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Freakishly Good Entertainment
May 16, 2014 - Diane Laney Fitzpatrick
So freaks are back in, right? They were all the rage some years ago, with someone's great idea for a TV show. But I vaguely remember a big controversy about how the show portrayed the stars. Sideshow freaks were split on whether the show exploited them or whether anyone could possibly exploit sideshow freaks more than they themselves throughout history. Then you didn't hear anything and now I understand there's a new freak show, imaginatively called Freak Show on AMC that has real people capitalizing on their mutant body parts and those pesky facial tattoo decisions.
I watched a few episodes of Freak Show. The one where Boobzilla goes bra shopping with her gal pals, and the bearded woman is grossed out. And the one with the guy whose skin can be stretched out to about the length of a CVS receipt. The bearded woman said, "Ew." And the ones where someone is always swallowing something - knives, a curvy scythe, fire, electricity. The bearded woman is in her trailer coughing up a hairball, because she swallows a Barbie-sized wig every week.
It reminded me of one of the guilty pleasures of most kids in the 1960s, including me: the freak shows that were at our local fair, the Hubbard Homecoming. Incidentally, I don't know why it was called that, unless you were keen on coming home to dangerous rides, vein-clogging food, and white trash. These were traveling magnets for child molesters, runaways, carnies, and other human oddities, and they set up in every small town in Ohio. The freak show tent was at least labeled.
My friend Diane K and I were allowed to go to the Hubbard Homecoming without parental supervision, because our moms had teamed up in being the most laid back parents of the decade. Those two may have been involved in a contest to see who could get as close to sweet, loving neglect without breaking any laws.
So Diane K and I went to the Hubbard Homecoming every night it was open - and I think that was four. We couldn't wait to go to the freak show, which cost extra, but it was so worth it. I gladly gave up my chance to win a bear stuffed with construction debris, ride the Tilt-a-Whirl, and eat french fries cooked in 7-month-old grease, in order to see what was behind that tent.
When I told Diane K that I was writing a blog about our sneaking off to the freak show, she said, "Are you also going to talk about the Roundup, that sent volts of electricity through our little hands when we grabbed the railings that weren't grounded?"
No, I wrote about the Roundup already, focusing instead on the time that it broke at Conneaut Lake Park, and we were stuck on there, spinning like a hamster wheel from Hell while it poured down rain.
"Are you going to tell about the Pusher Man? Big old creep," Diane said.
As you can see, it's easy to allow a humor blog to go down a dark, sinister path. You wouldn't expect that, but it's true. So let's focus on the freak shows, which are at least a little bit funny. Once we paid to get in, the big tent flap was pulled aside and we got to go inside. There were a couple stages and the audience stood in the middle, shuffling our feet and kind of looking around, wondering which stage was up next.
I remember knife throwers, who are not freaks. I was only about 10 but even I thought, rip-off. That's a definite skill. A stupid skill, but not freakishly stupid. I remember Turtle Man who was basically a head and a torso, with some superfluous, small appendages. The Thalidomide baby years were a boon to these sideshows.
There was a giantly huge fat guy. He came out onto the stage, looked sadly at the audience, then turned on a record player and danced, while his fat globules jiggled and shook. Again, not a freak. There was a guy with some extra holes in his face that he claimed were extra eyes and noses. And I'm pretty sure he pounded nails in them. I don't remember many details, but I can still hear Extra Orifice Man saying in a very nasal voice, "My mothah wath perfectly normal. My fathah wath perfectly normal. My sisters were perfectly normal. My brothers were perfectly normal. My maternal aunts . . ."
As a young girl, I felt sorry for all of these people, that they had to resort to the Hubbard Homecoming freak tent to make a living. I knew it was perfectly normal for me to be fascinated by people who were different enough that they could charge money for it. But I was mature enough to know that I probably shouldn't be patronizing that part of the fair, since every single one of those people would have been much better off if the show closed down and they had to get real jobs. If they could find their way onto a makeshift stage, they could figure out a way to get into a chair to answer phones for someone. Well, except for Turtle Man. But I bet if he saved up, he could get some prosthetics.
I kept going back, because, well, I was a little kid. I probably needed a good smack, but Mother Laissez Faire certainly wasn't going to deliver it.
Diane K, who says she also remembers a sword swallowing lady who coughed, called it "pretty brutal" entertainment. "And we had a good childhood. Can you imagine taking your kids to a show that had deformed people on display?"
No, I can't. But our kids can watch Freak Show on AMC and get ripped off all on their own.
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Diane Laney Fitzpatrick is the author of Home Sweet Homes: How Bundt Cakes, Bubble Wrap, and My Accent Helped Me Survive Nine Moves. Her Just Humor Me column runs here on her website at www.DianeLaneyFitzpatrick.com.
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