Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Brill's Bible

It's rare that a single figure crosses the boundaries between the worlds of the circus, the carnival and the magician's stage. Aaron K. "Scoop" Brill was one such figure. Brill got his start managing and building props for a lion trainer before moving on to the carnival where, among other things, he specialized in building rides. Known on the midway as "Headline Harry," Brill set about documenting everything he could related to rides, attractions, and concessions before going overseas during WWII. 

Starting in 1946 after his return to the U.S. until his death in 1986, Brill began publishing A. Brill's Bible of Building Plans, making himself the keeper of design secrets for the outdoor amusement industry. For $1, an enterprising soul could purchased Brill's Bible, a catalog of blueprints and designs for everything from bleachers and carnival rides built from old truck parts to cotton candy makers and stage illusions like the "floating chair suspension" and "girl to gorilla" transformation, often used as a sideshow act. For an additional fee, one could then order full plans from Brill's catalog. Based on Brill's designs, one could practically build an entire show from top to bottom. 

While notoriously against government regulation, Brill claimed that he never designed a game or feature that wasn't on the up and up, though he did know the secrets of the carnival grifter. He trusted in his reputation as a businessman to get him through and considered selling the plans for rigged attractions was too big a risk for too little reward. Today, an original Brill's Bible can fetch top dollar at auction and his plans are bought, sold, and traded by magicians, carnies and outdoor amusement owners and enthusiasts even now, though many believe that not all of his plans are complete or entirely accurate (Brill was known to measure only a few parts of an attraction and then extrapolate the rest). His Bible even has a place in the Library of Congress. 

After Brill's death in 1986, the business was bought by David L. Hewitt, who, with the help of his children restored the original catalog and plans, adding additional notes gathered from Brill's estate. PDF copies of the 1970 edition of Brill's Bible can be purchased from and originals can occasionally be found on auction sites. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Hey Rube!

     "Hey rube!" The call goes up along the midway. Perhaps a townie has gotten a little too fresh with one of the bally girls. Perhaps he's found one of the circus workers engaged in grift. Whatever the reason, the sound of the words "hey rube" meant there was going to be a fight and would bring in any circus hand within ear shot running.
     Shows that had issues with towners or "gillies" had to be careful however, lest they "burn the territory," ruining both their own reputation and those of any circus that came to town in their wake and making it near impossible for anyone to book a show in the area. Often shows that allowed (or even advertised for) grifters or "fakirs" also had a "fixer," "patch," or "legal adjuster" whose job it was to smooth over any ill will by providing bribes to the local authorities in advance. Shows like those run by John "Pogey" O'Brien one of the most notorious grift show owners (and one time lessee of P.T. Barnum's circus) often sold the "X" or exclusive right to run a particular scam in exchange for a cut of the profits. Three card monte dealers, short change artists, pick pockets were all common types of grifters on the lot, and those were only the simple scams. Some shows even had grifters who engaged in complex long cons.
      More legitimate shows, ones without authorized grift would also send a party like the "advance clown" ahead to make sure the local community had a good opinion of the circus by visiting hospitals, nursing homes and local businesses before the show's arrival. As small mud shows gave way to large rail circuses with regular yearly routes, it became increasingly important for a show to appear clean and above board for the sake of repeat business. To the "Sunday School Show" like Ringling Bros. and many other large circuses, grifting was a bane, one that their owners fought hard to prevent, even hiring local muscle to keep con artists off the lot.
     In the end, be it at a circus with grift or an honest Sunday school show, woe to the townie who causes the words "hey rube" to be uttered. The words still hold the same power today on many circuses and carnival lots and have also been adopted into military parlance, used to signal a ship in distress and in need of air support starting in WWII. More recently, they've been adapted to social media by many circus workers, used as a call for help and support to other shows and circuses around the world and a way of letting other shows know about possible thieves and bad actors floating from show to show.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Bearded Lady Then and Now: Madame Clofullia, Julia Pastrana, and Their Legacy

Madame Clofullia, born Josephine Boisdechene in Switzerland in 1827 was America's first famous bearded woman. By the age of 8, she had reportedly grown a beard 2" thick, likely caused by a condition called hypertrichosis, the same condition responsible for so called "werewolf syndrome" in extreme cases. Her performing career began at 14 when she started touring Europe with her father to assist her family financially. Josephine later married Fortune Clofullia, a French painter and gave birth to two children, a daughter who died in infancy, and a son, Albert who himself would go on to be exhibited as "the infant Esau" due to his own hirsute appearance at a young age.

In 1853, Clofullia brought her family to America, joining P.T. Barnum's American Museum. Much to Barnum's chagrin, Clofullia proved so genial, proper, and ladylike that she failed to generate the amount of controversy and more important the attendance that either of them expected. In an effort to help recoup his investment, Barnum hired William Charr to sue Clofullia, disputing her gender. Testimony from both her father and husband and examination by three doctors later and Clofullia's gender was definitively proven. While attendance did rise in the days following the suit, Clofullia never received the uproar Barnum expected.

A year after Clofullia's American debut, Julia Pastrana, a bearded woman born in Mexico who also suffered from a then undiagnosed genetic anomaly called gingival hyperplasia which caused thickening of her lips and gums made her own debut. Purchased by a customs official in Mexico (a practice that was not unusual for the time when it came to human oddities) she first performed in 1854 at the Gothic Hall in New York, billed as a hybrid of man and beast. Pastrana was, in fact, an accomplished performer, able to dance, speak three languages fluently, and graced with a beautiful singing voice. Of course her performance had little to do with why the audience was there. Her billings are reflective of some of the worst stereotypes and racism of the day, referring to her as "the baboon lady" and "the bear woman" among other unfortunate sobriquets.

In 1854 she married her new manager, Theodor Lent and in 1859 the two discovered that Julia was pregnant. Neither mother nor child would survive the birth, however, dying mere days from one another. Lent, in an effort to continue cashing in on his wife's fame had both her and the infant preserved via a combination of taxidermy and mummification. While exhibiting their remains, Lent also came upon a German woman, Marie Bartel who suffered from the same conditions as Pastrana and whom, like Pastrana, he wed and exhibited alongside the remains of his first wife and son, billing her as Julia's sister, "Zonora Pastrana." Lent eventually went insane and was committed by Zonora in 1884, dying in an asylum in St. Petersberg,

Zenora sold off the bodies of Julia and her child which made their way from side show to museum to medical exhibit before being rediscovered in Oslo's Institute of Forensic Medicine in 1990. Thanks to the efforts of visual artist Laura Anderson Barbata, Julia's body was repatriated in 2013 after nearly 10 years of presenting her case for giving Pastrana a proper burial in Mexico. Unfortunately, the body of her son had been destroyed by vandals years before. Barbata's sister also produced a play written by Shaun Pendergast and performed entirely in the dark called The True History of the Tragic Life and Triumphant Death of Julia Pastrna, the Ugliest Woman in the World.

The tradition of the bearded lady, one of the icons of the circus sideshow continues today. Among the most accomplished bearded women currently performing is Jennifer Miller, founder of Circus Amok, dancer, filmmaker, writer and university professor, she also works with a variety of grass roots organizations like Milk Not Jails with whom Amok partnered for their show MOO. Through her performance, Miller takes on social, political, and gender topics, bringing the legacy of women like Madame Clofullia and Julia Pastrana into the 21st century and using it to further the cause of social awareness. Jennifer has also won a Bessie award in 1995 and an Obie in 2000 for her performances. She can be seen in the documentaries Un Cirque a New York and Juggling Politics.

So there you have it, three bearded ladies, their lives and legacies. Till next time,

Dr. Tobias H. Gentleman    

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


     Whew, just when I think I've got this thing back on the rails... Anyway, this time for sure, Rock. 

     Since Dr. Future-wife and I have been watching a lot of Ru Paul's Drag Race lately, I figured we'd talk this week about Barbette, the female impersonating phenomenon of the early 1900's. Born Vander Clyde Broadway in Round Rock, Texas in 1899, he found his calling early in life when his mother took him to see his first circus around the age of 8 in Austin. According to legend, Broadway fell in love with aerial performance and would spend hours practicing the high wire on his mother's clothesline. During the summer, he worked in the cotton fields to earn enough money to see every circus that came through town. 
     Broadway's big break came when, after graduating high school at 14, he responded to an ad in Billboard placed by one of the Alfaretta sisters. One of the duo had passed away unexpectedly and the remaining sister was auditioning for a replacement to continue the act in nearby Austin. The only stipulation? Vander Clyde Broadway had to perform as a woman. Adopting the name Barbette, he began his career in 1919, performing on both the high wire and trapeze on the vaudeville circuit before embarking on a European tour in 1923. 
     Barbette became the toast of the Paris art scene playing at venues like the Moulin Rouge and Casino Royale. He was also artistic muse to the likes of photographer Man Ray and poet Jean Cocteau who by all reports fell in love with Broadway's female alter ego. So convincing was Barbette that one night when he removed his wig as he was wont to do at the end of every show revealing himself as a man, a Russian sailor taken with his female persona was so distraught that he drew his pistol and shot himself. 
     Barbette went on to perform both in Europe and America with Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey before retiring in 1938 after a combination of injuries suffered during a fall and pneumonia ended his performing career. In his retirement, Barbette turned to training other performers as well as working in Hollywood, most notably as "gender illusion coach" to Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot
     Barbette's accident in 1932 left him suffering with chronic pain for the remainder of his life however. In 1973, he died of a self inflicted drug overdose. His grave marker in his home town of Round Rock bears only one name, Barbette. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

"Big" John Strong

John Strong was a BIG man, both physically (standing at 6'5" before donning his top hat) and personally. He was so beloved by his fans and employees that he was dubbed "the man with more friends than Santa Claus." It's even on his tombstone, located in Mt. Olive Cemetery's Showman's Rest in Hugo OK. Born in Jamestown NY in 1920, Strong had a talent for being successful at whatever he turned his hand to. By the age of 12, Strong had made enough money painting house numbers on curbs to buy a car for his family, and, being too young to drive a chauffeur to drive it for him.

After going to work for his uncle delivering and selling mattresses, Strong proved to be so adept at the job that he sold them faster than the mattresses could be manufactured, forcing him to take time off from the business for supply to catch up to demand. Already interested in showbusiness (Strong produced his first home town circus at the age of 15) he decided to head to Hollywood where he used his childhood friendship with Lucille Ball to get his first small acting roles. Without union membership, however, work was hard to come by and Strong was forced to make ends meet via other means. He is often credited with starting the "maps to the stars homes" industry and offered guided tours of Hollywood during this period. 

It was in Hollywood that Strong began to venture more seriously into performing at backyard parties for his film industry friends. According to John's son, John Strong Jr. the circus started out as a literal dog and pony show, boasting one of each to its name. John's wife Ruth whom he married in 1948 took charge of training the animals and within six years, the circus had grown so large they needed to move onto several acres in Thousand Oaks CA to house the show's winter quarters and within 15 it was one of the largest shows touring the western United States. 

Strong was well known for keeping both feet on the ground however, even in the midst of his success.  Often his word was often all that was needed to book a date in many cases. As Strong wrote in a letter to his son in 1965, "always be honest... Always let your word be your bond... You never have to be the biggest but always operate a good, clean show and you will always be welcomed back." The John Strong Circus continued touring until 1982 when increased regulations and a law suit from the estranged family of a circus employee who died in an accident while in a company vehicle caused him to sell the show. He continued producing indoor shows from his home in California until his death in 1992. His son, John Strong Jr. took over the name, opening the John Strong Show, a sideshow and museum of oddities with his wife, Candy. Ruth Strong, often referred to as "the first lady of the circus" passed away in 2010. These days it's not uncommon to find former Strong employees "cutting up jackpots" (circus slang for trading stories) and reconnecting on internet forums when tracking down information on the show's history and among all of those renewed connections and reunions, one is hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't remember the aptly named "man with more friends than Santa Claus" with an enduring fondness.