Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Coney's Pickled Freaks

By now, we've all heard about the new traveling freak show in Coney Island and how the owner, John Strong, was foiled in his efforts to purchase a five-legged puppy. I visited Strong's sideshow and Museum of Cryptozoology this week.

Thor brought in this show, so I had to think twice, but I can't say no to anything freakological. So, for three dollars, I saw a few live animal freaks--a cow with an extra nose, a pair of turtles joined at the shell like an open book, a couple of shivery hairless dogs (just 4 legs each)--but, thankfully, I saw mostly dead animals pickled in jars.

The Chupacabra, a legendary cryptid, made me think about the Montauk Monster, wishing one of the many specimens that keep washing up on Long Island's beaches would fall into Strong's hands just so I could see the thing up close.

However, the two-headed baby, long a Coney Island staple, wasn't there--though it's advertised on the banners. Today, while you can buy your own replica pickled punk at Dapper Cadaver, you can't see a real one at Coney Island.

"Pickled Punks," as preserved "freak" fetuses are known, are difficult to carry across state lines and Strong's stays at home. In an interview with Phreeque, he calls it his "pride and joy," a two-headed superstar that, he said, "goes back sixty years. It was in the movie 'She-Freak' in 1967. Notice one head is normal and the other is mongoloid. My stepdad, Bobby Reynolds, has one with both heads perfect."

Bobby Reynolds' pickled punk was on display in Coney for several years, during the time when Reynolds was running his Freak Museum in the abandoned bank building on 12th, competing with Dick Zigun's famous and beloved Sideshows by the Seashore. But Reynolds' show closed down and, as far as I can tell, he moved back west, taking his perfect pickled punk with him.

When Bobby Reynolds was running that show, I met human blockhead Eddie Sudan, the show's ticket-taker, and interviewed him. Here is something I wrote up on August 30, 1997:

I took the D-Train out to Coney Island, to see the Sideshows by the Seashore. I got off the train at Brighton Beach and walked out under the shadowy roar of the El. I bought a hot knish at Mrs. Stahl’s, then followed the boardwalk to Coney, past the old Russians playing chess, one lone trumpeter blowing his song to the sea over the stretch of sun-bright sand.

I passed the Cyclone and the wonderful Wonder Wheel, Dante’s Inferno, and the Tilt-A-Whirl, heading straight for the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. I wanted to see the freaks.

Outside the sideshow, the banners rippled in the wind, painted with the images of performers both old and new. There was the Human Pincushion and the Lobster Boy, the Bearded Lady and the Two-Headed Baby.

Inside the crumbling little theatre, the sideshow was already going on. The Escape Artist stood onstage, wriggling his way out of a straight-jacket. Then came the Glass Eater, who chewed and swallowed an entire light bulb. Then Enchantra, the snake charmer, who did a sexy dance with her albino python. And then came Xenobia, the Bearded Lady, played by Jennifer Miller the Jewish lesbian-feminist performance artist. She had a long, thick beard and mustache and long hair. While juggling several gleaming machetes, Xenobia tried her best to raise our consciousness, “Hair is a symbol of power and that’s why men don’t want women to have too much in too many places.”

After the show, I stopped to talk with an old-timer who worked the Freak Museum across the street. His name was Eddie Sudan and he sucked on a soggy cigar and wore a gold-brocaded vest with a red velvet fez perched on top of his head. Standing before the banners for the Eubangi Beauties and the Giraffe-Neck Women of Burma, he told me about “Baby Dee, the harp-playing hermaphrodite. They were a classically trained musician," he said, using the ambiguous plural pronoun, "They would get on stage and play the harp, while the contortionist would go through her contortions. It was a beautiful show, one of the most beautiful thing's I've ever seen."

He told me about the illustrated man, Michael Wilson, “tattooed from the top of his head to the souls of his feet.”

Eddie said, “Mike told me once, some days, everything's beautiful. You step out into the sun, grab a handful of sand, walk into the surf, everything's beautiful. Other days, it's Hell, with everyone staring at you all the time and you know you can't hide everything."

Eddie paused a moment, looking out towards the boardwalk and the ocean beyond, thinking, I supposed, about the tattooed man and the body that he could not conceal.

"What's in your head?” Eddie asked then, of no one in particular, “What makes a person do that to themselves?"


Bryan said...

Wow -- I have a Baby Dee album and knew nothing of "their" sideshow past.

If you haven't read it already, you'd probably enjoy Rachel Adams's Sideshow USA.

Carol Gardens said...

Here's a picture of Michael Wilson. He was a really nice guy who died young:


And NYT srticle:


dirtygirl said...

Ripley's Museum on 42nd Street has started showing art in their gift shop. The first installation, which won't be up much longer, is by artist Melissa Graves - she's a freak for freaks and has a lot of paintings of the side show folks.

The art is coming down, but there are rumors of a Tshirt line. It's worth checking out : http://missgraves.wordpress.com/

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks for all the links everyone!

Bernie Mooney said...

Michael Wilson was a semi-regular at The Levee in the EV back in the 80s. My then-girlfriend used to wait on him. She thought he was a sweetheart.

And speaking of tattooed guys, this year is the 40th anniversary of the death of Horace Ridler, known to most as The Great Omi


If you like carny and sideshow slang. here is an extensive list:


NYC Rhymology said...

Some rhymology for the freaks here: NYC Rhymology. Thanks as always, Jeremiah.