The Second Life Johnny Eck

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Six years ago, when he heard the news that Robert Alexander Eckhardt was dead, and that effects belonging to him and his late twin, John, had been sold to a Fells Point antiques dealer, Jeffrey Pratt Gordon hit the streets.

He combed every shop in the waterfront neighborhood for items he'd recognize as evidence of the Eckhardts' lives: hand-carved Punch and Judy puppets, pastoral painted screens, carnival pitchbooks, toy circus animals. Any number of artifacts might lead to the eclectic estate of brothers whose whimsical genius had sustained them for most of their lives while enchanting multitudes.

The Eckhardts had grown up nearby in East Baltimore, where residents had a knack for turning modest opportunities into profitable ventures. Born to this work ethic, the two men had endlessly reinvented themselves, earning a small but radiant place in American pop cultural history. Until their last, sad years, the pair had not only defied expectations for John, born with a devastating disability, but turned that disability to advantage during a prime spent in picaresque adventure.

For such a small man, John "Johnny Eck" Eckhardt looms large in the dreams of many lured to the strange-but-true side of life. Once billed as "The Most Remarkable Man Alive!", he'd had an avid following among those familiar with his sideshow career and role in the cult film "Freaks." Johnny's screen paintings have traveled widely in folk art exhibitions and reside, along with the twins' homemade miniature carnival, in private collections coast to coast. He has been embraced by pro-life advocates and immortalized by visionary cartoonist R. Crumb. His name is a staple of sideshow and art histories and Web sites.

In life and death, the Eckhardts have attracted predators and protectors, freak fanatics and friends, dabblers and serious students. A select few are devoted to preserving the brothers' memory. Gordon, a property master on the set of "Homicide" and feature films around the country, is one of a tiny subset intent on sharing that memory with an audience beyond the fringe.

He'd never met John or Robert. But if he could own what the Eckhardts' had owned, Gordon felt, he could touch their lives, commune with their spirits and celebrate their gifts with the world at large. He would bring to his mission the same, all-or-nothing intensity he'd brought to other objects of his fascination, such as the potatoes he obsessively photographed in college or the outsider artist for whom he'd once provided a refuge.

Gordon, 33, couldn't anticipate that in his self-appointed role as the Eckhardts' posthumous caretaker, he would one day confront the film industry in a struggle to tell the truth about their lives. Nor did Gordon realize that his search would uncover a quirky claque of Eckhardt admirers who tirelessly analyze the dead men's words, relive their deeds and scramble to benefit in some way from Hollywood's fleeting attention to the brothers.

Before stumbling upon this funhouse world, Gordon's quest for the Eckhardts' belongings led him to one last storefront, where he spied a small, papier-mache skull. It seemed like a clue.

The shop was called, amazingly enough, Johnny's Corner, and it was there Gordon discovered a large steamer trunk bearing the name Robert Alexander. On a hunch, Gordon bought the trunk and its contents. Inside, he found a wealth of letters, photos and souvenirs probably untouched by anyone other than the Eckhardt brothers. The little skull, it turned out, had been theirs, too.

For Gordon, the believe-it-or-not afterlife of Johnny Eck and his brother Robert had begun.

The Eckhardt twins were born on Aug. 27, 1911. The tale, as related by Johnny, is a creation myth, blue-collar Baltimore style.

"On a hot summer night, some years ago during a violent thunderstorm, in the second-floor bedroom of a red-brick rowhouse there would occur an event that would shock the neighborhood," Johnny recounted with typical flourish in an unpublished biography.

Twenty minutes after Robert was born, "A second baby began to emerge; with more than half of it seemingly missing. This baby [had] almost nothing below his rib cage -- a monster? It weighed two pounds."

Although the second infant's body appeared to end at the waist, he was surprisingly healthy. His family embraced him and christened him John. "It was as if God himself had chosen this family to be born in," Johnny said.

The twins could read and write by age 4, and showed an aptitude for art. Johnny also proved an irrepressible entertainer, whose prowess and charisma led to an early sideshow career as "Johnny Eck the Half Boy -- the World's Greatest Living Curiosity." Spotted by talent scouts, Eck earned a starring role in the 1932 movie "Freaks." In carnival and circus midways, "I was a performer, walked a tight rope, worked on trapeze, juggled -- I did everything," he said.

He did it for a pittance. Crooked employers who grabbed most of a show's receipts were a chronic problem over the nearly 20 years that Eck performed. But it was an era when a severe deformity like Johnny's left one with little choice but to "exhibit yourself to make a living," he once explained.

Yet, photos from that time show unmistakably Eck's love of carnival life and the camaraderie it offered a man whose appearance repulsed countless "normals." His eyes sparkle, his hat tilts jauntily.

By age 14, Johnny and Robert were converts to life on the road. "Having tasted the nectar of traveling from one town to another and untold adventure, we both knew our lives would never be the same again," he said.

In the 1950s, after sideshows lost wide acceptance and a tax levied on a penny arcade proved to be too onerous, the brothers bought a used children's train ride and took it on the road. Johnny also became a screen painter. He had learned the craft from William Oktavec, a grocer and artist credited with inventing the East Baltimore art form in 1913 as a way to adorn screen windows and doors while affording residents greater privacy.

Johnny painted hundreds of screens; scores of them for clients referred by "Pop" Oktavec. When not completing commissions, the 18-inch-tall Eck held forth from the top step of his North Milton Avenue home, a dog always by his side, eye to eye with the kids perched below. He and his brother often presented Punch and Judy shows for their benefit.

As they grew older, the Eckhardts spent more time at home, a mixed blessing at this point in their lives. The release of "Freaks" on video in the 1980s drew dozens to Eck's door. "You'd be surprised to see these 'avid' fans. I say they are crazy," he wrote a friend.

In 1987, a vicious beating and robbery by two intruders prompted the brothers' complete retreat. They shut out virtually everyone, beloved friends and fans alike.

Before the assault, "He was always the eternal optimist, and after that happened he became introverted, became more or less a recluse," says Jack Gaylin, the twins' oldest friend. Eck died on Jan. 5, 1991, survived by Robert and his Chihuahua, Major.

Since that auspicious day in the Fells Point antiques shop, Jeffrey Gordon has tried to possess Johnny Eck as Eck has come to possess him.

He returned to the shop again and again, sharing Cuban cigars with the proprietor, who relinquished nuggets from the Eckhardts' lives, one at a time, until there were no more.

Some could be remainders from any life: grocery lists; their father's tool box and union card; work gloves; a prescription pill bottle. Others went to the core of the brothers' identities: Johnny's bow ties, silk shirts and hat; his typewriter and carbons; painted screens and sketches of nudes; a Christmas card from the Hilton sisters (a pair of Siamese twins); a "Freaks" scrapbook; and Johnny's fringed performance pedestal.

For Gordon, every tidbit was priceless.

"I read his letters, I sat on his chair and stools," he says. He pored through documents, putting faces with names, cross-referencing material, piecing together relationships and reconstructing two uncommon lives. His efforts have been largely a labor of love. But last year, Gordon's research suddenly acquired value beyond the collector's rarified realm.

Ten years after Johnny's death at 79, a major motion picture about the brothers is in development. Big names are attached: Superstar actor Leonardo DiCaprio ("Titanic") and possibly director Robert L. Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump"). Aware of Gordon's expertise, the producers called last fall. Gordon stressed that he wants fair compensation for his expertise. Even more important, he wants the movie to be true to the two men.

"I want to hold strong to make sure it is done right," he says. "This movie can only be made once."

The producers already own rights to the Johnny Eck story, purchased in 1999 from the brothers' niece by marriage, Ann Moran, and her daughter, Lynn Hausler. The producers didn't pay a huge sum, Moran says. "Heavens no, not six figures," she says, but enough to survive on for a "month or two."

"I said as far as I'm concerned, [a movie] would be OK," she says by phone from her South Carolina home. "Johnny was in movies early on, and they were with Ripley, so I can't see how they would be exploiting [them]."

Still, negotiating with the production company has left an odd taste in Moran's mouth. "I've never dealt with anything like this. I hope I never have to again," she says. "It has too many little dark alleys; you just don't know who to believe or what's going to happen."

The prospective movie has made it a touchy time to be an Eck-spert. Those who once freely exchanged information about the brothers may now find themselves wondering how valuable it is. The fine line between veneration and exploitation is blurring.

The question arises constantly in Johnny Eck's universe: Who is exploiting whom? The question dogged him throughout his life. Now, it dogs the movie proposal. What if a cinematic treatment, however fawning, further exploits the Eckhardts' lives and makes a bundle in the process?

Johnny and Robert's most ardent champions say they see the brothers' story not as a source of income, but as an exemplary tale of triumph against great odds. Yet debate inevitably surfaces about who has the Eckhardts' best interests at heart, along with other questions, both important and trivial: Who knew them best? Did Johnny and Robert willingly give away coveted keepsakes to collectors? Was Johnny a bigot? Was Robert known as Bob or Rob?

Johnny's frequent behind-the-back criticism of some of these very friends further clouds the discussion. Among this proprietary and prickly bunch, sideshow historian Warren A. Raymond stands out as the most knowledgeable, the most tight-lipped and the least understood by the others.

Raymond and his wife, Karla, who befriended the Eckhardts in the late 1970s, were among the few invited inside their decrepit house. Occasionally, Raymond says, he helped them with home repairs and once surprised Robert with a homemade pumpkin pie. Along the way, the Raymonds acquired the lion's share of the brothers' possessions, including painted screens, diaries, letters, photographs, most of the fabled miniature carnival, even one of Johnny's incisors.

Some of the Eckhardts' other protectors believe these items were obtained illicitly. Raymond says that Johnny and Robert gave him their belongings and he tried whenever possible to pay them in return.

"I didn't want anything from him, just what was between his ears," Raymond says of Eck. "I was truly interested in him, that was the main thing. Everybody wanted them to give them things. I wanted to hear what they wanted to speak about. I let them talk. I listened."

Raymond also documented the interior of the Eckhardts' house in photographs, completed a chronology of their lives, wrote down every story they told. "I am the only person that knows the truth about most of their life," he says.

In his 50s and comfortably retired, Raymond has dedicated his life to sideshow history, but his formidable collection is strictly off-limits to the public. Though he's nearly completed a biography of the twins, Raymond is content to cultivate his huge store of knowledge in private -- the reason, he says, for the resentment and jealousy directed toward him by other Eck aficionados.

Sitting beneath a vintage sideshow banner of a beaming Johnny, Raymond offers this advice to Eck latecomers: "The material remnants of a life are worthless except as they capture the essence of those who made or owned them. Once [the brothers] are gone, it is all gone. It is all now a matter of artifacts and photographs, and misinformation and disinformation -- except for those who have sought them out ... and are able to put into context the elements of their life."

Jack Gaylin, now 70, first met Johnny at a Baltimore street carnival in 1938. A former merchant marine, he returned to the family carnival business, building his own show and performing as an acrobat and magician. Johnny and Robert took their kiddie train on Gaylin's carnival circuit.

When he first met Jeffrey Gordon, Gaylin laid down the law: He could not consider Johnny's life without equal consideration of his brother's. "What made Johnny unique was Bob," he told Gordon. They were "the most symbiotic set of brothers that God could possibly have made."

Johnny had great ambition and drive, but couldn't achieve goals without physical assistance, Gaylin says. "Bob had no drive, no ambition," he adds. "Johnny's mother charged Bob with taking care of Johnny. It became his mission in life."

Gordon listened to the older man. He often visits Gaylin's Rosedale home, where the brothers' presence is strong. On one shelf rests a small crystal ball Johnny would stare into with a maniacal glint. From a closet, Gaylin pulls the twins' boyhood Daisy air rifles; Johnny stopped firing his after inadvertently killing a bird, he says.

Gaylin also is repairing a mobile of glass fish; Johnny used it, he explains, to tell if heat was rising from floor vents. And there's a big box of photos: Johnny with Robert R. Ripley. Johnny with a young, photogenic Gaylin. Johnny as the top part of a famous magic act. (After being sawed in half, both top and bottom came spectacularly to life.) Robert appears in these photos, too, shining a bit less brightly than his brother.

Gaylin often saw first-hand what Johnny had to endure. He rescued him after an Eastern Shore patrician blithely allowed his dog to attack him. He was present when Johnny was refused service in a restaurant. To many, "he was less than human," Gaylin says.

Kids, though, loved him. "They thought he was a big play toy and he met them on their level," he says. Gaylin and the Eckhardts also had fun. He might pick Johnny up, literally, plunk him in a car and set off on a day trip. Once on Halloween, dressed like Arab dignitaries, they rode in a convertible slowly down Monument Street in Baltimore, waving to puzzled pedestrians. At the Eckhardts' home, they would sit on the steps with a six-pack "and hear about my travels. It was always [Johnny's] dream to travel."

Gaylin releases information guardedly. Asked if Johnny was ever in love, he says, "Yeah, but I'm not going to comment on it." Of the brutal assault in Johnny's home, he'll only say: "There's part of the story I can't tell you. It's rather heart-breaking, what that did to him."

The Eckhardts' beloved dogs are buried outside the Gaylin home. Their miniature train, salvaged from ruin and restored to working order by Gaylin, covers a large swath of yard. In a shed sits the rebuilt "Johnny Eck Special," a hand-controlled roadster built in 1935 by the Dreyer Racing Equipment Co. of Indianapolis. It's the same car Johnny was sitting in when Gaylin met him 63 years ago. "It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen in my life," Gaylin says.

Gaylin was in Mexico when Johnny died in 1991. He returned to find Robert bereft and in frail health. "There was a part of him missing," Gaylin says. He cheered him up a bit at the Holiday bar, a favorite neighborhood haunt. When Robert died in 1995, Gaylin was the only nonfamily member present at the funeral.

The old friend is wary of Johnny Eck's admirers. He disdains those who would turn him into a product, as well as the "freak cult," those purely interested in Johnny's anatomy. He had "feelings, likes and dislikes and habits and frailties. ... One of the things that'll turn me off quicker than anything is when people talk about John and ask, 'How did his body function?' How the hell should I know? Johnny was a man."

One of those whom Gaylin has issues with is Jeff Krulik, a documentary filmmaker from Bethesda. Over the years, Krulik has worked sporadically on a documentary about Johnny. Gaylin, though, has declined to participate in the film. It may be a misunderstanding, but he's skeptical of Krulik's motives.

"Probably, someday, I will write about my memories of Bob and John, who were more to me than just oddities, they were my friends," he wrote the filmmaker.

Krulik, 40, says his fascination with Eck comes "from a genuine passion and interest in sideshow history and in films that really pushed the boundary, like 'Freaks.' " He corresponded with Eck, but had just one meeting with the subject of his documentary: In 1986, Krulik paid a visit to Johnny. It was like having an "audience with the pope," he says.

Last fall, Krulik resumed his Eck documentary.

On a blustery day, he tentatively worked Johnny's old Milton Avenue block, a fancy camera on his shoulder. Guys on the corner and slow stares from second-story windows made him uneasy. "Hi, we're doing a story on Johnny Eck? The Half-Boy?" he said by way of introduction. "The guy who used to paint screens?"

He entered the home of Johnny's former next-door neighbor, a man with a glass eye and what looked to be a permanent hangover. Johnny used to babysit him when he was a kid, the man told him. His mother sold photos she had of Johnny; when someone makes you a good offer, you accept it, he explained. Krulik doesn't know to ask the man about the stormy relationship his family had with the Eckhardts over the years, well-chronicled in the brothers' letters, tapes and scribblings.

Asked about Gaylin's mistrust of him, Krulik suggests that there is a degree of exploitation in any pursuit. He and other Eck devotees "can't travel with the sideshow, that whole era is gone. [But] we're holding on in some way. We want to be connected. I don't think the adoration or interest hurts. Ultimately we're going to personally benefit, I think, but I can't imagine anybody making much money -- except Hollywood, if Leonardo DiCaprio pulls it off."

A couple of years ago, Krulik traded his prized letters from Johnny to Andrew D. Gore, an Eck fanatic whose motives might also be questioned by Gaylin. A reclusive Washingtonian, Gore designs limited-edition souvenirs for fans of B-movies and horror films and collects the "grotesque mementos" featured in his traveling exhibit, "Satan's Sideshow," and online "Odditorium."

Gore's reverence for Johnny is indelible: Finely etched onto his right forearm is a tattoo of Eck performing a handstand. (Gore says he's met others with similar body art; most memorably, "a girl who had a beautiful Johnny Eck covering her thigh.") Now 35, he first saw "Freaks" at age 11. "It blew my mind," he says. When he learned that Johnny Eck was still alive, Gore wrote to him, and occasionally sent money, not an easy gesture for a video store clerk.

"It seemed the right thing to do," says Gore, who has also bought a wheelchair of Johnny's from collector Raymond. "He was taken advantage of his whole life."

Before Johnny died, Gore says, he wanted to make tribute T-shirts and "give him 100 percent of the profits." That didn't happen, but he has since begun producing the shirts, just one item in a line of Johnny Eck products, including snow globes, dolls, watches and clocks that tell time with Johnny's arms. Soon, Gore plans a new Web site, eckwear.com. Still, he insists he doesn't want to profit unduly from Johnny's memory.

"If Johnny was alive today, this would be his stuff," he says.

In any case, Gore expects Hollywood will put a stop to his unlicensed Eck souvenir business. "Where were these people when Johnny was alive? It would be a crummy thing to take it away from me."

Jeffrey Gordon invites a pair of visitors into his Baltimore home and leads them to his "Johnny Eck room." Johnny's schmaltzy records play on his old turntable. It's "all Johnny, all the time," Gordon says. The room is furnished with the steamer trunk found in Fells Point, and all sorts of Eckhardt memorabilia, including a larger-than-life wooden carving of Johnny, topped with his old fedora.

Gordon says all of his spare money (not that much) goes into the collection. Stored in a desk are Johnny's diaries and Eckhardt family Bibles, with passages annotated by Johnny with his bleak commentary. Gordon pulls from his records the notorious contract that bound Johnny to his first, sleazy manager. "That's a nice little piece of history right there," he says. Gordon also has the postcard Eck sent his family when he got his featured role as the "Half Boy" in "Freaks." "I passed at the studio," he wrote.

One of Gordon's visitors is Maryland folklorist and painted screen scholar Elaine Eff. A friend of Johnny and of Robert, she reverently studies the collection, which also includes examples of their photography and woodworking efforts.

"There's nothing they couldn't do," says Eff, who first met the brothers in the mid-'70s while researching her Ph.D. Her 1988 film documentary, "The Screen Painters," caught an irascible Eck on tape, discussing his artistic technique and pricing policies.

Eff and Johnny were friends for 15 years. They delighted in one another's company and exchanged frequent letters. He called her "Angel." Eck was "good, kind, giving, good-hearted," she says. It grieves her to think about his last years, when Johnny saw the world as a very dark place.

Eff hopes one day to open a painted screen museum that will feature Eck's work. She's intrigued as well by the interest in Hollywood and, like Gordon, has something to offer: hours of interviews with Johnny on audio tape and 16 mm film that could help capture his mannerisms, speech patterns and his see-saw slant on life.

For now, Eff sifts through the photographs and sketches he has preserved in professional archival sleeves, and the pair pelt each other with questions:

"Do you remember that steam engine? Johnny loved that steam engine."

"Did you ever know Johnny to wear glasses?"

"You didn't happen to get any voodoo dolls?" (Eck kept one on the mantelpiece facing toward neighbors he despised.)

As they talk, Eff and Gordon take notes. They listen to tapes Johnny and Robert made late in life while passing the time, often while downing a six-pack or two of cheap beer. In these last years, Johnny sounds angry, racist, bitter. Not at all the young performer with the sparkling eyes and the good heart.

"I'm trying to discover the essence of Johnny and Bob and I think I'm getting real close," Gordon says.

But even some of Eck's most ardent admirers think that Gordon's idealism converged with folly last year, when, on Halloween, he purchased Johnny and Robert's home in their drug-troubled neighborhood. It was available once before about five years ago. Then, "it was right as they left it," Gordon says. "I was furious because I didn't have the money."

Gordon has plans. "My dream is to open a Johnny and Bob Eck museum," he says, "so people can experience this man's life."

As envisioned, the museum would have three stops: Visitors would first come to Gordon's home, admire the Eckhardts' belongings displayed in a large, renovated garage and ride the miniature train he hopes to acquire from Gaylin. Then they'd travel to the Milton Avenue home, where each room will reflect a different period in the brothers' lives. Finally, they will pay a visit to the Eckhardt family plot in Greenmount Cemetery.

Gordon's negotiations with Hollywood could determine how much money he will have for his museum. He may not be the only one in touch with the producers; Warren Raymond won't say whether he's been approached. In any case, Gordon is determined to be treated with respect. He was burned once before, he says, when he shared his collection with another producer, who promptly wrote a script for TV's "Homicide" about a man obsessed with Johnny Eck. The author neglected to tell Gordon; the script, although admired by director Barry Levinson, was never produced.

This time, too, Gordon thinks, Hollywood wants something for nothing; they believe he can be flattered into giving away all he knows. "What has happened to Johnny and Bob," he says, "has happened to me."

Nonetheless, Gordon desperately wants to work on the film. Even before he knew of it, he had started his own script. DiCaprio was already on his "dream cast" list. But Gordon wants an "honest" portrayal of the Eckhardts. He wants to know that his journey deep into the brothers' amazing life and afterlife won't stop at a superficial way station where Hollywood takes liberties with the little man whose life he has worked so hard to make whole.

"I've seen this movie in my head 1,000 times," Gordon says. Whoever makes it, he insists, has to hear Johnny's crackling voice on tape, know the stories of his life, grasp exactly what it meant to be "the most remarkable man alive."

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