An Autobiography: Chapter 21, Freak Shows

| 8/13/2012 1:22:16 PM

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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.

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