The Breakfast Club (Contortionists, Freaks, and Circus Folk)

breakfast beers photo breakfastbeers.jpgBridgeport’s favorite son, Phineas T., is generally regarded as a fool, charlatan, and mountebank.  A hopped up midway barker skimming pennies from shill goaded rubes in transparent scams.

Well, yeah, he did that, but he wasn’t foolish at all.

He was the epitome of a Gilded Age entrepreneur, perhaps the first person to truly grasp the power of mass marketing and if we remember him today as a mere traveling showman we are underestimating the complexity of the task and the popularity of the medium before the rise of mechanical performance reproductions.

Before the phonograph and the movie there was only only live performance and if you travel in certain parts of the country you’ll find many wide spots in the road that sport an Opera House, Concert Hall, or Theater, mostly crumbling or re-purposed now but once thriving oases of culture.

Traveling companies produced plays and burlesques.  Visiting orchestras presented Art Music both Classic and Contemporary.  Famous authors (including one Samuel Clemens, a former Mississippi steam boat pilot who happened to settle in Hartford) would read selections from their books.

I’m going to stop here a moment and recall a particular performance.  At one reading Clemens stood to the lectern and plopped down a weighty and dusty tome with many clearly visible bookmarks and a sheaf of foolscap notes.  He opened the book, perused it, consulted his notes, perused the book again, shuffled the papers and made as if to speak…

And then shook his head and opened the book to another mark and repeated the act.

So it went for 45 minutes or an hour when with a flourish and great dignity he gathered his notes, closed the book and exited (probably stage right as that’s usually the one closest to the street door), without ever having said a word.  I’m not usually one for mime, but I think this probably the most brilliant comedy routine of the 19th Century.

I don’t reckon them times will ever come again. There never was a more bullier old ram than what he was. Grandfather fetched him from Illinois-got him of a man by the name of Yates-Bill Yates-maybe you might have heard of him; his father was a deacon-Baptist-and he was a rustler, too; a man had to get up ruther early to get the start of old Thankful Yates; it was him that put the Greens up to jining teams with my grandfather when he moved west. Seth Green was prob’ly the pick of the flock; he married a Wilkerson-Sarah Wilkerson-good cretur, she was-one of the likeliest heifers that was ever raised in old Stoddard, everybody said that knowed her. She could heft a bar’l of flour as easy as I can flirt a flapjack. And spin? Don’t mention it! Independent? Humph! When Sile Hawkins come a browsing around her, she let him know that for all his tin he couldn’t trot in harness alongside of her. You see, Sile Hawkins was-no, it warn’t Sile Hawkins, after all-it was a galoot by the name of Filkins-I disremember his first name; but he was a stump-come into pra’r meeting drunk, one night, hooraying for Nixon, becuz he thought it was a primary; and old deacon Ferguson up and scooted him through the window and he lit on old Miss Jefferson’s head, poor old filly. She was a good soul-had a glass eye and used to lend it to old Miss Wagner, that hadn’t any, to receive company in; it warn’t big enough, and when Miss Wagner warn’t noticing, it would get twisted around in the socket, and look up, maybe, or out to one side, and every which way, while t’ other one was looking as straight ahead as a spy-glass. Grown people didn’t mind it, but it most always made the children cry, it was so sort of scary. She tried packing it in raw cotton, but it wouldn’t work, somehow-the cotton would get loose and stick out and look so kind of awful that the children couldn’t stand it no way. She was always dropping it out, and turning up her old dead-light on the company empty, and making them oncomfortable, becuz she never could tell when it hopped out, being blind on that side, you see. So somebody would have to hunch her and say, “Your game eye has fetched loose, Miss Wagner dear”-and then all of them would have to sit and wait till she jammed it in again-wrong side before, as a general thing, and green as a bird’s egg, being a bashful cretur and easy sot back before company. But being wrong side before warn’t much difference, anyway; becuz her own eye was sky-blue and the glass one was yaller on the front side, so whichever way she turned it it didn’t match nohow. Old Miss Wagner was considerable on the borrow, she was. When she had a quilting, or Dorcas S’iety at her house she gen’ally borrowed Miss Higgins’s wooden leg to stump around on; it was considerable shorter than her other pin, but much she minded that. She said she couldn’t abide crutches when she had company, becuz they were so slow; said when she had company and things had to be done, she wanted to get up and hump herself. She was as bald as a jug, and so she used to borrow Miss Jacops’s wig-Miss Jacops was the coffin-peddler’s wife-a ratty old buzzard, he was, that used to go roosting around where people was sick, waiting for ’em; and there that old rip would sit all day, in the shade, on a coffin that he judged would fit the can’idate; and if it was a slow customer and kind of uncertain, he’d fetch his rations and a blanket along and sleep in the coffin nights. He was anchored out that way, in frosty weather, for about three weeks, once, before old Robbins’s place, waiting for him; and after that, for as much as two years, Jacops was not on speaking terms with the old man, on account of his disapp’inting him. He got one of his feet froze, and lost money, too, becuz old Robbins took a favorable turn and got well. The next time Robbins got sick, Jacops tried to make up with him, and varnished up the same old coffin and fetched it along; but old Robbins was too many for him; he had him in, and ‘peared to be powerful weak; he bought the coffin for ten dollars and Jacops was to pay it back and twenty-five more besides if Robbins didn’t like the coffin after he’d tried it. And then Robbins died, and at the funeral he bursted off the lid and riz up in his shroud and told the parson to let up on the performances, becuz he could not stand such a coffin as that. You see he had been in a trance once before, when he was young, and he took the chances on another, cal’lating that if he made the trip it was money in his pocket, and if he missed fire he couldn’t lose a cent. And by George he sued Jacops for the rhino and got jedgment; and he set up the coffin in his back parlor and said he ‘lowed to take his time, now. It was always an aggravation to Jacops, the way that miserable old thing acted. He moved back to Indiany pretty soon-went to Wellsville-Wellsville was the place the Hogadorns was from. Mighty fine family. Old Maryland stock. Old Squire Hogadorn could carry around more mixed licker, and cuss better than most any man I ever see. His second wife was the widder Billings-she that was Becky Martin; her dam was deacon Dunlap’s first wife. Her oldest child, Maria, married a missionary and died in grace-et up by the savages. They et him, too, poor feller-biled him. It warn’t the custom, so they say, but they explained to friends of his’n that went down there to bring away his things, that they’d tried missionaries every other way and never could get any good out of ’em-and so it annoyed all his relations to find out that that man’s life was fooled away just out of a dern’d experiment, so to speak. But mind you, there ain’t anything ever reely lost; everything that people can’t understand and don’t see the reason of does good if you only hold on and give it a fair shake; Prov’dence don’t fire no blank ca’tridges, boys. That there missionary’s substance, unbeknowns to himself, actu’ly converted every last one of them heathens that took a chance at the barbacue. Nothing ever fetched them but that. Don’t tell me it was an accident that he was biled. There ain’t no such a thing as an accident. When my uncle Lem was leaning up agin a scaffolding once, sick, or drunk, or suthin, an Irishman with a hod full of bricks fell on him out of the third story and broke the old man’s back in two places. People said it was an accident. Much accident there was about that. He didn’t know what he was there for, but he was there for a good object. If he hadn’t been there the Irishman would have been killed. Nobody can ever make me believe anything different from that. Uncle Lem’s dog was there. Why didn’t the Irishman fall on the dog? Becuz the dog would a seen him a coming and stood from under. That’s the reason the dog warn’t appinted. A dog can’t be depended on to carry out a special providence. Mark my words it was a put-up thing. Accidents don’t happen, boys. Uncle Lem’s dog-I wish you could a seen that dog. He was a reglar shepherd-or ruther he was part bull and part shepherd-splendid animal; belonged to parson Hagar before Uncle Lem got him. Parson Hagar belonged to the Western Reserve Hagars; prime family; his mother was a Watson; one of his sisters married a Wheeler; they settled in Morgan county, and he got nipped by the machinery in a carpet factory and went through in less than a quarter of a minute; his widder bought the piece of carpet that had his remains wove in, and people come a hundred mile to ‘tend the funeral. There was fourteen yards in the piece. She wouldn’t let them roll him up, but planted him just so-full length. The church was middling small where they preached the funeral, and they had to let one end of the coffin stick out of the window. They didn’t bury him-they planted one end, and let him stand up, same as a monument. And they nailed a sign on it and put-put on-put on it-sacred to-the m-e-m-o-r-y-of fourteen y-a-r-d-s-of three-ply-car--pet-containing all that was-m-o-r-t-a-l-of-of-W-i-l-l-i-a-m-W-h-e-”

Now consider the current nature of the music industry.  With a glut of digital material flooding the market (interestingly enough, CDs were introduced because the profit margins on Vinyl were deemed insufficent and so they introduced a new medium that was easily duplicated and virtually indestructible because they thought they could charge a premium) RIAA mega-corps are reduced to squeezing pennies from “pirates” (arrgh) and plotting and scheming to seize some of Google’s zillions in corrupt courts where they will simply be out-bid (an honest politician? one that stays bought).

Nope, the only way to actually make money, at least for the musician, is a live performance tour.

There are incredible logistics that go into producing that spectacle, the Gaffers and Grips, the Lighting and Sound, the Pyro Technicians, Caterers, Bookers, and Travel Agents.

P.T.’s Circus Train was an idea perfect for the time, and the Circus Parade as the Tents went up a master stroke of marketing.  Nor was it unique, indeed Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show was kind of the benchmark to which P.T. aspired.

The show business has all phases and grades of dignity, from the exhibition of a monkey to the exposition of that highest art in music or the drama which secures for the gifted artists a world-wide fame princes well might envy.- P. T. Barnum

It’s not that Phineas didn’t aspire to a more erudite audience.  After all he introduced Jenny Lind and bought and expanded the American Museum

Barnum opened his museum on January 1, 1842 to create a place where families could go for wholesome, affordable entertainment, but his success drew from the fact that he knew how to entice an audience. Its attractions made it a combination zoo, museum, lecture hall, wax museum, theater and freak show, that was, at the same time, a central site in the development of American popular culture. Barnum filled the American Museum with dioramas, panoramas, “cosmoramas,” scientific instruments, modern appliances, a flea circus, a loom run by a dog, the trunk of a tree under which Jesus’ disciples sat, a hat worn by Ulysses S. Grant, an oyster bar, a rifle range, waxworks, glass blowers, taxidermists, phrenologists, pretty-baby contests, Ned the learned seal, the Feejee Mermaid (a mummified monkey’s torso with a fish’s tail), midgets, Chang and Eng the Siamese twins, a menagerie of exotic animals that included beluga whales in an aquarium, giants, Grizzly Adams’s trained bears and performances ranging from magicians, ventriloquists and blackface minstrels to adaptations of biblical tales and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

At its peak, the museum was open fifteen hours a day and had as many as 15,000 visitors a day. Some 38 million customers paid the 25 cents admission to attend the museum between 1841 and 1865. The total population of the United States in 1860 was under 32 million.

This way to the Egress

In some ways the circus has always been an egalitarian institution, in Roman times it was one of the few entertainments not segregated by sex and to those who claim Astley the founder of this particular entertainment, fancy horse tricks, freaks, and trained animal acts have an ancient lineage indeed.

Traveling troupes of Troubadores, Actors, and other performers were quite common in Medieval Europe.  Lenin wanted “the circus to become ‘the people’s art-form’, with facilities and status on a par with theatre, opera and ballet.”

Mel Brooks says-

If it wasn’t for Jews, fags, and gypsies, there would be no theater.

In European Circus there’s a little more attention to overall structure and narrative than mere displays of athleticsm and while the setting of Pétrouchka is supposedly a Shrovetide Fair the atmosphere conveyed by Michel Fokine and the Ballets Russes has a decidedly ‘circus-like’ feel from the Midway, Carousel, and Ferris Wheel, down to the dancing Bears (Bears!  Godless killing machines!).

Punch is not a sympathetic character, “Whatever his name, he is a trickster, a rebel, and a wife beater. He enforces moral justice with a slap stick, speaks in a high-pitched, squeaky voice, and argues with the devil. His plays were formulaic and subversive. They repeated key scenes from one play to another. The plays usually ended with a dog, a policeman, or the devil dragging him away.”

Pétrouchka lusts after the Ballerina and resents the Charlatan who is always pulling his (ahem) strings.  He interrupts the Ballerina seducing the Moor (women in theater being nothing but whores all too willing to have sex with brown people) who chases him and eventually splits open his head, showing the sawdust and rags with which it is filled (he’s a puppet after all).  The Charlatan exposes this to the audience who feel no empathy for the real performer and the ghost of Pétrouchka appears to thumb his nose from the roof at him.  The Charlatan flees with the angry (stage) audience in hot pursuit leaving you, the (real?) audience wondering-

And I paid $150 for that?  Not including dinner, drinks, and transit?  What was I thinking?

Of course if you’re in exile in Moscow like Snowden you can pay in devalued Rubles to watch the Bolshoi-

Today’s edition is offered strictly for entertainment value, post holiday ennui has left me, uninspired-

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141)

This Day in History

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