Monday, January 2, 2012
The marginalized world of carny culture was brilliantly immortalized—and humanized—in Tod Browning's classic 1932 film, Freaks. Instead of hiring actors in makeup, Browning cast actual sideshow performers with physical deformities, and presented them as sympathetic members of a unique community of entertainers. (The "monsters" in Browning's plot were two "normal" performers who humiliated the "freaks" while conspiring to murder one to obtain his inheritance.)
Drawing on this legacy, Drew Friedman illustrated 50 legendary carnival performers and bound them between covers in his 2011 anthology DREW FRIEDMAN'S SIDESHOW FREAKS (Blast Books). Among the exhibits were several stars from Browning's film, including Johnny Eck (born with no body below his waist), the beloved Simon "Schlitzie" Metz (subject of another Friedman fine art print), and "Prince" Randian, who despite being born armless and legless lived 63 years with relative self-sufficiency.
The above panoramic portrait of 33 human anomalies appeared as the book's endpapers, and is available as a fine art print. The work was adapted from a 1934 photo of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey sideshow performers. (Unfortunately, none were identified on the photo.) It's a fascinating "class portrait" of a bygone era and a form of entertainment abhorrent to today's politically correct sensibilities.
In his Foreword to SIDESHOW FREAKS, Drew's friend (and fan) Penn Jillette recalls that his partner Teller "said that we did tricks and bits in our show so people would have an excuse to stare at us. People all just want to stare at other people." There is a tendency to view disfigured and odd-limbed carnival performers as creatures deserving of pity, exploited for their pathologies. Yet these people were entertainers who wanted to be marveled at. It was their job, and they were gainfully employed despite being disqualified from conventional forms of work. Some were capable of superhuman physical feats; others overcame severe physical handicaps to live long, productive lives, and in many cases to marry and raise families. They were social outcasts, but within their communities they found a sense of belonging and developed ways to cope with a world that viewed them as irredeemably "different."
Yet their condition is in many respects a metaphor for those among us—friends, neighbors, family, ourselves—who appear "normal," but feel detached, disconnected, isolated and alienated. Those who never quite fit in, who feel that acceptance is forever elusive, who can't find comfort in their own skin. Sideshow freaks compel us to confront our "inner outsider." As Penn notes in his Foreward, "Drew Friedman reminds us that there's only one human race and we're all part of it."
— Irwin Chusid