Odds & Ends

In its own crazy way, 'The World Famous Insanitorium' keeps the sideshow alive

October 28, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

After Bobby Reynolds joins that Great Sideshow in the Sky, he wants his earthly remains permanently freeze-dried in a sitting position. One of his beloved exhibits will be placed on his lap. A hand will be extended, palm up, and there will be a slot through which visitors can drop coins. A "donation of silver" will produce a three-minute spiel about his collection of the "odd, unusual, strange, bizarre and macabre."

This much is certain: Visitors will get their money's worth. "I'll be performing even after death," he says with an irresistible sparkle in his eyes.

But why wait until then? Some of his favorite things are on display this week in a big red-and-white striped tent at Pearlstone Park. They include what Reynolds claims with a perfectly straight face is the head of Pancho Villa, preserved in a jar filled with formaldehyde and distilled water, and Bigfoot's Finger, which resembles a turkey neck covered with fur.

It's all part of The World Famous Insanitorium, one of the last remaining circus sideshows in the United States, and is jointly sponsored by the American Dime Museum (which has a collection of sideshow memorabilia) and the Maryland Institute College of Art.

There will be the usual collection of "gaffes" or fake oddities for display, although in a departure from tradition, there will be no live human freaks. There will be comic juggling and sword swallowing, a unicyclist and fire-eater. Performers will lie down on beds of nails, walk on glass and escape from straitjackets.

As befits an educational institution, there also will be a student art exhibit, film screenings, a lecture on the history of sideshows, panel discussions on the aesthetics of the abnormal, and the moral and political aspects of sideshows.

This merger of the academic and the entertaining is not as weird as it might seem. According to Jan Stinchcomb, MICA's associate dean of academic affairs, sideshows have their origins in the museums that traveled throughout the United States in the 19th century.

"They were very attuned to the public's fascination with the world around them, so they included natural history objects," she said. Sometimes, those objects had a sound, scientific basis, and sometimes they had more questionable origins, such as the so-called "Fiji Mermaid," who was such a popular draw that every self-respecting sideshow had to have its own. To some people of that era, a woman with the tail of a fish might have seemed no more implausible than that mind-boggling new invention, the light bulb.

That turns out to be a useful mindset to have around Bobby Reynolds because he doesn't draw overly precise distinctions between actual and enhanced facts. For instance, his age is a floating target. In August, he told a reporter in Los Angeles he was 67. Today, he claims to be 70, although a moment later he admits to habitually subtracting four years from his age.

Ditto for the number of times he has been married. A Los Angeles newspaper says it was 11. Today, it's either 9 or 10.

But, really, what does it matter, as long as it makes for a good story, and Reynolds can wrap one of his trademark one-liners around it? "I've gotten a lot of things at garage sales," he says, "including one of my ex-wives."

On an unseasonably cold day in Baltimore, Reynolds was supervising the erection of the tent, the placement of the banners trumpeting The Incredible Spidora and No-Middle Myrtle, and the unpacking of his treasures. He wore a sheepskin coat, the better, perhaps, for pulling the wool over our eyes.

He says he got his start in show-biz at age 11 as the sole supporter of his mother and four brothers and sisters. He shined shoes on Coney Island and, when he couldn't make it home to New Jersey, slept in a cardboard box under the boardwalk. His formal education ended at the third grade, and he is functionally illiterate. "I never let it get in my way," he says.

At age 13, he became a pitchman for a flea circus and can go into his routine at the drop of a dime. "We have fleas in costume, tiny little fleas pulling chariots, and they actually run a race," he says. "It is without a doubt the most amazing, the most fascinating sight the human eye has ever seen."

He worked for a time with a tap-dancing chicken (the bird had pieces of tape stuck to its feet and tried to scrape them off). He learned magic, ventriloquism and his mentor's philosophy: "Be an entertainer, kid, and then learn a few tricks."

For more than five decades, Reynolds has taken that advice to heart and set his priorities in the order specified. Perhaps that is why he tries to enhance even a fact as notoriously non-entertaining as his own death. Reynolds says he has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and has perhaps three or four months to live. This week in Baltimore will be his final appearance with his sideshow, he says.

Nonetheless, he's determined not to let his audience down. He has, he says, a good role model for enjoying the afterlife: his former partner, Jack Waller.

Before dying from lung cancer a few years ago, Waller asked to have a handful of his ashes lacquered to the bottom of a blade box, a contraption in which the "girl made of rubber" is sliced with about 10 steel cleavers that, miraculously, do her no harm.

Reynolds knew immediately why his partner made that request. "Now, Jack always has a beautiful woman lying on top of him."

Perhaps it's not surprising that Reynolds' own plans for his activities beyond the grave are not, well, grave.

"I'm going to write a book called Sex Life After Death," he says.

The Reynolds show goes on.

Sideshow

What: The World Famous Insanitorium

Where: Pearlstone Park, Preston and Cathedral streets

When: 3 p.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday; noon to midnight Saturday-Sunday

Admission: $2

Information: 410-225-2300 or www.mica .edu; 410-230-0263 or www.dimemuseum.com

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