Grit Blogs > You Won't Believe It

An Autobiography: Chapter 21, Freak Shows

In the 1930s, there were some weird but interesting promotions created by retail stores in Covington, and we newsboys loved them all. I remember one, where an automobile was driven down the middle of Madison Avenue with, supposedly, no driver in it. At least you could not see anyone behind the wheel! We could never figure that one out. That brought back memories of the clown act at the circus where about 15 midgets were in one small car, and as the car went around the circus grounds, they came flying out one at a time, and soon the spectators, all in one loud voice, were counting the numbers!

I think the most fascinating promotion I remember was the “mechanical man” in a store window who moved like a robot, and no matter what the kids did to get his attention, he always remained in that strange state of automation we could not fathom. His lips stayed closely tight and no light came from his eyes. I don’t remember the store, but there were advertising cards on an easel, and every few minutes he would change the cards so the spectators could read the advertising message.

In later years, one of my favorite books was The Human Comedy by William Saroyan, which I still read periodically. It was made into a movie in 1943, the same year the book was published, and starred a young Mickey Rooney. Actually, the book was not a comedy but a human drama about an ordinary family in a small town during World War II. A delightful character in the book is Ulysses, the little brother, who was fascinated when he saw Mr. Mechano advertising Dr. Bradford’s Tonic in a store window. On one easel was the sign: “Mr. Mechano – The Machine Man – Half Machine, Half Human. More Dead Than Alive. $50.00 if you can make him smile. $500 if you can make him laugh.” The man was the most incredible thing Ulysses had seen in all of his four years.

Human Comedy 

There were Freak Shows that went from town to town, too, renting an open store for a few days and advertising their weird oddities. Looking back, I wonder how such dirty, demeaning acts were allowed to be displayed to the public. I remember one such show on Pike Street, right in the heart of Covington, with reputable stores on either side. One of the attractions was advertised as “See the Geek” – a dirty man in a cage with a long beard, who gave the complete impression he was not acting. He scared everyone trying to get out, and sometimes they would throw him a live chicken, which he killed and started eating. Another attraction was the half-man-half-woman. I can’t describe this poor soul, only to say that men went on one side of the curtain to view the specimen, women on another side. There are many horrible things that still exist in America and the world today, but thank goodness such displays as these are part of America’s sordid past.

There was a shoe store on Pike Street in Covington that had an attraction in 1938 that amazed and interested everyone. “Robert Wadlow, The Tallest Man in History.” Mr. Wadlow (1918-1950) still retains that title, and for weeks before his visit, one of his size 37 shoes was on display in the store window. He toured the country with his father for The International Shoe Company. Robert Wadlow’s maximum height before he died was 8 feet 11.1 inches. When he appeared in Covington, at the age of 20, he sat on the top of an automobile parked in front of the store. I remember he was a very pleasant young man and talked to the people.

Robert Wadlow 

Robert Wadlow, the tallest man in the world. 

Shoe 

Robert Wadlow’s shoe on display. 

In 1957, Georgianna and I visited a side show and met one of the heaviest men in the world − Robert Hughes. He was born the same year as I was, 1926, and died a year after we met him. He weighed 1,069 pounds. He was seated on a park bench and wore overalls. When we saw him, there was no one else present. While chatting with him, he mentioned that he liked country music. I told him about the “Country Music Scrapbooks” I published each year, and would you believe, he bought these, mail order, from radio stations! He wanted to know all about the stars and the Grand Ole Opry, and he was thrilled when I told him about Verona Lake Ranch, explaining that Georgianna was the MC. She found another “big” admirer that day.

Fat Man 

Robert Hughes, one of the heaviest men in the world, weighing 1,069 pounds. 

One of the great events of my childhood occurred in 1938, when I was 12 years old. I loved music and knew the popular songs, and I always listened to “The Hit Parade” on Saturday night. My favorite song that year was Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine.” Artie Shaw, my favorite of the Big Bands, had the hit recording. One summer morning before going to pick up my newspapers, I was going through a second-hand store on Pike Street and there was an old dark upright piano for sale. I hit some of the keys and could hardly control my emotions when I had the idea of buying that piano. The price was $10, and I hurried home to get Mom’s consent. She said if I had the money for the piano and for the moving of it, she thought it was a grand idea; she said it would give the Moore family a little “high-tone class.”

Then the problem of how in the world we would get that big upright piano into a second-story apartment arose. This was finally resolved, and at the cost of another $10, a mover, after studying the premises, said, “We can put a hoist on the roof, remove the window casing, and bring it in through the window.” Thank goodness that front room had a high window, which the piano barely fit through.

Piano 

The piano was ugly because someone had painted it black, and the paint was cracked. So I took the piano apart, laid out the keys on the floor, keeping them in order, and went to work with paint and varnish remover. Lo and behold, I soon discovered the wood was cherry − and it was beautiful! This took weeks, since I only had a few hours each day to work on it, but when it was put back together, I was the happiest kid on the block. I don’t remember having the piano tuned, but I am sure that was done.

At the time, I was just beginning to know George Gershwin’s songs, and it wasn’t long until he was my idol − and still is. When I started writing songs, I wanted to be another Gershwin. I always dreamed big! But here’s the unbelievable connection with my piano and Gershwin. I later learned that George Gershwin’s first piano, which he also got at the age of 12, was brought through a second-story window, just as mine had been! We owned that piano until we moved to Colorado in 1960.

You can see Gershwin’s piano being hoisted through the window in the Gershwin 1945 biographical film, “Rhapsody In Blue,” starring Robert Alda and the brilliant pianist and raconteur, Oscar Levant, who was Gershwin’s best friend and foremost interpreter of his music. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Oscar Levant and talking with him about Gershwin in 1945.

Levant LP Cover 

Don’t miss the next chapter: Lighter Than Air