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Todd Robbins' 'American Carny' celebrates the sideshow.
January 16, 2008
By Simi Horwitz
A sideshow can awe you, disgust you, or turn you on — sometimes all three, says carnival maestro Todd Robbins, who eats light bulbs, hammers nails into his nostrils, and shoves lit florescent swords down his throat. But whatever their initial response, he suspects most people will leave impressed.

Along with distaste, says Robbins, "Their first impulse may be, 'What he's doing isn't real.' But when they realize what I do is based on physics and anatomy, they appreciate the skill and human spirit." They may still recoil, as they often do at the sight of "freaks" — the label applied to people with physical abnormalities, whom Robbins calls the sideshow's "royalty": "We've always been fascinated with the other. But after we've seen what freaks can do and how they've survived, they're not others who are lesser, but rather others who have a level of humanity that connects us all."

The sideshow is pure Americana, he says, a byway of the performing arts that hasn't quite been paved over yet. And Robbins is trying to keep it that way by co-producing the documentary American Carny: True Tales From the Circus Sideshow (now available on DVD), exploring the lives of contemporary sideshow players. Robbins himself is the main attraction, but the film also features interviews with and performances by the likes of Ula, the Pain-Proof Rubber Girl; the Great Nippulini; and bearded woman Jennifer Miller.

"Clearly some sideshow artists are better than others," says Nick Basile, the film's director-producer. "One of the best is Harley Newman, the Professional Lunatic, who is able to lie flat on two 9-inch spikes without injuring himself. And he's now gotten it down to one 9-inch spike. It's endurance, skill, and chutzpah. He's also playing a character: a man confronting his fears. And he's confronting — and successfully challenging — the audience's fears as well."

In the film, Robbins discusses the carefully crafted personas of sideshow mainstays — the bearded lady, the turtle girl, and especially the human blockhead, an act originated by the late Melvin Burkhart, Robbins' mentor, whose specialty was pounding a long dowel into his nose. In a career that stretched from the 1920s to the '90s, Burkhart had a charm and ironic self-consciousness that was well ahead of its time, Robbins says. "Some kids may think that lying on a bed of nails or swallowing fire or glass is very cool," he adds. "But there's no room for error. If we're not dead serious about what we're doing, we're dead."

The film was shot in some of the last bastions of sideshow art, including the now closed American Dime Museum in Baltimore and New York's Coney Island amusement park, where Sideshows by the Seashore continues to uphold the tradition.

Dancing With the Bearded Lady

Robbins studied at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, though not all modern sideshow performers have traditional theatre training. Some "saw an old-timer doing the act, loved it, and learned it from him," Robbins says. "Others got into it because they were intrigued by a form of expression that spoke to them."

Yet all the performers in the film see themselves as skilled show people, with a few viewing their work through a larger cultural prism. Miller, for example, talks about the sideshow's seamier elements, adding that exploitation and self-display are inherent in all types of performance. Yet she also finds joy in exhibiting herself; she revels in her beard's freakishness and embraces that which sets her apart. In a 2003 interview with Back Stage, Miller compared her endocrinological disorder to a feminist political statement. Plus, she added, being a gender-bending bearded lady dancing in a floor-length gown is a hell of a lot of fun.

While Miller performs at Sideshows by the Seashore and in the summer with Circus Amok, employment opportunities for sideshow artists are drying up. Occasionally they'll appear, as Robbins does, on late-night talk shows or in Vegas-style club acts, but the business is shrinking. Once every circus had a sideshow. Not so today. Basile thinks the reason is political correctness. "We do not put people on display as curiosities," he says. "The sideshow is not considered acceptable." But Robbins believes the bottom line is money: "I don't think political correctness has anything to do with it. Carnivals can make more with rides than with sideshows. It's a process of natural selection. Also, because of improved prenatal care and surgical procedures, there are fewer freaks to perform in sideshows."

He also says the sideshow has reinvented itself: "You may now see sideshow performers in rock 'n' roll spectacles. But these are usually hardcore acts featuring performers with harsh, biker sensibilities. The acts may involve body piercing and blood." He adds that mainstream performers like Ricky Jay and Penn & Teller have sideshow roots, and that the audience at Sideshows by the Seashore is often, along with tourists, East Village hipsters.

Robbins is currently developing a reality show, "where every week viewers will meet some remarkable people." In 2003 his Off-Broadway hit, Carnival Knowledge, attracted repeat viewers, many of whom initially came reluctantly. "The greatest ovation I got was when someone's worldview was changed," he says. And his love of the sideshow has only increased since Burkhart's death at 94 in 2001. Frail and ailing, Burkhart performed at Robbins' wedding just a few weeks before he died, and in the documentary's haunting final moments, Robbins stands on a Coney Island pier with some of the master's admirers and scatters his ashes into the Atlantic.
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