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Step Right Up Sideshow: With endless fascination and no apologies, James Taylor lovingly chronicles the lives and times of 'human oddities.'

James Taylor is the sort of man who pines for the day when you could lay down 35 cents or so for the chance to gawk at deformed people. Only that's not the term he uses for them. To him, they're "human oddities." Sometimes, it's just "freaks."

Attention PC Police: You missed one in Baltimore.

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Taylor is the chronicler -- extoller is probably the more apt description -- of that most puerile of entertainments, the carnival sideshow. Twice a year, he publishes Shocked and Amazed, a periodical that delves into that all but extinct phenomenon, which in an age before television, not to mention good taste, attracted tens of thousands of spectators eager to be rendered slack-jawed or, better yet, nauseated.

Each issue contains in-depth articles and photographs (many not suitable for the dinner table) of such legendary sideshow figures as the Half-Girl, the Monkey Girl, the Human Blockhead and an assortment of other performing giants, midgets, fat men, bearded ladies, Siamese twins and limbless unfortunates who once put themselves on display for the entertainment of the masses.

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It is a decidedly loving look that Taylor takes, which may not assuage the sensibilities of a supposedly more enlightened age. But there is something entirely recognizable about him, an elemental, perhaps juvenile, desire to be able to look at something or somebody for the sole pleasure of hearing oneself emit three words: "Oh ... my ... God!"

Most people learn at an early age to suppress that response. But Taylor will never believe that people don't want to look. "Whatever they say, everyone wants to be scared, amazed and mystified," he says impishly.

Maybe or maybe not. Shocked and Amazed would have to sell considerably more than its current 2,000 copies per issue just to achieve cult status. Still, in only four years, Taylor has built a reputation as one of the foremost experts on the sideshow from its beginnings in the mid-19th century (in what were called museums, of all things) to its near disappearance today. Tomorrow, he will be featured as the Shelby Foote-ish authority figure in "Sideshow," a new, two-hour documentary narrated by "Seinfeld's" Jason Alexander that will air on The Learning Channel (at 9 p.m. and again at midnight).

Producer/director Lynn Dougherty describes Taylor as an essential resource in making the documentary, someone who "probably knows more than anyone else" about sideshows and their characters and whose appreciation for them is boundless.

"He has this little boy wonder about this," she says. "With him, it was always, 'Can you believe this? Can you believe that?' "

Excitable

Taylor would not look out of place as a carnival talker (never call them barkers, he cautions.) He is sprightly in a Peter Pan-ish way, a 46-year-old, slightly built dervish with mutton-chop whiskers and mustache, wearing a striped shirt, bolo tie, tight vest and pocket watch. By his own description, he is an excitable person; he remains standing during an entire long interview in the overcrowded attic of his Hamilton area home. It is a long interview because he is constitutionally incapable of answering a question without at least three long digressions. There's nothing about the sideshow that doesn't fascinate him.

In some ways, Taylor is an unusual candidate to be the connoisseur of such a garish spectacle. A bachelor, he has a rather sober day job as the supervisor of a team of human performance auditors for the State of Maryland. He also teaches English at a community college and owns his own small publishing company. His specialty: poetry.

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Still, his interest in the sideshows is lifelong. It's his expertise in them that is relatively recent, sparked, oddly enough, by his mother's love life. After the death of his father, Taylor's mother began dating Jerry Farrow, owner of a small carnival. Taylor found Farrow's stories fascinating, so much so that they prompted him to begin work on the definitive history of the sideshow.

For sources, he tracked down dozens of surviving showmen and their acts. "I was told I'd find them reluctant and stand-offish," he says. "I found them anything but."

Bigger than a book

The other thing he found about them was that they were terribly endearing, so much so that he quickly abandoned his original idea of writing a single book. "I started thinking once I got into this that once I finished the book, there would be no reason to continue to see these people, to talk to them, to see the acts. So I came up with an answer, a periodical."

Shocked and Amazed is nothing if not affectionate, even as it fully captures -- with wide-eyed appreciation -- the silliness, crudity, tastelessness, and grotesquerie of the sideshow. Taylor relishes all of it, down even to the fraudulence that was always part of the carnival. "You were always selling more than you could possibly deliver," he says. "Everyone knew that."

No doubt, it would be the depictions of the "Freak Shows" in Shocked and Amazed that would most offend the uninitiated. But in issue after issue, Shocked and Amazed provides a side of the story about the treatment of those people that doesn't quite conform to today's right-thinking. Taylor's interviews often demonstrate that many of those in the "human oddities" portion of the business, even those with such esteem-enhancing billings as "Nature's Greatest Mistake," were grateful for the opportunity the sideshow provided.

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Jeanie Tomaini, once trumpeted as "The Only Living Half Girl," is a perfect example. The cover subject of Volume 2, Tomaini was born without anything below the waist and found herself in the sideshow by age 3. Now 80, she remembers her decades in sideshows only with fondness.

"I earned a darned good living all the time that I was in the business," she said from her home in Gibsonton, Fla. "I enjoyed the travel. I enjoyed the people."

To those who say she was exploited, she is dismissive. "I call them do-gooders, the sort of people who usually foul things up."

Yes, she was paid to be stared at, but she didn't mind. "If I was physically capable of going back on the road, I think people would be very interested in coming to see me. That's part of human nature, to want to look at somebody who's a little different-looking. I sure would."

She appreciates the sideshow for one more reason. It was where she met her late husband, Al Tomaini, as in Al Tomaini the Giant. After they were wed, they toured for years as "The World's Strangest Couple." They also adopted and raised two children.

Might as well be paid

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Another Shocked and Amazed cover subject, Melvin Burkhardt, who could, among other things, hammer nails into his nostrils, often found himself counseling other human oddities who had trouble getting used to the sideshow. His wisdom came down to this: People are going to stare at you anyway. You might as well get paid for it.

The sideshow, he said, was a comfort for many of the performers, who had known only disdain previously. "They found kindred spirits, people who accepted them," he said.

The most successful of the human oddities, Taylor says, were those who could present their deformities as performance art. That's why P. T. Barnum had his people -- midgets, fat men, Siamese twins -- act out scenes from Shakespeare.

Those who could perform in some way were always the most popular, Taylor says. "Jeanie [Tomaini] used to do handstands and walk up ladders," says Taylor. "Charlie Tripp, the Armless Wonder, used to eat with his feet and cut out silhouettes with his toes. If you could do something like that, you could make a lot more money than if you just sat there."

Whether they performed or not, the human oddities, Taylor says, were always the biggest draw. "If you had a sideshow, you always wanted a human oddity because that's what sold the show," he says. But, in truth, he says, authentic deformity was not all that easy to come by. Men advertised as giants were often no taller than today's basketball players in platform shoes and stovepipe hats. So-called midgets might be nearly 5 feet. As for true deformity, "You'd be damn lucky to go to a sideshow and see real Siamese twins," he says.

Faking it

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As a result, Taylor says, there wasn't a showman alive who wouldn't fake an act, gluing fur to someone's back and calling it a tail or attaching a rubber appendage to a performer who could then become "The Three-Legged Man."

If the human oddities were the midway's biggest draw, they were not its staple. Those were the working acts, the fire-eaters, sword swallowers, human pincushions, performers who could lay a bed of nails or walk across hot coals or seemingly swallow small animals. All of them, too, have a place in Shocked and Amazed, treated with the same sense of awe accorded to a world-class ballerina or concert violinist.

"A lot of these acts, like sword-swallowing and sticking pins into yourself, meant overcoming your natural reflexes and your natural fears," says Taylor. "Like sword-swallowing. You had to be able to control your gag reflex. A lot of getting the act down is getting it down."

Many of these types of acts, he says, have existed since the

dawn of time, and he expects they will last until the end of time, although not necessarily on the midway. They are more likely to be seen now at fairs or nightclubs, even on television. And despite today's political correctness, there is still a place for human oddities, namely, newspaper tabloids and television talk-shows. It's no accident that those forums are themselves often described as "sideshows."

"You can't watch the talk shows for a week without seeing someone who 20 years ago would be on the midway," Taylor says. "People still want to look. How you provide a way to satisfy their curiosity, that's the question."

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His own curiosity, his desire to be forever shocked and amazed, remains endless. "I'll tell you," he says at one point, "a Lady Albino Sword swallower, I'd pay for that."

He is a man who never tires of hearing himself exclaim, "Oh ... my ... God!"

Pub Date: 2/01/97



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