The James Taylor I speak of is the publisher-impresario of Shocked and Amazed magazine, On and Off the Midway. The world's foremost expert in sideshow, oddities, and beyond. Not a
standard purveyor of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not tourist attraction franchise. This is where all the weirdest stuff happens. Okay. Lookee! Lookee! Ladies and germs! The show’s about to start! Step right up! A familiar podium fanfare can be heard from the Midway heydays of every Podunk State Fair, traveling carnival, and circus sideshow across America.
Once called Freak Show, but in today’s politically-charged climate, it’s frowned upon by certain PC circles as derogatory. The 1947 film Nightmare Alley is a rare gem, portraying the old-school world of traveling sideshows. Taylor knows the sordid tales lurking behind the footlight backstory of every freak, oddity, man-made gaffe, uncommon attraction, or unnatural freak who was simply born that way. It’s a slippery stage to maneuver on. I’m unqualified to justify exactly what defines a freak. It’s a term I’ve used to define myself. But it’s an age-old question. How do you get a guy to be a geek? Is he the only one? I mean, is a guy born that way? Listen,kid, when you've been around this carny a little longer, you’ll learn to quit asking questions.”
The book Nightmare Alley is a noir novel by William Graham that was published a year earlier. It depicts the slimy underbelly of sleazy sideshow showbiz and its lowlife denizens. A world of a two-bit traveling caravan carnival filled with hustlers, grifters, and phony femme fatales. All-out petty-ante hucksters who fleece the hayseed hicks, separating them from their hard-earned moolah. Geeks do so much more than bite the heads off of chickens. In the words of Freddie Blassie, “Pencil neck geek, pencil neck geek, dirty lowdown scum sucking freak. The kind of person you wouldn’t like to meet. Nothing but a pencil-neck geek.”
There’s always the other side of that tricky coinage. Todd Browning's earlier film, Freaks, is a good example of the everyday carny struggles behind the scenes of the sideshow’s freakiest folks. “An unforgettable cast of real-life sideshow performers portrays the entertainers in a traveling circus. Shunned by mainstream society, they live according to their own code—one of radical acceptance for the fellow oppressed and, as the show’s beautiful but cruel trapeze artist learns, of terrifying retribution for those who cross them. Received with revulsion by viewers upon its initial release, Freaks permanently damaged Browning’s career but can now be seen for what it is: an audacious cry for understanding and a singular experience of nightmarish, almost avant-garde power. I knew James Taylor long ago from a past life in the freakish world of poetry. Besides being the premier professor of on-and-off the ballyhoo midway stage, James is/was a poet and publisher of all things poetic. Perhaps that’s part of the reason he’s so passionate about the subject of sideshow performers and associated oddities. There’s an interesting, although invisible, line between poets, freaks, comedians, musicians, artists, and other assorted weirdoes. Poets are also rejected by mainstream culture, like freaks of nature are by so-called normal, well-adjusted people. Taylor's alliteration, iteration, and pontificating on the subject haven’t only filled volumes of Shocked and Amazed but also lecture halls, auditoriums, and even under the big top tents of today’s modern burlesque and vaudevillian contemporary sideshows.
There’s Bindlestiff Circus out of Brooklyn, NY. The Great Southern Hootenanny Sideshow: The Rise and Fall of the Jim Rose Circus. Ward Hall, King of the Sideshows and his World of Wonders, and the Mack daddy of them all, the Coney Island Sideshow, together with the Congress of Curious Peoples, Washington DC’s Palace of Wonders, and The Red Palace. In the 1990s, along with the late Dick Horne, James opened the American Dime Museum in Baltimore. They had a good run, and today he’s setting the stage and dusting off his massive collection of extensive specimens of bizarre Sideshow memorabilia and banner art. Preparing for the grand opening of the First Call Paranormal Oddities Museum in Havre de Grace, Maryland.
The persona of James Taylor is that of a svelte P.T. Barnum, who was credited for the quote, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” It’s since been debunked by so-called experts as hokum. It doesn’t matter who said what. If you tell a lie long enough, as we well know, many will believe the truth. Although the sentiment holds false. It’s right up there in the upper echelons with politics and religion. Henceforth, known as the great all-American Sideshow in all its gloriously bizarre, magnificent manifestations. It’s the strange we seek. The highly unusual to ponder.Leaving intelligent people spellbound. In awe of the mutually shared human condition. October’s a busy month for the professor, Mr. Taylor. On Sunday, October 1st, he’ll officiate at the lectern for "Why We’re Here: An Overview of Variety’s Near Past Origins." We ain’t talking about
Variety magazine, brought to you by Maria Bella, aka Bella LaBlanc, burlesque queen. Held at the Creativity Center for Dance at 3139 Eastern Ave. in Baltimore’s beautiful Highlandtown neighborhood. The lecture/performance begins at high noon. And again, on October 7th, the World Oddities Exposition will convene at the Baltimore Convention Center. Rounding out October events, on Thursday, October 26, the Peculiar Book Club will commence at 7 p.m. (on Facebook Live), when James will be joined by sword swallower phenom, The Lady Aye, for an annual Halloween tradition. A kooky evening of music and mayhem with surprise special guests. A good way to celebrate the holiday without leaving the comfort and safety of your Lazy Boy recliner chair.