The American Freakshow: From The Archives To The Streets Of Lower Manhattan


Jack Delano, a native Ukrainian trained as a photographer, graduated from college into the Great Depression.

He couldn’t have had better timing.

At a time when nearly one-in-five people were unemployed, Delano appealed to the Federal Art Project, a New Deal program that, in an ongoing effort to put people to work, sponsored public art throughout the country. Eventually, over 5,000 artists created 225,000 works of art for the program.

Hundreds of those works came from Delano. His charge from the Farm Security Administration was, like Robert Frank a decade later, to capture the American culture and people. He did.

In 1941, at the Vermont State Fair in the town of Rutland, he took the photo below.* (If you click it, you can see a larger version.)

At the Vermont state fair, Rutland (LOC)

It’s a remarkable picture – one that captures a moment and a culture in a way we don’t often see. Against the backdrop of the green Vermont hills and in front of a small town is a freak show, garish yet elegant; in front of that, an empty ride. Only a few people are visible – it’s the ride and the house at right that command attention.

But what makes the photo so wonderful are the signs – the typography, the illustrations, the commercialism. And the acts. The pain-proof man. The backward boy. And just to the right of the Roll-O-Plane, partly obscured by a light and over a drawing of a man holding his arm over two small figures – ‘Zip’ and ‘Pip’.

Meet Zip and Pip, born Jenny Lee and Elvira Snow. Sisters from Georgia, they suffered from microcephaly, a disorder that causes the circumference of the head to be abnormally small. In the language of the side show, they were “pinheads.” At the time Delano’s photograph was taken, they were 29, on tour from their regular gig at Coney Island. You can see them at about 1:40 in the video clip below, shot the prior year along the boardwalk.

But by 1941, Zip and Pip were already famous. Nine years before, they, along with another microencephalic named Schlitzie, were featured as characters in the now-infamous movie, Freaks. The fictional romance story was, at best, exploitative, featuring about a dozen actual sideshow performers. The film is now in the public domain.

It wasn’t well-received. Beyond the presence of the unsettling cast, the story line, which revolves around a trapeze artist marrying a midget for his money, preceded strict enforcement of Hollywood’s Production Code, when sexual innuendo and violence were considered acceptable. In the full version of the movie’s climax, the “freaks” descend upon the trapeze artist and mutilate her. One audience member blamed the film for causing her miscarriage.

Freaks has had a lasting impact on American culture, or, perhaps more accurately, subculture. It’s likely that if you hadn’t seen the movie before now, Zip and Pip may have looked familiar for another reason: Zippy the Pinhead.

Zippy the Pinhead is a cartoon by Bill Griffith, the eponymous character of which was based on Freaks‘ Schlitzie and another microencephalic, Zip the Pinhead. (Zip, also a featured act at Coney Island, died in 1926.) The cartoon amalgam of these real-life characters anchors a strip that’s not anchored by much else. Celebrating absurdity and non sequitors, it’s often baffling and rarely funny – but regularly amusing.

Which was the goal of the old side shows, too, of course – not to invoke laughs but instead bewildered amusement. The freaks were meant to send a chill down your spine, meant to get the girl you liked to bury her head into your shoulder. In a world without 4chan, they were all frisson, no irony.

As you may know, there still exists a sideshow at Coney Island, but, being in Brooklyn, it’s populated mostly by self-aware hipsters, exchanging their dignity for cachet. What you may not know is that the older, exploitative form of sideshow still exists in New York as well.

I used to live on Mulberry Street in Little Italy. Each September, the street becomes useless for residents, transformed into an ersatz Italian carnival, the Feast of San Gennaro, that covers the roadway and sidewalks with food booths, souvenir stands, and a healthy dose of kitsch.

The freak show arrives

Where we lived was near Canal Street at the entrance to Little Italy, on the second floor of a walk-up brownstone. In the year that we lived there, 2007, the blocks-long Feast of San Gennaro took over the parking lot across the street, transforming it into a side show for the duration of the nine-day festival.

This being New York City in early September, it was hot, meaning we needed to keep our windows open. And, given that we lived on the second floor, it meant that the recorded patter that blared from the loudspeakers atop the wagons contained the two sideshow acts – Little Lina and the Angel Snake Girl – blared directly into our apartment, in overlapping waves of feral enticement. For twelve hours a day, our living room sounded like this:

Finally, on the second-to-last day of San Gennaro, we ventured over, paid our dollar, and saw Little Lina.

The signs leading to her, enticing us with her exoticism, informed us that she was from Haiti, that she was so many inches tall, weighed so many pounds. We turned a quick corner, and there she was – not exotic, not interesting, just a tiny person sitting on a pillow, grinning broadly and grasping for any money we might care to offer. It was shockingly banal. We smiled, greeted her awkwardly, and left. During the time the trailer was across the street from us, we never saw anyone leave at the end of the day – the trailer was also her home.

Which brings me back to the photo that started all of this. Jack Delano, born Jacob Ovcharov near Kiev, found work in 1941 taking pictures of America for the American government. In doing so, he captured an incredibly American scene – a small fair in a small town at the brink of a tumultuous time.

And somewhere behind the scenes, down from Coney Island, were two women whose deformations gave them careers, of a sort. Made them entertainers, movie stars.

In Delano’s photo they’re unseen. The only people we see, torsos blocked by the orange and red signs that advertise the freaks, are the backs and legs of the folks from Rutland who, crossing the railroad tracks to get to the fair, paid their dimes looking to be amused.

* The Flickr Commons recently added a number of color photos from the era, including a number more Delano took at the same fair. I came across the photo above in this blog post about the collection.

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