Freaks Like Us

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

The Twin Cities, alas, have a short theatrical memory. Even the now-sainted Star Tribune critic Mike Steele, who covered theater in the Cities for 30 years, never seemed to get around to the really interesting stuff. Where, as an example, are the Fiji Cannibals? Why no mention of the fact that, at the end of the Victorian era, the State Fair exhibited an embalmed whale for the edification of fairgoers? Who among us remembers that the diminutive Tom Thumb repeatedly visited Minneapolis in the 1890s, to universal acclaim?

Call it the proto-Fringe. The first 30 years of Twin Cities theater often seemed like a celebration of the odd. Early Twin Cities newspapers offered occasional commentary on popular theater, usually with a dismissive sniff. There is also a voluminous compilation of variety performances collected by Lawrence J. Hill for his 1979 Ph.D. thesis from the University of Minnesota (with the unsensational title A History of Variety-Vaudeville in Minneapolis, Minnesota, From Its beginning to 1900). Hints of the Twin Cities' early years of theatrical grotesquery pop up here and there in Frank M. Whiting's Minnesota Theatre: From Old Fort Snelling to the Guthrie. Otherwise, these early performances have been lost to history.

Well, no longer. Here, in preparation for the Fringe Festival, this year's own pageant of the outrageous, we take a glance back at a few of the more extraordinary stories from the days when the frontier seemed to be one big sideshow. (The earlier carnival barking of the good Doctor Hill is the source for many of our tales here; it can be found at the Minnesota Historical Society.) Those with faint constitutions and those who are easily offended should be warned now: These are stories to raise gooseflesh and inflame the senses, and you would be wise to find yourself in a recumbent position before you begin to read.

Life on the Frontier is Such a Drag What to do if you are stationed at a fortress at the mouth of the Mississippi, the year is 1821, and you are bored to distraction? The answer, long a tradition both in the military and in alternative theater, is to dress in women's clothes and prance about onstage. That's what one 16-year-old drummer boy did in a performance of Pizarro, or the Death of Rollo. "We were one of the performers," reminisced the drummer boy, Joseph R. Brown, in the Henderson Democrat in 1856, badly abusing the editorial we. "We done Elvira."

Even years later, the critics' knives remained sharp.

St. Paul's Weekly Pioneer & Democrat had this to say, reflecting on young Brown's performance, which they had not witnessed:

 

He measures nearly six feet in height and about as much in circumference....We don't think that even thirty-five years ago he was very delicately formed or strikingly handsome. The idea of his representing tragedy at any time in his life, in any character, strikes us as being sublimely ridiculous, but to attempt the impersonation of a female character....Why, Brown, this was the most graceless, impudent imposture ever perpetrated.

 

Getting Wood: Lumberjacks Force Their Way Into Minneapolis's First Minstrel Show "Our citizens are not generally aware of the true character of this band of Concert Singers now performing in Woodman's Hall, Minneapolis," began an advertisement in the St. Anthony Falls Evening News on April 7, 1858. "The phrase 'Ethiopian Minstrels' has been too often (and too justly) associated with noise, vulgarity, and low aims, and it is but simple justice to say this Troupe is just the opposite of all this."

The ad sought to rescue the reputation of ministrelsy, then one of this country's most popular forms of entertainment. The acts themselves consisted, for the most part, of white men with burnt-cork-blackened faces performing burlesques of African-American folk songs and cruel satires of "authentic" African-American behavior. But it is hard to imagine that the young city of Minneapolis, a coarse place then mostly supported by the lumber industry, would be overly concerned with the morality of a minstrel show that looked to be a rollicking good time. Perhaps the ad was intended to preserve the reputation of Minnesota Chief Justice Lafayette Emmett, as this particular group of minstrels, the Melodem Troupe, featured Emmett's brother Dan.

Whatever the relative merits of the Melodem Troupe, their Woodman's Hall appearances generated considerable excitement when, on the first night, a group of lumberjacks showed up and loudly demanded free admission. The bewildered ticket seller gave them comps, and the following night a larger contingent of burly sawyers arrived, also demanding admission without charge. When the ticket seller refused, the lumberjacks forced their way into the building. Having had advance warning of a possible ruckus, the staff inside Woodman's Hall bolted the doors, and, when the woodsmen began to beat on them, armed themselves and the audience with clubs. The doors held, however, and the lumberjacks eventually wandered home. While the Melodem Troupe would continue to play for one more evening, the woodcutters did not repeat their performance, as the hall was guarded by a constable and 50 persons enlisted to help keep the peace.

 

Professor Anklebreaker: The Velocipede Takes the Twin Cities Stage The bicycle came to the Twin Cities in 1869. Nowadays, bicycles are so commonly seen hung in garages and clipped onto the fronts of our city busses that we don't think twice about the bike lanes that ring our lakes and flank our thoroughfares. In the 1860s, however, they were very much a theatrical phenomenon. Scores of self-proclaimed "professors" took to Twin Cities stages, showing standing-room-only audiences the essentials of riding the velocipede, a bony, wooden bicycle that would eventually earn the nickname "The Boneshaker."

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."

Fisk then moved on to Minneapolis, where she and her performers continued to squabble over payroll issues. A Tribune report of her Minneapolis performance has her blondes telling jokes and taking up poses, until, at the end, Fisk herself offered a temperance lecture "with an eloquence probably born of bitter experience."

 

Was Joe Biernat in the Elephant Licensing Business? The circus was big business in the Twin Cities: Press accounts show that three or more troupes typically passed through town each summer. And our fair city, keen then as now to the financial bottom line of the culture, did as much as possible to wring every last dollar out of the traveling enterprises. This led circus pressman Charles H. Day to pen these dismissive words in 1885 in the Sporting and Theatrical Journal:

 

I'm sorry to hear that both Sells Bros. and Forepaugh paid an extravagant license at Minneapolis. It would do no good to state the amount here. It would be a good day's receipts for a small show. It would have been better to let Minneapolis go without a circus....Merchants and the local authorities of towns and cities will often appropriate large sums to subsidize horse trots, balloon ascensions, displays of fireworks, agricultural exhibitions, and the like, to make business. But when a showman comes along and assumes all risks, some of these same parties will put an obstacle in the way, in the way of a robbing license. Skip the high license towns, Mr. Managers, and let the councils of those burghs encourage the cultivation and growth of grass on the highways.

Get Your Freak On: The Dime Museums September of 1885 saw the start of Sackett and Wiggins's Dime Museum, located at 214-216 Hennepin Ave., and featuring a Curiosity Hall, Monster Museum, Lecture Room, and the Luxurious Theatorium. The headline performer for the museum's opening week: Che-Mah, "Barnum's Famous Chinese Dwarf."

It is hard nowadays to imagine the high weirdness that was the dime museum, a nationwide fad for assembling vast collections of oddities and displaying them all under one roof. Luckily, a Minneapolis Journal article from the time offers some marvelous hints as to Sackett and Wiggins's contents: "The top floor has become the home of the freaks, big and little freaks, old freaks and young freaks, freaks human and freaks of nature. The next floor below it is devoted to the exhibition of birds and animals."

Sackett and Wiggins's Dime Museum specialized in bringing traveling acts to Minneapolis, and in their first year offered Punch and Judy shows, Zulu warriors, Chinese giants, an elastic-skinned man, a three-legged man, a human skeleton, and a living mermaid. In its second year, the dime museum grew even more creative, offering a series of bizarre conventions, including an albino beauty show and a "fat people's convention," where topics under discussion included "The Width of Doors." Oddly, in their grandly named Theatorium, the Dime Museum also offered a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado.

Sackett and Wiggins would run into competition in 1892 with the arrival of the Palace Museum, which opened with a headliner far more impressive than Sackett and Wiggins's presentation of the Chinese Dwarf. This was a Russian youth by the name of Fedor Jeftichew, who suffered from hypertrichosis, or excessive hair growth. Because his face and body were covered by a thick mat of brown hair, Jeftichew was better known by his stage name, Jo-Jo the Dog Faced Boy. Jeftichew had been an employee of Barnum for many years, becoming a worldwide sensation, despite Jeftichew's ongoing refusal to bark on command.

Not only did the Palace Museum offer a better headliner, but its promotions tended to be wilder. Where Sackett and Wiggins might offer a convention of fat people, for example, the Palace offered a "crawling fat woman." Also present was a two-headed wild giant, Joltum ("He Catches Cannon Balls"), and Josephine Myrtle, the dancing four-legged woman. Occasionally at the Palace it was possible to see women boxing kangaroos, and roller-skating horses. But the museum outdid itself in 1895 when it showed a waxwork re-creation of a notorious local murder, including the buggy and mare used to transport the victim to the scene of the crime. Eventually, the Palace added to the exhibit, tracking down the gallows used to execute the ringleader in the murder, as well as a pirated Edison recording of the ringleader's last words. This, unarguably, was a show that killed.

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