Alive On the Inside

The inspiration to develop a magazine dedicated to circus and sideshow culture can be attributed to absorbing issues of Weird New Jersey, which I discovered around the same time I was attending the Coney Island Sideshow School, and later being introduced to James Taylor’s Shocked and Amazed! series.  One Summer day in 2006 while hanging out with Barry Silver [a great friend and someone I performed with on many occasions], I was sitting on his couch in a rather lovely section of West Philadelphia, heavily engrossed in a recently purchased issue of Weird New Jersey.  A relatively new feature that had instantly caught my attention when I had first seen it was an article written by a woman who had a relative that used to take portraits back when such a service was sought by many for that cherished momento.  However, the figures in these particular photos happened to be sideshow performers, mainly those who were born with some sort of physical disfigurement.  It was such an honor to not only be able to look at them, but also to learn about that person, their life and their experience being exhibited.  Often society believes that these individuals were exploited, and sadly there are cases were such a thing took place.  To me, the so-called freaks of the sideshow are perhaps the most beautiful people in the world.  They were selected by Nature to challenge what is normal and made exorbant amounts of money doing nothing more than taking advantage of people’s curiosity.

As the thoughts multiplied over the next couple of weeks, I began to take note of the amount of times certain subjects were mentioned in the collection of WNJ issues I had.  Being born and raised in the Garden State means having to hear all of the terribly jokes and being stereotyped by television shows that portray characters of a select demographic.  The parts of New Jersey that I know and love are not the destinations pitched to tourists or the places everyone goes because they are familiar and offer family fun.  The New Jersey I know is full of haunted woods, strange beings and urban legends.  At one time it had a significant population of midgets and albinos, though it is hard to say if that statistic still rings true, and it had been used as the Winder Quarters for the Ringling Circus.  Learning that quite a number of sideshow performers were also born in the same state as me gave me a small sense of belonging, and that is what finally motivated me to want to share the information.

Over the course of the next few months, I collected research data from a number of different sources and started to form what I hoped would become a functional piece of literature that discussed various aspects of circus and sideshow.  It was then I discovered that Philadelphia, the city I had moved to at the beginning of the year, happened to be where American circus was born.  The information was almost overwhelming as once again I felt a connection to the history that many do not even know about.  Every time I learned something new I become more determined to report on my findings.  Collaborating with Barry, we both wrote articles and arranged the whole thing in a two column format.  Seeing the result of our combined effort was proud moment for the both of us because we believed in the project and had worked hard to create the magazine.  Excitement filled us both on day it was printed – we went with black and white to be as cost efficient as possible.

Holding the very first copies of Issue 1, the name emblazoned in bold black lettering across the cover, I was slightly overwhelmed as reality was settling in.  The title is one that can often be found in sideshow advertising, after all, it is what intrigued the public as much as the banners which depicted all sorts of strange looking people or animals.  Not only could one go inside a tent and see them, but they were alive as well.  It was that promise of a living, breathing being which may have had a skin condition or birth defect but was painted as an unknown create from unexplored regions that lured the people in.  This premise is what I based the decision to call the magazine Alive On the Inside, and the image I chose is one that I have seen when attending various carnivals. The Snake Girl is an attraction said to have the head of a beautiful women with the body of an ugly snake – a fact that one learns from listening to the grind played outside her tent – and that is exactly what is seen if one pays the admission fee.  While I knew what to expect, partially because I learned about Snake Girl long before I ever encountered her, but also due to having seen the very blatant sign which tells visitors what they are going to see.  The reactions of people not only amused me but inspired prose that also appears in the magazine.

December 30 2005, on my 25th birthday Barry and I gathered with friends in a beautiful West Philadelphia house affectionately called the H-Box and distributed Alive On the Inside to those present, which was followed by sideshow acts and generally merriment.  The first edition of Issue 1 was limited to 50 copies, which were sold and traveled to various parts of the globe.  The second printing, which had a slightly larger cover photo, was limited to 30 copies that immediately sold out – A lack of funding prevented us from creating more copies.  Creating a second issue took more time, but once again, when it was finished and a printed copy was in my hands, I definitely felt as though I was actively doing something to preserve a history that I was a very small part of.  Losing my best friend, partner and all around excellent showman in 2006 had left me with a gaping emptiness, because Jon was the only person I had known who had lived and worked for the circus.  The magazine was my way of honoring him in thanks for all he had done for me, and while I was glad to give copies to friends and trade for other magazines, I was using what little money I had to print the issues and had other financial responsibilities to think about.  While I had been working on restoring both issues and creating a third,  my computer crashed and all documents associated with the project disappeared.

The desire to continue is not as strong as it once was, and that is due to being disheartened that what I perceived to be a caring and supportive community that turned out to be rather corrupt.  Monetary reward often motivates performers over love of the art, and they will say practically anything to get that fucking money, which is something that never motivated me.  Using other people, making friends with more well-known performers to brag about it ride their coat tails, outright lying to impress rubes and generally acting better than others because people know your name turns my stomach sour.  Apparently speaking the truth about what really goes on in the sideshow world is frowned upon and somehow makes me jealous.  Perhaps my motive is not as malicious as it may appear, and I feel that my opinions are justified when I have been a victim of others and generally seem to be ignored as a presence in a community I have supported for well over a decade.  There should be an understanding of the fact that I was a part of a troupe that was very traditional in their beliefs, where putting on the best performance possible was more important than being sore from constant practice or putting ourselves at risk for the sake of entertainment.

What remains of Issue 3 reminds me that I still believe in what sideshow used to be, and I am still proud that I have skills at my disposal which belong to a dying art.  Someone once told me that the reason people do not take sideshow seriously is because there are many who have turned it into a joke.  Another wise man commended my efforts and said there are not enough things that document the illustrious history of a culture that was once prevalent in a country that now has access to whatever it wants, whenever it wants due to the Internet.  There are plenty of amazing sites which are still dedicated to keeping the memories alive, though sadly many of the figures that are filled with this knowledge grow old and pass on.  What they leave behind continues to inspire and remind me that curiosity will always exist, and there is going to be someone out there who has never heard of sideshow.  Perhaps some day I will be less disillusioned and return to this project, but for the moment I will be content in being able to share what little I have in the hope that it will give someone else that same feeling of amazement that I felt when I first discovered sideshow.

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