. Barnes &
Noble this Thursday, Feb. 7, at 7:30. Check it out if you can–this is wild,
vibrant and often surreally poetic stuff, with enough blood and sap running
through it to make most American literature look the weedy, weak-kneed pfaff
it is. (106 Court St. at State St., Brooklyn, 718-246-4996.)


..