Chronicling more human oddities

Book: James Taylor, author of `Shocked and Amazed!' wants people to take their curiosity of the strange and bizarre a little more seriously.

January 25, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Even if we humans don't want to admit it, "we are curious monkeys," says state bureaucrat, poet, teacher and sideshow historian James Taylor.

A chronicler of human oddities, and co-founder of Baltimore's American Dime Museum, Taylor readily admits his fascination with living torsos, lobster people and midgets. And he challenges anyone unwilling to admit to sharing that fascination to come clean.

A sideshow devotee from an early age, Taylor, now 51, was inspired to document the world of novelty and variety entertainment after hearing the strange-but-true tales of a veteran carny. The first of a series of periodicals edited by Taylor and Kathleen Kotcher, Shocked and Amazed! - On & Off the Midway, appeared in 1995. The journal collided head-on with the emerging popular sensibility of trash talk-show host Jerry Springer, promoter Jim Rose's grotesque traveling sideshows, and outsider artist Joe Coleman's paintings that often depict subjects on the margins of society.

It might not be admissible in polite company, but the appeal of popular entertainment, real or concocted, tasteful or not, can't be denied. Nor has the sideshow motif ebbed since the rise of the new sideshow in the early 1990s. Carnivale, an HBO pilot about a traveling carnival in the 1930s, is in the works, and not a month goes by without Taylor being called by some cable network seeking his expertise.

And now, after a three-year hiatus, Shocked and Amazed! (Dolphin-Moon/Atomic Books, $19.95) has returned, brimming with tales of people such as Percilla "The Monkey Girl" Bajano, a "cavalcade of cross-gender cuties," and Howard Bone, a man who made his living inviting people to choke him, and wrote My Life with Geeks, Freaks & Vagabonds in the Carny Trade.

The newly released Vol. 6 of Shocked & Amazed! will be celebrated with a signing tonight at Atomic Books in Hampden. A benefit show for the publication by Harley Newman, who bills himself as the "Professional Lunatic," will follow at Frazier's on the Avenue, 919 W. 36th St. Newman, of New Bern, Pa., is a performer in the sideshow tradition who balances on a bed of four nails, stretches out on a futon of barbed wire and breathes fire. He appears on the club and college circuit.

In his introduction to Vol. 6, Taylor champions unfettered curiosity, and bemoans society's false distinction between the notions of exploitation and education. "What's truly bad - saddening - in all this is the separation between the two, that and the Calvinist guilt over fun and where it leads, guilt over our primal, bald-faced simian desire to stare and marvel and perhaps, thereby, oops, learn a thing or two."

In discussing his new book with The Sun, Taylor challenges the public to be a little more open-minded - and thereby honest - about its curiosity.

What underlies our uneasy attitude toward the sideshow world and other fringe cultures?

Any time you hear anybody complain about a certain type of performance and a certain type of entertainment, about things being low brow, ultimately it becomes a question of class distinctions.

It's the whole notion of upper class and lower class and what their respective tastes are supposed to be as opposed to what their tastes are. There's the old notion that once you reach a certain income, your tastes are supposed to become high brow by somebody's definition. You're supposed to enjoy the symphony now vs. liking Jerry Springer and bowling.

Do you think there's a greater recognition today that the line between high brow and low brow is artificial?

Very much so. It's a key point being made with post-modernist writing and artwork in general. [On the other hand,] there's always going to be dividing lines no matter what you do. But what's broadening, or changing, maybe, are those things that are going to be exploitable in what markets. At the same time, what's termed exotic is getting scarier and scarier.

Are there limits to where curiosity should take you?

If you're not causing demonstrable injury, my line is "go for it."

How do you perceive a sideshow performer's quality of life?

The arguments go round and round. I'll never say that being looked at from an early age, that that doesn't do something to one. But the question becomes, not whether that's cruel or exploitive -- that's a judgment made by someone on the outside. My question becomes, `What does that do to the way they behave with everyone else?' [The late Jeanie Tomaini, who performed as The World's Only Living Half-Girl], was one of the sweetest human beings I ever knew.

And Percilla, who was covered in hair from head to toe, had a real strong sense of who was trying to get over on her. ... The shows had the most trouble from "do-gooders" who believed that they knew what was best for the performers. I'm sorry, they are the Taliban. You should just talk to the performers.

Why do you believe that entertainment and education are one and the same?

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