Freaks Like Us

Buxom firestarters and dog-faced men: Frontier theater on the fringe

From the sound of things, audiences turned up for reasons beyond mere curiosity. A feature of each demonstration was the opportunity for local citizens to take the stage and attempt to ride the rickety bike. The results? The Minneapolis Tribune reported as follows: "At Harmonia Hall, yesterday, several in their enthusiasm in attempting to ride were rather severely tumbled around, in some instances causing fractured clothing and in others peeled shins and lamed legs."

And think about how much of a fuss Ron Athey's 1994 Patrick's Cabaret performance caused! It's surprising that Athey's 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life, which featuring him cutting another performer and blotting the wounds, would generate any complaints, as local audiences have long enjoyed a little sadism in the theaters.


Sideshow Slavery: The Unhappy Wildman The Minneapolis Tribune ran this story in August 1869, a rather light-hearted description of a relationship between a showman and his talent that, to modern sensibilities, is quite appalling:


WILD MAN OF MADAGASCAR--The itinerant showman who has been exhibiting "The Wild Man of Madagascar" and other remarkable curiosities in this city for the past week, yesterday pulled up stakes and started down the Milwaukee, St. Paul and Minneapolis Railroad for some of the towns on the line of this road. At the depot, he had some trouble with "The Wild Man of Madagascar," who, it appears, is nothing more nor less than a deformed Negro. The Negro said he "wouldn't have nuffin more to do wid dem dar fellers, and wouldn't go wid'em anyhow," but the showman couldn't see in that light, and seemed to be well accustomed to that kind of talk, and proceeded to pick him up by the arms, and throw him into the baggage car in the most business like manner, as though it was an every day occurrence. The darkey attempted to get out again, but a guard was placed over him to keep him in, and by this time he is probably the chief attraction in a poor show at some of the towns below us. The showman claims that the fellow had been drinking, and that it always affects him in that manner.


Lord of the Dance, the Early Years It seems worth mentioning briefly that 1872 saw the start of the Varieties Concert Saloon, one of the first "variety theaters" in the Twin Cities. The variety stage was a bawdier predecessor to vaudeville, featuring any number of animal acts, jugglers, "poppets," dancing girls, and comedians, usually playing to a drunken audience sprawled out on a sawdust floor. The Varieties opened with a dancing duel between local favorite John Deenan and Sam Shephard, the champion of the West. Both were clog dancers. Mr. Shephard's early, whimsical roots in the Midwest may surprise fans of the man's dark, surrealist plays of the 1970s, or his film career thereafter. That Mr. Jessica Lange lives on today, well into his 16th decade, is a miracle of modern medicine.


What About His Teeth? George Washington (or Part of Him, Anyway) Visits the Twin Cities Among the many attractions moving through Minneapolis in 1877 was an exhibit showing George Washington's knife, fork, razor, and camp lantern. Also on hand, according to an ad, was "a piece of his coffin." How this was obtained is not clear. Patriotism, it seems, has been making people do strange things for a long, long time.


The Music Was Terrible, but the Haunting Was Magnificent In September of 1878, the Minneapolis Tribune ran this review of a popular magic act:


A magnificent show has located itself on Washington Avenue in the Morrison building, and hourly exhibitions are given of ghostly figures which appear and disappear by well known principles of illusion. The exhibition of ghosts is accompanied by the reiteration of most execrable poetry, by a libel of an elocutionist, and some very heavy comedy acting. The crowds are drawn in by the most diabolical of music that ever went up from an amateur brass band. But the show of its kind is however good.


Blondes Have More Booze: May Fisk's Fire. While "British Blonde" acts had been part of Twin Cities entertainment since April 1871, when Eliza Webber's Blondes performed semi-clad readings from Hernani and Daughter of the Regiment, it is May Fisk that we have to thank for making such entertainment newsworthy. These acts, which were an early form of what later became known as burlesque, featured a bevy of buxom beauties, usually dressed in gauzy, form-revealing gowns. They would strike statuesque poses onstage and produce some painful amateur theatrics. (The audience, naturally, attended primarily for a peek at the female form; talent was secondary.)

In July 1879, in Stillwater, after a minor altercation with some of her performers concerning unpaid salaries, May Fisk (of May Fisk's Blondes) was arrested a little after midnight for drunk and disorderly conduct. According to a newspaper account, she was "locked in a cell at the calaboose, and a couple of hours later it was discovered that the interior of her cell was a mass of flames, the bedding having taken fire from some cause, and it is thought she set it on fire purposely, although she says it took fire in some manner from a candle which she left burning, and which she thinks was overturned by her dog, who was locked up with her."

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