Archive for the ‘Entertainment’ Category

“The Most Thrilling Moments In Circus Men’s Careers”

From April 16, 1911

THE MOST THRILLING MOMENTS IN CIRCUS MENS CAREERS

“THE MOST THRILLING MOMENTS IN CIRCUS MEN’S CAREERS” The Elephant Man and a Midair Acrobat Tell Stories and a Clown Spins a Funny One. (PDF)

The subhead for this article says that the Elephant Man tells a story of one of the most thrilling moments in his career.The Elephant Man I was thinking of had been dead for over 20 years by the time this story was written, so I assumed they weren’t talking about him, but I wonder what his answer would have been. Anyway, this elephant man is actually the man at the circus who handles and trains elephants.

Yesterday a reporter of The TImes penetrated into the “greenroom” of the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth, which is now performing at the Madison Square Garden. Let it be said that this “greenroom” is of Homeric proportions: Twenty-four elephants, camels, other strange animals, and horses and men beyond number, were lined up there waiting for the cue for the grand entree. The Times man, as the circus progressed, wandered about and asked the question: “What has been the most thrilling moment of your circus career?” Is it surprising that the people who are constantly flirting with death spoke only of elephant stampedes and cyclones?

You very likely have seen him — the man in the blue uniform who appears in the Barnum and Bailey grand entree at the head of the elephant herd. His name is Harry Mooney, head elephant man of the circus, and he has been all over the world with shows that ranged from one to three rings.

The Times man asked him for the most thrilling moment in his life.

“It’s hard to pick and choose, but I should say that it was out in Johannesburg, South Africa. I was in charge of five elephants. Water was scarce in those days in Johannesburg. In order to give the elephants the bath which they so much hanker after, particularly in warm dry climates, I led them out to the compound around one of the diamond mines.

“You know these compounds are big stockades built around the diamond mines to keep the negroes from getting away with valuable finds. The negroes work in the mines by day and at night sleep in huts within the stockade. Pumps are going constantly to drain the mines, and the water from these makes good-sized puddles in the compounds.

“There was an American negro and one South African native assisting me with my herd of five elephants.

“We led the herd into the compound, but immediately there appeared what looked to me like three thousand negroes. I guessed none of them had ever seen an elephant before. They crawled out of huts, from behind heaps of dirt, and from every other place conceivable.

“As soon as those negroes appeared the elephants made a rush for the gate. Luckily the gates were closed, and I was able to round the herd up. But I couldn’t get them to go back and take their bath.

“A week later, or about that, I again took the herd back to see if they hadn’t changed their minds. The minute we reached the gates they seemed to recognize them, just like human beings. They began to trumpet, swung around, and before you could snap your fingers they started off down the street.

“I was a little way behind the herd, and when they came at me I swung my elephant hook into the fore flank of one of them. It hung, and I was able to catch and grab hold of his ear. At that instant another elephant of the herd came alongside. The two of them started to run side by side, and I got jammed between them. I guess it only lasted for a second, but it seemed to me like a year. That new elephant simply wiped me from my hold on the elephant’s ear, and I got rolled between the two.

“I realized that if those elephants got a little closer together it would be all up with me, but if they separated a little I would drop — very likely beneath their feet. It was two chances for a bad job.

“Before I knew just what was going to happen, those two elephants had rolled me their entire length, and left me sprawling on the ground. I picked myself up and gathered my wits together just in time to see them disappearing through a lumber yard.

“My knowledge of the town let me know that there was a side street by which, if I beat it quickly, I could head them off. I cut through this and, sure enough, I got there just in time to see the herd of five coming down the street lickety-split.

“The crowd? — yes, and the policemen, too — were beating it in all directions. It was no time for elephant hooks. If you are going to stop an elephant herd at all it is with your voice, and you’ve got to have mighty good reason to know that they are acquainted with that voice, and know just what it means.

“I jumped out into the middle of the street. The five elephants were coming full steam ahead. I yelled, ‘Ho, hey, ho!’

“The five elephants stopped.

“I breathed a relieved breath, and the circus management didn’t have 5 cents to pay.”

If that story of animals forced to perform tricks, breaking free of their captivity, and ultimately being prodded with hooks has made you eager to see the circus, here’s the Greatest Show on Earth tour schedule.

Leave a comment

Written by David

April 15th, 2011 at 11:30 am

Posted in Entertainment

Palladino Outdone By A Non-Professional Medium

From April 16, 1911

PALLADINO OUTDONE BY A NON-PROFESSIONAL MEDIUM

PALLADINO OUTDONE BY A NON-PROFESSIONAL MEDIUM: Dr. Hyslop Discovers a Girl Who Produces the Most Astounding “Siritualistic” Phenomena Yet Seen — She Does Not Accept money, Gives Tests Only in Private, and Her Identity Is a Secret. (PDF)

It’s James Hyslop again. Can you imagine if the Sunday Magazine today gave space so frequently to an expert in “psychical research”?

In this article, Dr. Hyslop describes a young medium he’s found who is even more talented than more famous mediums, and yet she wants to remain anonymous (she is referred to pseudonymously as “Miss Burton” in the article).

The article reveals that experts have determined Miss Burton a fraud. She has been found to manipulate objects herself that she claimed were being manipulated by the spirit world. For example, a phonograph that started and stopped without being touched was discovered to have been controlled by a rope from afar. And yet Dr. Hyslop still really wants to believe that the other non-physical “phenomena” such as singing or whistling, which she could only do when under a trance, were totally real.

His weak case rests on the fact that Miss Burton seems to really believe she has psychic powers, and when she was called out on her physical deception, she acted surprised to learn that she was actually doing things herself while in a trance. Plus, she wants to remain anonymous, so her motives can’t be fame. Her honest nature suggests that she’s not trying to deceive anyone.

At worst, she’s a fraud. At best, she’s self-delusional.

3 comments

Written by David

April 13th, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Entertainment

Harmonica Artist Who Toured With Jenny Lind

From April 9, 1911

HARMONICA ARTIST WHO TOURED WITH JENNY LIND

HARMONICA ARTIST WHO TOURED WITH JENNY LIND: Barnum Discovered Him in His Early Days and He Proved to be a Novelty and Made a Hit. (PDF)

This article tells the story of Chris Bathman, who claims to have introduced the harmonica to the professional stage. I can’t find any information about him outside of this article, but here is his story:

“I was born in the town of Thun, canton of Bern, Switzerland,” he said, “in 1846. My parents were manufacturers of cheese, dealers in cattle, etc., and in the near-by town I had an uncle who owned a cheese cellar and exported extensively to England and Germany. I cannot remember when I did not play the harmonica. It seemed to come to me naturally, and when, at the age of about 9, my parents sent me to live with my uncle in town, the natives would keep me playing for their amusement as long as I was able to supply the breath.

“My uncle understood something of the value of the gift as a novelty, and when a man named P. T. Barnum came to our town from America with a small concert company in which was a lady named Jenny Lind, the subject of my unusual musical aptitude on that one instrument was broached. Being so young I was not consulted as to the details of the arrangements that were made between my uncle and Barnum but it resulted in my engaging to travel with the concert company.

“We played in our town for a while, my work on the harmonica being to do solo stunts between acts, and to play with the small orchestra when Jenny Lind sang. My recollection is that the orchestra had four pieces besides my wind instrument. We drew large crowds, and my recollection now is that the performance on the mouth-organ was considered a most wonderful freak of a boy wonder.”

I don’t know if Chris Bathman was really the first professional harmonica player, but there have been several notable players since then.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s there were some famous harmonica orchestras playing vaudeville. My favorite of those (you just knew I had a favorite vaudevillian harmonica orchestra, right?) was Borrah Minevitch and his Harmonica Rascals.

In the 1940s, Warner Brothers produced a 10 minute short featuring Borrah and his Rascals called Borrah Minevitch And His Harmonica School. If you ever get a chance to see the whole thing, I highly recommend it. They do things with harmonicas that you’ve never heard before.

The most I was able to find is this low-quality clip on YouTube which, if memory serves, is the first two minutes of the Warner Brothers short:

Today I think we most often associate harmonica with country or blues. But the harmonica is still played in diverse genres. Few people can match Larry Adler‘s skills in multiple styles in a career which spanned several decades. Here, watch Adler and Itzchak Perlman performing George Gershwin:

Leave a comment

Written by David

April 7th, 2011 at 11:00 am

Posted in Entertainment,Music

What Is The Difference Between Richard And Johann Strauss?

From March 26, 1911

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RICHARD AND JOHANN STRAUSS?

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RICHARD AND JOHANN STRAUSS? The “Real Richard” and How He Expresses Himself in “Der Rosenkavalier.” (PDF)

This is easy. One of them wrote music famously featured in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The other one, um, also had music prominently used in that movie.

Okay, let me try again. One of them is Austrian, and one of them is… um… German?

Okay, I give up. What does the article say?

If you want to see a hitherto peaceful human face mobilize twenty thousand warlike expressions within one brief and crowded moment of glorious life step up to a man with music in his soul and say:

“Is there any difference between Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss?”

He will either walk away, brutally insult you, or start to explain the difference, in which case he will drain the dictionary in twenty-four minutes and go insane in thirty-five. If you do not believe the above seek out that friend of yours who simply dotes on modern music, hold him firmly by the sleeve so that he can’t walk away, invite him to have a drink so that he can’t insult you, and then pop the question.

If, at the end of twenty minutes’ explanation, his condition (and yours) does not cause you acute concern, why — but it will, don’t you worry, it will.

Alpha and Omega, Zenith and Nadir, north pole and south pole — not one of those combinations suggests to the average man a greater difference between its component parts than does, to the musician, the juxtaposition of Richard Strauss and Johann Strauss. In fact, it is a common thing to see wild-eyed highbrows running round and round the most select musical circles, vainly inquiring by what cosmic freak the constructor of that tempestuous thing, “Elektra,” ever got tagged with the identical name borne by him who gave us “The Blue Danube.”

Discord, violence, horrible shrieks in the night, possible police interference — that’s what Richard Strauss has always meant. Was it not he who gave us “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” which sounds even worse set to music, and “Salome,” beside which the orchestral complications of Richard Wagner sound like those five-finger exercises that mother used to make us do?

Wow, okay, so the difference I guess is that Richard Strauss sucks and Johann Strauss is awesome.

Now would someone please explain to me the difference between Ke$ha and Katy Perry?

2 comments

Written by David

March 22nd, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Entertainment,Music

Circus Acrobat Woos Death Daily, But Rarely Weds Her

From March 19, 1911

CIRCUS ACROBAT WOOS DEATH DAILY, BUT RARELY WEDS HER

CIRCUS ACROBAT WOOS DEATH DAILY, BUT RARELY WEDS HER: Surprisingly Small Percentage of Fatal Accidents Occur in a Year, Though the Performers Take Big Risks. (PDF)

“There is so much dash, so much apparent abandon, in the kaleidoscopic whirl which makes up the present-day three-ringed circus that the dazed spectator goes away with the feeling that the whole thing has been tumbled together at haphazard, that the big gates at the end of the arena simply bubble out their endless profusion of elephants, tumblers, camels, bareback riders, trained monkeys, and clowns; that each does his own peculiar stunt and then in his own good time disappears in a cloud of glory, tanbark, and sawdust.

“But if you could ask that obscure but very important circus personage, the programme maker, he would tell you a very different story. What seems a wild riot of stunts is in reality a carefully timed, carefully constructed mosaic.”

You know what? This article is interesting and all, but if the topic interests you even a little bit, I highly recommend you watch the PBS documentary series Circus. It’s an incredibly engaging look behind the scenes of the Big Apple Circus, and it can be watched in its entirety streaming for free on PBS.com. If it’s more convenient, you can also catch it streaming on Netflix, and Amazon Instant Video.

Leave a comment

Written by David

March 17th, 2011 at 9:15 am

New York Pays About $7,000,000 Yearly For Its Music

From March 19, 1911

NEW YORK PAYS ABOUT 7,000,000 YEARLY FOR ITS MUSIC

NEW YORK PAYS ABOUT $7,000,000 YEARLY FOR ITS MUSIC: Opera the Biggest Item, But Other Sources from the Hand Organ to Symphony Make Up the High Amount. (PDF)

The New York Times runs some numbers. They figure out how much money is spent each year on organ grinders, restaurant musicians, philharmonic performers, pianolas, sheet music, opera singers, piano teachers, phonographs, and every other form of music they can think of. They come up with a total just shy of $7,000,000 and wonder if it’s all worth it. I think the answer is yes, and I’m kind of surprised they bother to ask.

One thing I found interesting in the article is that “records which immortalize in wax or celluloid Caruso’s sobs, Tetrazzini’s fioriture or Sousa’s brassy thrills, cost from 25 cents to $5 apiece.” Converted from 1911 dollars, that’s between $6 and $120 today. But you can still get tons of great albums for just $5 apiece on Amazon. Huh.

Leave a comment

Written by David

March 16th, 2011 at 11:15 am

“Americans Have An Incapacity For Leisure,” Says Percival Chubb

From March 12, 1911

AMERICANS HAVE AN INCAPACITY FOR LEISURE, SAYS PERCIVAL CHUBB

“AMERICANS HAVE AN INCAPACITY FOR LEISURE,” SAYS PERCIVAL CHUBB: The Only Way to Remedy It, According to This Well-Known Ethical Culturist, Is to Educate the Young to Know What to Do with Their Spare Time. (PDF)

“Americans, young and old, rich and poor, have an incapacity for leisure. They know how to kill time, but they don’t know how to spend it profitably; they don’t know what fruitful leisure is. I don’t think much can be done for the elder generation. The only hope is in the proper education of the young.”

This is the gist of an interview given by Percival Chubb of the Society of Ethical Culture to a representative of The Times

“It has been said that if you want to understand a people, see them at play. A man is free to play as he pleases. He is constrained at work and it is not then fair to judge him.

“See the New Yorker at play on New Year’s Eve — an orgy of gluttony and noise. See him at play on the Fourth of July — an orgy of noise. See him at Coney Island, the favorite playground of the great metropolis — an orgy of cheap glitter and thrills.

“He may be an excellent mechanic, a shrewd, capable business or professional man; but when it comes to playtime, there is nothing within himself, and he must rely upon feather-ticklers and merry-go-rounds. Mentally, he is excellently equipped with tools for his work, but he is empty of playthings. He has the means of a livelihood but not the means of life.

[…]

“A child is not given time to be a child nowadays; parents try to jump them into maturity. One of the popular ideals of the day is the smart kid. He is a result of the current method of treating youngsters as adults. He is pert, irreferent, no good. His apotheosis is the street gamin.

“Not knowing how to play themselves, parents do not realize the necessity of making their children play. A child should be kept childish, and his interest kept in childlike things.

“his development should be slow rather than rapid. The outcome of the latter is a narrow development that squeezes out all delight in beauty, all capacity for leisure, all spirit for composure. But it leaves nerves and neurotic tendencies.”

Man, this guy would hate Angry Birds.

Leave a comment

Written by David

March 11th, 2011 at 11:00 am

Posted in Entertainment,Life

Wind In The Moving Pictures

From March 5, 1911

WIND IN THE MOVING PICTURES

WIND IN THE MOVING PICTURES (PDF)

Apparently, there was a lot of wind in early movies. Why were they all so windy?

The question is asked by almost every one who has been bitten by the bug of the moving picture show. It is a fact that in every scene where there’s half a chance of getting up a breeze it blows a tornado, or at least a brisk gale disports itself in the trees in the background and the skirts of the harassed heroine in the front.

A moving picture man solved the problem.

“That’s easy,” he replied in answer to a query. “If the pictures were taken when the air was perfectly still, then if the living characters happened to be still also the picture would be as dead looking at a 35-cent chromo of ‘Twilight.’ So a time is selected for photographing the scenes outside when the wind is playing old hob with things generally, trees swaying, and skirts fluttering and hair flying — haven’t you ever noticed how much more effective a woman is when her hair is streaming behind her like the burgee on a racing yacht?”

For a classic example of strong wind in silent film, jump to the 55 minute mark in Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr.(1928) and watch to the end.

2 comments

Written by David

March 3rd, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Gives Up Royalties On Great Telephone Invention

From March 5, 1911

GIVES UP ROYALTIES ON GREAT TELEPHONE INVENTION

GIVES UP ROYALTIES ON GREAT TELEPHONE INVENTION: Major G. O. Squier of the Army Turns Over His Patent to the Government — His Multiplex Telephone May Revolutionize Long Distance Talking. (PDF)

Major George Owen Squier gave the world a gift with one invention, and a decade later invented a technology which would become the butt of jokes.

First, he invented the multiplex telephone. That’s the technology which allows several conversations to be carried simultaneously on the same wire without crossover. Instead of profiting from this invention, he gave it to the public domain, saying:

Is it not right that I should give this to te public? I obtained my education through the American people; as an officer of the United States Army my time and all the good that may accrue from the use I make of that time and the education given me belongs morally to them. When a man in the army commences to think of money he commences to forget his moral duty to his country. It is my creed that all that is best in me, all that that best can produce, belongs to my country and my people. Do they not provide for me? I am assured by these people of the United States three square meals a day and comfortable quarters as long as I do my duty. A man with millions cannot ask more; he cannot eat more or dress more comfortably than my countrymen assure me I shall always find my portion as long as I do my duty.

“I have given my life and all that is in it to my country, and I think it only right that whatever of good I may bring forth, especially if that good has its roots in the education they afforded me, should accrue without cost to the benefit of the people. Therefore I have dedicated this invention to their use without reserve, placing it beyond the power not only of any monopoly of capital but even of myself to exercise any control or place any limitation upon its use. It is as free as air to the humblest.”

That is pretty noble.

In 1922, Squier came up with another invention that’s still with us today. He created Wired Radio, a service that piped music to subscribers over wires. It was originally intended as a better alternative to residential wireless radio, which was still working out its kinks. But those issues were quickly resolved, so this service was marketed instead to hotels and restaurants. Squier eventually decided that the service needed a better name than Wired Radio and, inspired by the catchy brand name Kodak invented, Squier changed his company’s name to Muzak.

Leave a comment

Written by David

March 3rd, 2011 at 9:45 am

Possibilities In Mahler Symphony

From March 5, 1911

POSSIBILITIES IN MAHLER SYMPHONY

POSSIBILITIES IN MAHLER SYMPHONY (PDF)

When I saw the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra perform Mahler’s Eighth Symphony at Carnegie Hall in 2008, there were 335 performers on stage, including a chorus of 205 people. It was pretty impressive. But that was nothing compared to the symphony’s premiere.

Mahler’s Eighth is sometimes called the Symphony of a Thousand and it turns out that’s just about how many people were in the original performance:

In the time of Mozart a symphonic composer was very well content to have an orchestra of forty men or so — a few strings, a few wind and percussion instruments. Beethoven rather upset some of the symphonic traditions by writing his ninth symphony, which requires a chorus and four solo voices. Liszt and Berlioz carried the symphonic upsetting of traditions a bit further. Gustav Mahler, however, has seemingly gone several steps further than any of his predecessors.

His eighth symphony lasts about an hour and three quarters. In the finales Mahler has eight trumpeters and four trombone players in addition to the regular orchestra, who all stand up in a row at the top of the platform and blow for all they are worth into the faces of the audience. Besides these extra brass players there are in the orchestra itself four trumpets, eight horns, four trombones, a tuba, four kettledrums, and three pairs of extra cymbals, not to mention the great organ, which also goes full blast. These in addition to the usual instruments of the orchestra and 850 voices. To enumerate exactly, the symphony demanded 7 soloists, 500 men and women chorus singers, 350 children, and an orchestra of 170 men!

“There were a lot of interesting details,” writes one critic. “In the orchestra, for instance, one could note a double bassoon, elongated by the attachment of an aluminium tube two or three feet long, in order, I suppose, to secure lower tones than possible with the ordinary instrument. The busiest bee in the hive, not excepting Mahler himself, was the kettledrum player.

“It was a mere bagatelle for him to play two drums, one with each hand, while tuning a third with his teeth. He also had a faithful Achates, who spent most of his time tinkling triangles, ringing bells, banging big drums, etc. However, when the demands became too great even for the almost superhuman ability of the aforesaid kettledrum player, this true friend would drop his own work, spring twenty feet across the platform, never once upsetting a music desk, snatch up a pair of sticks, and let loose on the kettledrums numbers three and four, while the first artist confined himself to numbers one and two.”

Wikimedia has a photo from 1910 of the whole ensemble in their final rehearsal. It looks like quite a spectacle. I don’t think even half that many people could have fit on the stage at Carnegie Hall.

Leave a comment

Written by David

March 2nd, 2011 at 11:00 am

Posted in Entertainment

The Passing Of The Once Popular Sideshow Freak

From February 26, 1911

THE PASSING OF THE ONCE POPULAR SIDESHOW FREAK

THE PASSING OF THE ONCE POPULAR SIDESHOW FREAK: No Longer an Attraction, These Once High-Salaried Exhibits Find It Hard to Earn a Living — What Has Become of Famous Favorites. (PDF)

The phenomenon of the sideshow freak is one of the most fascinating bits of popular culture history I can think of. On the one hand, forgetting for a moment that these are actual people with feelings to consider, there is just the natural curiosity about the different shapes and sizes people come in, and the interesting ways that maladies manifest themselves. But on the other hand, it’s sad to point and laugh at people’s misfortune and disfigurements. But then again, not all sideshow freaks were victims who didn’t know better. Many of them were intelligent people, making the best of the public’s fascination.

In this article, the Magazine explores how the public’s new fascination with music and movies affected the business prospects for the sideshow freak.

Mike the Midget notes, “I’m not blaming the public, only it’s hard on old-time freaks. It takes a top-notch freak now to be able to earn his living in the profession.” Here, the article describes the industry’s gradual decline:

One by one the freaks have been eliminated. The fat woman was the first to go. On every museum platform for years the fat woman sat; the smallest ones were first taken off, leaving only the big ones. Then the tattooed man and the tattooed lady had to seek other employment. In their wake followed the albinos, the living skeletons, and armless and legless wonders.

Those able to hold on longest were exceptional freaks such as two-headed boys, the woman with the horse’s mane growing between her shoulders, the elastic-skinned man, the three-legged boy, the elephant-footed man and the lion-faced boy.

[…]

Where once a good freak commanded $200 a week he can now scarcely get on at $30. It now takes a prodigy of more than passing novelty to draw more than $25 a week. The Tocci twins — boys with two heads, four arms, and two legs — drew $300 a week for years. A regular scale of prices now regulates the pay received by freaks. A living skeleton receives usually about $18 a week; a bearded lady, $12; a fat woman, $10; a fire-eater, $10; a tattooed woman, $8, and a Circassian beauty, $7.

In the cities they can no longer find profitable employment. Most of those who are still keeping up professional life are to be found under the show tent of the circus. The outer districts, where the picture show and the mechanical piano have not filled the entertainment wants of the public, are now the havens of refuge of the freaks.

The article does wonder whether the passing of the freak’s popularity might be a good thing:

Is it not a healthier sign of the public mind that it is no longer interested in the sad misfortunes of others? The plea of the museum proprietor that gazing at poor distorted souls was educative can not be defended. No good ever came of staring at the frog-boy, or of questioning the ossified man. In some countries public exhibition of freaks is prohibited. Nothing but morbid curiosity ever sent the public to the dime museum where on one platform could be seen human anomalies from all over the world. Much better is it that a clean moving picture hall where the entertainment is healthful and instructive should supplant the dime museum.

Of course, it wasn’t that much longer before freaks made their way to the movies. In 1932, director Tod Browning (who later directed Bela Lugosi in Dracula) cast several of the most popular sideshow performers of the day in his thriller Freaks, which is available to see in its entirety online at the Internet Archive.

There were still people making livings as sideshow freaks for several more decades, but as medical advances made these sorts of maladies less common, and people became more sensitive to their plights, the sideshow freaks retired. Many of them wound up in Gibsonton, Florida, which was a popular town for sideshow freaks to spend the off-season.

There’s a sad but interesting true crime story that takes place in Gibsonton. Grady “Lobster Boy” Styles, a second generation sideshow performer born with ectrodactyly (which makes the hands and feet look like lobster claws) was convicted of murder in 1978 for shooting his daughter’s fiancé. He eventually got out of jail, and remarried his former wife. But he was a heavy drinker who allegedly abused his family, and in 1992 his wife and son hired a hitman — another sideshow performer — to kill Grady Stiles.

Modern sideshows, like the Coney Island Sideshow by the Seashore are mainly tributes to the sideshows of yore. They feature performances in the tradition of the old sideshows — things like sword swallowing, contortionists, and the human blockhead — and fewer deformities or birth defects, if any.

There is at least one current performer out there I know of who does use his birth defect as a device for his performance art, and that is Mat Fraser, whose defect comes as a result of his mother taking thalidomide while she was pregnant. I first heard of Mat when I saw him at the Coney Island sideshow in the late 90s. He wasn’t there as a performer, but he was talking to some people there about a character he does called the Thalidomide Ninja, and I confess to eavesdropping. I later found out that he made a documentary for the BBC called Born Freak about his condition, and those like him who made their careers in the sideshow business. It doesn’t seem to be available online in is entirety, unfortunately.

Leave a comment

Written by David

February 24th, 2011 at 11:00 am

A Man Who Has To Read 10,000 Jokes A Month

From February 19, 1911

A MAN WHO HAS TO READ 10,000 JOKES A MONTH

A MAN WHO HAS TO READ 10,000 JOKES A MONTH: “F. P. A.,” Who Also Writes Jokes Himself, Gives The Times the Confessions of a Professional Chestnut Gatherer — How He Keeps Sane by Reading Darwin. (PDF)

In the 1920s, Franklin Pierce Adams was a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table. He made his name as a columnist for various newspapers where, under the simple byline F. P. A., he wrote humorous jokes and poems, often lampooning popular verse of the period. In the 1930s, he named his column “The Conning Tower”, the term used to describe the observation tower on a submarine. The idea was that from his own tower, he could make observations on the world he saw. Adams accepted submissions from readers, and he published pieces from Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, Eugene O’Neill, and E.B. White.

As far as I can tell, Adams never worked for the Times. When this article was written, his columns may have appeared in the New York Evening Mail and in a feature called “The Spreading Chestnut Tree” in Everybody’s Magazine. But that didn’t prevent them from publishing this in-depth look at the up-and-coming humorist:

Last Monday, when all Manhattan Island and some other parts o the Nation were holidaying, a reporter from The Times found his way into the sanctum of America’s greatest jokee, (i.e., one to whom jokes are made.) His name is Franklin P. Adams, and he keeps the wolf away from his door by reading the jokes that are sent to Everybody’s Magazine in the hope that they will ultimately blossom on “The Spreading Chestnut Tree.” The wolf, apparently, has a sense of humor.

Jokes, a thousand strong, were heaped about Mr. Adams when the reporter entered — by appointment — for an interview on “The American Sense of Humor.”

Mr. Adams slipped a joke into Darwin’s Origin of Species, and, closing the volume with a reluctant sigh, tossed it upon a heap of humor.

Thus begins the interview, which I recommend downloading to read in its entirety. He describes jokes that he gets from prisoners and from children, the differences between jokes from men and women, and how he can tell the difference between a good joke and a bad joke.

Here he describes some of the letters included with submissions he receives:

“Another habit they have is the effort to be facetious in the letters that accompany their jokes. The most usual form is a play on the word ‘chestnut.’ Each one pulls it off as though he had lit on something brand new and very funny. ‘Here are some chestnuts that should be picked,’ ‘chestnuts ripe, but not wormy,’ are a few samples of this lame-duck humor. You can guess how an introduction of this kind keys me up with joyous expectation of the accompanying jokes.

“But in the letters that make no effort to be funny, I find some good laughs. How’s this.”

Mr. Adams fished out of his desk a painfully inscribed epistle:

Dear Sir: Inclosed you will find, under my pen name of Herr von Hornberg-Boenningheim, the MSS. of three half-dozen sets of humorous paragraphs, viz. Nos. 49 to 66 of a collection of seventy half-dozen sets, of 420 paragraphs in all. In order to make quick sales I offer these at the nominal price of $2.50 a set, or $6.50 for the three sets, if taken together. I can furnish more such sets if desired at the same merely nominal price. However, I make this offer on the stipulation that you make your decision, or choice, at once, and, in case you desire to retain them, send me the price thereof within one week’s time or otherwise return the rejected sets of humorous paragraphs at once. Hoping to hear from you within the appointed time, or perhaps receive orders for additional sets. I am yours very truly, A— T—.

“Needless to say,” continued Mr. Adams, “his entire ‘three half-dozen sets of humorous paragraphs’ did not assay 1 per cent of the unconscious humor in his letter. A mild and quite common variation of this letter is the statement, usually accompanying some very poor jokes: ‘I have lots like the inclosed and would like to become a regular contributor.’

[…]

“There are a lot of people who seem to think it necessary to call my attention to the fact that they have inclosed a joke. Here’s a sample:”

Gentlemen: As I have on hand some very good short stories, some jokes and funny sayings, I thought it best to write and explain to you that they are just the thing for The Spreading Chestnut Tree. I shall be glad to accept anything you wish to give for them. Truly, T. B.

“When I looked over his ‘jokes and funny sayings’ I agree with him that he’d be glad to accept anything I’d give for them.”

I guess when you have to go over so many joke submissions, you get bitter about comedy. Still, it’s a very interesting interview. This one is a downloader.

Leave a comment

Written by David

February 18th, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Entertainment,Humor

Living Stage Folk Who Knew And Cheered Lincoln

From February 12, 1911

LIVING STAGE FOLK WHO KNEW AND CHEERED LINCOLN

LIVING STAGE FOLK WHO KNEW AND CHEERED LINCOLN: The Martyr President Was a Frequent Theatregoer and Made Friends of Many Actors and Actresses; Interesting Recollections of Some Who Still Remember Him Vividly, Including Patti, “Lotta” and Carreno. (PDF)

On President Lincoln’s 102nd birthday, the Magazine found some of the actors whom he had befriended, and sought their recollections of the President. Here is Teresa Carreño‘s story of meeting the President when she was just nine years old:

“I was a capricious little minx,” she said in relating the episode, “not a day older than 9, and with a will that was considerably stronger than my physical appearance, which was that of a child even younger.

“As my father and I were going to the White House that morning, he implored me to play something severely classical if Mr. Lincoln should invite me to try the piano. He had an idea that Bach would be suitable for such an occasion, and, although I did not agree with him, I said nothing, resolving mentally to do as I liked — perhaps decline to play at all.

The President and his family received us so informally and they were all so very nice to me that I almost forgot to be cranky under the spell of their friendly welcome. My self-consciousness all returned, however, when Mrs. Lincoln asked me if I would like to try the White House grand piano. At once I assumed the most critical attitude toward everything — the stool was unsuitable, the pedals were beyond reach, and, when I had run my fingers over the keyboard, the action was too hard. My poor father suggested that a Bach ‘invention’ would make me more familiar with the action.

“That was quite enough to inspire me to instant rebellion. Without another word, I struck out into Gottschalk’s funeral ‘Marche de Nuit,’ and after I had finished modulated into ‘The Last Hope’ and ended with ‘The Dying Poet.’ I knew my father was in despair and it stimulated me to extra effort. I think I never played with more sentiment. Then what do you think I did? I jumped off the piano stool and declared that I would play no more — that the piano was too badly out of tune to be used.

“My unhappy father looked as if he would swoon, but Mr. Lincoln patted me on the cheek and asked me if I could play ‘The Mocking Bird’ with variations. I knew the air and didn’t hesitate over the variations. The whim to do it seized me and I returned to the piano, gave out the theme, and then went off in a series of impromptu variations that threatened to go on forever. When I stopped it was from sheer exhaustion.

“Mr. Lincoln declared that it was excellent, but my father thought I had disgraced myself and he never ceased to apologize in his broken English until we were out of hearing.”

Now that I think about it, that’s really more a story about herself than it is about the President.

Leave a comment

Written by David

February 11th, 2011 at 9:00 am

Is The Demand For Dickens As Great As It Used To Be?

From December 25, 1910

IS THE DEMAND FOR DICKENS AS GREAT AS IT USED TO BE

IS THE DEMAND FOR DICKENS AS GREAT AS IT USED TO BE? Book Dealers Tell of a Great Falling Off in the Popular Favor Accorded the Famous Novelist. (PDF)

Choice quote:

The further downtown you go, the less of Dickens the second-hand book-dealers sell. Far down, Gorky, Tolstoy, Karl Marx — serious, revolutionary writers — are the ones who make the hit. Dickens with his come-gather-round-the-fire-and-we’ll-all-have-a-fine-time-spirit seems completely out of touch with the people down there.

On the whole, judging from first and second hand book dealers both, it seems as if Dickens, like Kipling and Mark Twain in one hundred years, no doubt, can not be said to be widely cared for, any longer.

No Doubt.

Leave a comment

Written by David

December 24th, 2010 at 10:45 am

Says He Can Stop His Heart’s Beating At Will

From December 25, 1910

SAYS HE CAN STOP HIS HEARTS BEATING AT WILL

SAYS HE CAN STOP HIS HEART’S BEATING AT WILL: Nordini Gives Exhibitions of Unusual Muscular Control That Astonishes Investigators. (PDF)

Nordini, the man who said he can stop his heart’s beating at will, also claimed he could hold his breath for extended periods of time, and was buried under a ton of sand to prove it. Is that more or less impressive than David Blaine doing the same stunt in a tank of water? According to the article, Nordini was able to stop his heartbeat for 20 seconds. David Blaine said that in his breath-holding stunts, he was able to slow his heartrate down to 12 beats per minute. Nordini wins.

Leave a comment

Written by David

December 24th, 2010 at 10:00 am

Santa Claus’s Mistake

From December 25, 1910

SANTA CLAUS MISTAKE

At first glance, this struck me as just a relic from an era when racial segregation was an intriguing idea (more on that topic will be posted Friday). But then I remembered that pretty much the same joke was used recently on The Office in an episode where Toby ends up stuck with a black doll for his daughter, when he thought he was getting a white one. So I guess it’s a timeless joke.

Back in 1970, a similar situation appeared on a very special Christmas episode of Bewitched called Sisters at Heart in which a potential client of Darren’s mistakenly thinks Darren and Tabitha have three kids — a black daughter, a white daughter, and a son whose race he doesn’t know. So when he comes over to Darren’s house with gifts for the kids, he brings a white doll for one girl, a black doll for the other, and a panda doll for the boy (being both black and white, you see).

And in 1965, an episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour called Where the Woodbine Twineth featured a little white orphan girl who talks to her toys, including a black doll she receives midway through the episode. The girl wasn’t the one with the problem, though; she enjoyed playing with the doll. It was her guardian Nell who had a problem with it. But I don’t know that Nell’s issue was based on race as much as it was that the little girl was really creepy.

The topic of race and dolls is actually a serious one. Earlier this year, Anderson Cooper reported on CNN that a famous experiment from the 1940s was recently revisited by a child psychiatrist named Margaret Beale Spencer:

Spencer’s test aimed to re-create the landmark Doll Test from the 1940s. Those tests, conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, were designed to measure how segregation affected African-American children.

The Clarks asked black children to choose between a white doll and — because at the time, no brown dolls were available — a white doll painted brown. They asked black children a series of questions and found they overwhelmingly preferred white over brown. The study and its conclusions were used in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, which led to the desegregation of American schools.

60 years later, children in both races still show a bias towards white in similar tests.

A couple weeks ago, USA Today reported on the Black Baby Doll Project, which “puts black dolls in the hands of young girls.” They hope to boost the self esteem of black girls, and they accept donated dolls. But you should be aware of some guidelines before you consider donating:

Tattoos, piercings, a ton of makeup drawn on and skimpy clothes are some of the automatic disqualifiers for the dolls. They are supposed to model average black girls and women, Cornett-Scott said. Another big requirement, and a harder one to meet, is finding dolls that have authentic black features.

She held up three examples. The first, a doll with dark brown skin and a short bob, the next with braided hair and glasses, and the last with curls and full lips.

“We don’t want dolls that look like white dolls that have been painted black,” Scott said.

Every young black girl should have a doll that looks like she does, Scott said. “We want them to think ‘this doll is beautiful, and it looks like me.”

That’s easier said than done, however. Finding dolls that meet the project’s qualifications is difficult.

“I didn’t realize how hard it is to find black baby dolls until I did this project,” Mary Baldwin freshman Melissa Anoh said.

I think Toby has one he might be willing to part with.

Leave a comment

Written by David

December 21st, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Posted in Entertainment,Life

Kinship Of All Nations Is Shown In Their Toys

From December 18, 1910

KINSHIP OF ALL NATIONS IS SHOWN IN THEIR TOYS

KINSHIP OF ALL NATIONS IS SHOWN IN THEIR TOYS: Games and Playthings Pretty Much the Same the World Over — Dolls of the Ancients — A Santa Claus in Japan. (PDF)

This article talks about the variations on Santa Claus that can be found in different cultures worldwide, but I was more interested in the discussion of how our toys are similar. The Brooklyn Museum’s toy expert Stewart Culin notes that throughout the world children play with pretty much the same toys.

The casual observer, when he sees a child playing shuttlecock or dominoes or similar childish games, takes it to be merely the natural expression of the inevitable childish tendency to frolic. The student of men and customs looks deeper. He sees int he games and toys of childhood the evidence of a kinship of the human race.

All over the world and from the earliest ages children have amused themselves in very much the same manner. The toys and games American children have this Christmas time are very much the same as those that amuse the children of China, Japan, and Africa. What is more, they are approximately of the same sort as those played with four thousand years ago by the brown-skinned babies over whom the Pharaohs ruled.

We acquire, as time goes on, a greater mechanical dexterity, but we never improve on the nature of the toys. They are just the same kind now as Pharaoh’s daughter gave to Moses to keep him from crying when she rescued him out of the bulrushes.

I wonder what Stewart Culin would say about video games. They are certainly a far cry from the games of thousands of years ago, but maybe he would see similarities. The Sims are just like complex dolls in virtual dollhouses. And many popular games are merely high-tech boardgames. But what about first person shooters? Or arcade games? Platform jumpers? What would he have made of them? Unfortunately, Culin died in 1929, long before the first video games, so we’ll never know.

Leave a comment

Written by David

December 17th, 2010 at 9:30 am

Seeking The Explanation Of Reese’s “Mind Reading”

From November 20, 1910

SEEKING THE EXPLANATION OF REESES MIND READING

SEEKING THE EXPLANATION OF REESE’S “MIND READING”: Committee of Scientists Will Make Special Tests of His Powers — How Somewhat Similar Performances Are Done. (PDF)

Last week, the Sunday Magazine ran an article on W. Bert Reese, the amazing wizard whose powers astound scientists. There was debate even among those who should know better (*ahem* Thomas Edison) over whether Reese actually could do what he seemed to do. Harry Houdini said later that he detected Reese’s psychic tricks at a séance, and caught him “cold blooded.”

This week, the Magazine takes a stab at explaining how Reese does his mind reading trick. At the very least, they reveal how similar tricks are done, so give it a read and learn to amaze your friends.

Leave a comment

Written by David

November 19th, 2010 at 10:30 am

Posted in Entertainment

Wizard With Amazing Powers Astounds Scientists

From November 13, 1910

WIZARD WITH AMAZING POWERS ASTOUNDS SCIENTISTS

WIZARD WITH AMAZING POWERS ASTOUNDS SCIENTISTS: Thomas A. Edison, Dr. William H. Thomson and Others Admit They Are Unable to Explain the Feats of W. Bert Reese — Reads Questions Written in Another Room and Answers Them. (PDF)

For most of the past several weeks, the Magazine published articles about how amazing someone’s magic or telepathic powers are and how they mystify science. But they also published articles explaining the secrets of magic tricks and special effects. You’d think someone would have figured that perhaps they are one and the same.

This week, the subject is W. Bert Reese, a mentalist who did indeed confound Thomas Edison and other scientists with his magic tricks, as the article explains. But one man not mentioned in the article was in fact clever enough to see through Reese’s tricks: Harry Houdini.

The recently departed Martin Gardner wrote about Reese in his book Did Adam and Eve Have Navels? Debunking Pseudoscience and quotes from a letter Houdini wrote to Arthur Conan Doyle about Reese in 1920:

You may have heard a lot of stories about Dr. Bert Reese, but I spoke to Judge Rosalsky [in front of whom Reese had performed a mind-reading trick to get out of a disorderly conduct charge] and he personally informed me that, although he did not detect Reese, he certainly did not think it was telepathy. I am positive that Reese resorts to legerdemain, makes use of a wonderful memory, and is a great character reader. He is incidentally a wonderful judge of human beings.

That he fooled Edison does not surprise me. He would have surprised me if he did not fool Edison. Edison is certainly not a criterion, when it comes to judging a shrewd adept in the art of pellet-reading.

The greatest thing Reese did, and which he openly acknowledged to me, was his test-case in Germany when he admitted they could not solve him.

I have no hesitancy in telling you that I set a snare at the séance I had with Reese, and caught him cold-blooded. He was startled when it was over, as he knew that I had bowled him over. So much so that he claimed I was the only one that had ever detected him, and in our conversation after that we spoke about other workers of what we call the pellet test — Foster, Worthington, Baldwin, et al. After my séance with him, I went home and wrote down all the details.

While I highly recommend reading all of Gardner’s book, you can find some of the relevant excerpts on Google Books.

Leave a comment

Written by David

November 12th, 2010 at 9:45 am

Magicians Tell The Secret Of Famous Tricks

From October 23, 1910

MAGICIANS TELL THE SECRET OF FAMOUS TRICKS

MAGICIANS TELL THE SECRET OF FAMOUS TRICKS: Henry Hatton and Adrian Plate Give Some of Their Methods and Experiences in the Art of Mystifying the Public. (PDF)

In the 1980s and ’90s, magic duo Penn & Teller earned a reputation for giving away the secrets of magic tricks, becoming known as the Bad Boys of Magic. They would even perform some tricks using clear props that revealed how they were done. But the truth is that Penn & Teller’s reveals were fairly tame, and to this day they still impress with tricks that they keep secret, like their famous take on the magic bullet catch.

But nearly 100 years before Penn & Teller were revealing the secrets of magic, Henry Hatton and Adrian Plate revealed magic secrets in the pages of the New York Times Sunday Magazine. And wouldn’t you know that one trick they revealed is the secret of the bullet catch! Penn & Teller may not do it this way, but here’s what Hatton had to say about his version of the trick, and one night when things didn’t go exactly as planned:

“One night I had announced on my programme, ‘A Modern William Tell,’ the fanciful name for a startling pistol trick. In this the performer allows one of the audience to load a duelling pistol with powder and ball and then to fire at the performer, who is supposed to catch the marked ball in his teeth. In doing the trick the performer slips into the muzzle of the pistol a sort of thimble, and it is into it that the unsuspecting voluntary assistant drops the bullet. By a deft movement this thimble is afterward removed, thereby giving the performer possession of the ball. Not many attempt the trick, for more than once it has led to fatal results when the man who loads the pistol either through ignorance or malice manages to get the bullet into the pistol barrel. The result is that he who exhibits the trick must watch every move made. On the night in question my attention was called away for a second, and when I attempted to remove the thimble I discovered that it was not in the pistol. Whether or not the bullet was in the barrel I did not know. What was I to do? I had only one life, and as for that I had an undying love I was averse to risking it. There was no time for hesitation, so walking to the footlights with the effrontery that is a factor in ‘the profession,’ I addressed the audience: ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ I said. ‘I cannot go on with this part of my programme. Something wrong has happened, and should I continue you undoubtedly would see in to-morrow’s papers: “Bullet-in Hatton Killed While Attempting a Trick.” Would you believe it the generous audience received this statement with as much applause as if I had performed the trick successfully?”

When I read that, I thought it was a lame and anticlimactic way to end the trick. Isn’t there an old saying that the show must go on? Shouldn’t he have figured something out? I’ll bet Penn and Teller would have figured out a way to do the trick. But then I remembered an episode of Penn Jillette’s short-lived 2006 radio show where he says:

The show must go on. Stupidest rule ever made, the show must go on. If there’s one thing that doesn’t need to go on, it’s a show. Last night, 800 people, a thousand people, had come to see the Penn and Teller show. If there had been an announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, Penn Jilette is sick. Why don’t you all go home?” the worst thing that happens, the horrible nightmare that happens is that these people go out and probably have dinner together, maybe go back to the hotel a little earlier and screw. I mean, that is the nightmare. The nightmare is they don’t get to see Penn and Teller catch a bullet in their teeth and do the show. It’s a really good show. I’m proud of it. I love it. But compared to spending time with someone you love, no big deal, ya know?

Yeah, I guess aborting the trick was better than getting shot in the face. Okay, Hatton. You’re off the hook.

3 comments

Written by David

October 22nd, 2010 at 10:00 am