Shocked and Amazed! #6
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 , 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.
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.)
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