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

February 01, 1997|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

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.

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.

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.

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."

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