Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sideshow history

A few months ago the legendary (but very real) Todd Robbins created a Facebook group called Sideshow Spectrum. It's an invitation-only group, but any member can invite anyone into the group. The idea was that it would bring together the entire spectrum of the Sideshow world, from veterans and old showmen to current performers, up-and-comers, rookies, historians, fans, and even the merely Sideshow-curious. It's a fun place to be, with all the infighting, recriminations, and general chaos of a big, dysfunctional family getting together for Thanksgiving dinner. Sometimes it's an amazing resource to have access to, like when a friend accidentally swallowed a piece of glass last week (she found the glass bowl from which she was eating fruit had started to chip apart) and was wondering how worried she should be. I immediately took the issue up with a group of people who eat glass on a regular basis, and was able to get expert advice. (She was fine.)

Yesterday someone posted this to the group:

hoping someone can help....i want to learn more about the history of sideshow....can anyone suggest where to start.

Now, instead of the usual response (which would be to club him with a tent peg, take his wallet, shoes, and pants, and dump him somewhere in the next county), people actually supplied useful information. Even I was able to suggest a couple of resources, the things where I first learned about Sideshow, and some that I've come to know though my association with performers.

The top response is John Robinson's Sideshow World ( The motto there is "Preserving the Past, Promoting the Future" - with a third item thrown in, "Enjoying the Present." Past, present, and future are all covered in the articles and interviews that appear with an alarming frequency, sometimes several times a day.  John and his staff  put a lot into this site, and you will get a lot out of it. You can easily get lost for many, many hours on this site, and they would all be hours well-spent.

Another response is James Taylor's Shocked and Amazed ( This site serves to promote the irregularly-produced Shocked and Amazed! On and Off the Midway  periodical - a book-length magazine that contains long articles covering every aspect of past and present sideshow. James is a historian, curator, and archivist (and not to be confused with a certain mellow music maker of the same name), and he and his staff gather information from far and wide for each edition. The next one is coming out soon, back issues of many of the previous ones are available, and rumors abound of a second "best of" compilation. (The first is, I believe, out of stock.)

Here's a nearly hour-long documentary based on Shocked and Amazed! from 2003, featuring many amazing performers who are still active a decade later:

Another suggestion is to simply connect with the giants, the living legends, the walking repositories of history. Folks like John "Red" Lawrence Stuart, Ward Hall, and the great Todd Robbins. I have only seen and heard Ward from a distance, I have been in touch with Todd online and was his designated "...that guy over there" at last year's Sideshow Gathering (as in "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,  and that guy over there"), but I have had the privilege of sitting down and talking with Red for a good long while behind the scenes at the first (and so far, only) sideshow I have attended, the World of Wonders at the Northeast Fair in Pittston, PA in 2011. I showed up just before they broke for lunch, and Red was watching the set while everyone else went to eat, so we got to sit and talk about all sorts of things - including how some wireless high-speed internet companies will slow you down to DSL download speeds once you exceed a certain monthly limit. (At least, I think that's what Red said! I wasn't following all the technical details.)

One other suggestion was to get a job with a sideshow. While this might not educate you in the history of the sideshow, aside from what you can pick up there or learn from the crew, it will certainly immerse you in the here-and-now of sideshow. As one participant in the discussion said, "You know how to get a job at a carnival? Just ask." Unfortunately, sideshows these days are few and far between, and you have to know when they're at a carnival or fair, because they're often not advertised.

I had some suggestions of my own. One is the excellent book American Sideshow by Marc Hartzman. This book is not just a history of sideshow in America, but was also my introduction to many of the sideshow performers I would later meet through the Sideshow Gathering, and my introduction to the Sideshow Gathering itself. (Actually I had heard of the Gathering years before, but had heard the whole affair advertised as more a sort of side-show to a tattoo convention - which, in fact, it is.)

Another fine book I recommended is the regrettably out-of-print Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women by Ricky Jay. This is an excellent history of sideshow and other performers from decades and centuries past.

Todd Robbins himself has a great blog that covers a lot of sideshow history. Confessions of a Glass Eater ( has not been updated in several years, but rest assured that Todd is as active as ever.

If you have not seen Tod Browning's "Freaks", you should, just for the sheer number of historically significant performers who appear in it. Plus it's an amazing film. The "One of us!" scene is required watching for anyone interested in sideshow. Here's the film in its entirety:

Then there is, of course, the Sideshow Gathering itself. In that place you can meet dozens of current performers, veterans, historians, and fellow fans. You'll have access to countless historical references and artifacts, many available for sale or for bid at auction. The death of founder and driving force Franco Kossa back in 2011 and the effects of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 (which resulted in extensive damage to the sideshow Mecca, Coney Island, and caused numerous guests and exhibitors to cancel their plans) were tremendous setbacks to the Gathering. Will there be another Gathering in 2013, or has it, too, passed into sideshow history? That remains to be seen.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Upcoming events in NEPA this week

If you live in Northeastern Pennsylvania (like all the cool kids do) here are some events coming up this week that you should check out:

Thursday, April 18: Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective presents the Third Thursday Poetry Readings. at The Vintage, 326 Spruce Street in Scranton. Admission is free and all are welcome. Readings begin at 8:30 PM. If you'd like to read some poetry, show up early to get on the list.

Thursday, April 18 through Saturday, April 20: Scranton Public Theatre presents A Spotlight on the Jason Miller Playwrights' Project. Two Dramatic Comedies, "Lou Gehrig Did Not Die of Cancer" by Jason Miller and "Taking Liberties with Peter Rozig" by K.K. Gordon, will be performed at the Olde Brick Theatre, 128 West Market Street in Scranton. Tickets are $12.50 for adults, $10.00 for students and senior citizens. Showtime is 8:15 PM. (Performances will also be held April 25-27.)

Friday, April 19: NEPA BlogFest, Spring 2013 edition, Rooney's Irish Pub, 67 South Main Street in Pittston starting at 6:00. Meet local bloggers and maybe even some candidates for office. Admission is free.

Sunday, April 21: Prose in Pubs @ The Vintage. Prose in Pubs temporarily relocates to The Vintage (see above for address) starting at 4:00 PM. Rae Bryant will be the feature.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Redneck school shooting

Ayup. 'Round these parts, we don't need psychotics in combat gear to shoot up schools - just some rednecks doing a little target shooting uprange of an elementary school.

WNEP: Bullet hits elementary school

MIDDLE SMITHFIELD TOWNSHIP — State police in Monroe County said a stray bullet hit an elementary school on Thursday.

Troopers said the bullet struck a double-paned window at Resica Elementary School near Marshalls Creek. The school is in the East Stroudsburg School District.

It smashed through one pane of glass, but not through the second.

No one was hurt.

State police questioned four men who were target shooting nearby. They could face charges in Monroe County.

WBRE: Bullet Pierces Second Grade Class Window
(linked story includes video)

Middle Smithfield Township, Monroe County - A bullet hit the window of a class full of second graders Thursday. It happened at Resica Elementary School in Middle Smithfield Township, Monroe County.

...Police say people at 823 Resica Falls Road were target shooting and someone missed a target. The bullet traveled at least a half mile. It went over a road, through the woods, and across the school parking lot.

Forsyth said the teacher in the hit classroom jumped into action. He explained, "The classroom teacher immediately sheltered the children along a wall where they wouldn't be visible from the outside."

...School District Police Officer Marc Iannazzo found the people who were shooting. He said he discovered four young men in their late teens or early twenties doing target practice. He said, "They were shooting into the woods down the hill towards the school." He noted, "I saw multiple guns, about three or four rifles, a couple handguns, laying on the bed of a truck and they were shooting at targets tied to a tree."

Police are investigating the young men.

Eyewitness News tried to talk to the people at 823 Rescia Falls Road but a man started yelling as soon as a reporter and photographer pulled into the driveway. He demanded the crew leave.
The school district is holding a parent meeting about the situation at Resica Elementary School Friday at 3:45.

Four people investigated after stray bullet hits Resica Elementary |

State police continue to investigate the incident that caused a stray bullet to hit Resica Elementary School. The school was not targeted for any criminal purpose, said police.

Patrol units located four people who were target shooting today after a bullet hit a second grade classroom window at the school on Route 402 in Middle Smithfield Township. All 20 students who were in the classroom are safe, according to superintendent Sharon Laverdure.

The people, ages 18 to 21, were target shooting about a half-mile from the school, according to Lt. Robert Bartal of Troop N State Police. Their names have not been released.

...Bartal said police would confer with Monroe County District Attorney David Christine to determine if charges will be filed.

“By all indications, they were just target practicing. It was not an intentional act,” Bartal said.

Yes. There's a term for that kind of unintentional act. It's called "criminal negligence."

The address given for the shooters is indicated by the red marker "A" at the top right. The elementary school is the cross-shaped building at lower left. Note the scale at bottom left, and the houses, road, and baseball field between the two. How could they have possibly known these things were there? File under "heroes of the NRA."

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Shane Burcaw is dying - but first, he wants to make Ellen laugh

Shane Burcaw is a lot of things: a blogger, a student, an all-around great guy. He's the blogger behind Laughing at my Nightmare, and the founder of the organization LAMN.

He's also dying. He has a condition called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (Type 2.) He has had it since childhood, and it is gradually robbing him of his muscles and his ability to move. Eventually, it will take away his ability to breathe. Eventually, it will kill him.

He knows this. He has known it for a long time. He has decided to take an upbeat approach to it. He wants to leave a mark on the world. And he wants to make Ellen DeGeneres laugh.

You can help make this happen.

From his blog:

Operation Make Ellen Laugh

Since I started my blog almost two years ago, people have been telling me “YOU SHOULD GO ON ELLEN!” They scream it at me actually, hence the caps lock. My response was always “I’d love to, but she’s very difficult to get in touch with.” I kept the idea in the back of my mind until I felt it was the perfect time.

Well, my friends, now is the perfect time. And if it’s going to work, I’m going to need every single one of you to help me!

This Thursday at 11am (Eastern Time), Operation Make Ellen Laugh will begin, and if it is successful, my life and the future of LAMN could be changed forever.

We will conduct Operation Make Ellen Laugh the same way that we have successfully contacted other celebrities (Anthony Green, Alex Morgan, etc.): with a MASSIVE twitter/fb bomb that is too large for her to ignore. This time, however, we’re stepping up our game, because we refuse to let this Operation fail. Instead of getting hundreds of people to tweet her that day, we need to get thousands!

It’s very simple: starting at 11am on Thursday and continuing all day long, thousands of us will begin sending her a special tweet (I will post the tweet on Thursday morning). It will contain a link to some videos that explain who I am and why I’d like to be on her show.

I wrote a long time ago that my ultimate fear is being forgotten after I’m gone, leaving no impact on the world with my time here. Now I have a chance to truly put that fear to rest, as I believe the things we are accomplishing here at LAMN, Inc. are capable of making a significant positive impact on the world. Getting on Ellen would catapult us to new levels, and give us an unbelievable opportunity to affect the lives of millions of people.

All I’m asking is that you take some time to rally your friends to take part in this Operation. Please “Attend” this Facebook event to signify that you are committing to recruit as many tweeters/facebookers for April 11th as you can. Then share it on your wall so that your friends can read this and do the same thing

Together, we can pull this off, and I will be forever grateful.

I first learned of Shane Burcaw and his blog from Monica Madeja when we got to talking after one of my weekly appearances on PA Live! His blog may have been the first blog that we posted on NEPA Blogs that was in fact completely outside of Northeastern Pennsylvania - we stretched the definition to allow the Lehigh Valley. We featured him as the NEPA Blogs Blog of the Week just a few weeks later. Michelle and I actually got to meet him when we went to Allentown last year for the Allentown Morning Call's "Best Blogs of the Lehigh Valley" presentation ceremony. (He won his category!)

Help make this happen. Shane has been wanting to do this for a very long time. But he is operating with a time limit. He has recently noted that things he was capable of doing six months or a year ago are no longer possible. Please spread the word, and help him achieve his goal!

UPDATE, 4/11: This is the day, and Shane has posted these instructions:

Alright folks, the time is here! We have a few quick instructions to make sure that we're all doing this the same way and have the best chance possible of getting Ellen's attention (without annoying her TOO much in the process). It's pretty simple:

- PLEASE do NOT spam Ellen. We want to get her attention, not bludgeon her to death with tweets, so one tweet every few hours from each person should be MORE than enough
- No swearing, use your big person words
- Remember to reference Shane as @shaner528 and not just "Shane"

When constructing your tweets you will need to incorporate the following hashtag and link:

Hashtag: #MakeEllenLaugh

Sample Tweets

"Hey @TheEllenShow, have you laughed today? Put @shaner528 on your show and you will! #MakeEllenLaugh"

"@TheEllenShow if you want to have a good laugh, bring @shaner528 onto the show! #MakeEllenLaugh"

"Hey @TheEllenShow, while you're making others laugh, @shaner528 is after YOUR laughter. Laugh with him! #MakeEllenLaugh"

Finally, THANK YOU! In the end, we can't accomplish anything without the help of people like you, so from the bottom of our hearts thank you for helping us work to spread Shane's message of positivity to the world. Remember that we're going to stop bothering Ellen at 11pm US Eastern Time, and HAVE FUN!

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Is the sequester a good thing?

The economy sucks, and it has been sucking for many years.

You can take it back as far as you want: say that the Clinton era of explosive growth an "irrational exuberance" was actually a bubble that began to collapse even before a victor was declared in the 2000 election. That George W. Bush's policy of getting rid of the surplus he had been burdened with by his predecessor put us on the path to collapse. Or that the September 11, 2001 attacks were a brilliant bit of asymmetric warfare which, for a very small investment of money and lives,* allowed a terrorist organization to provoke a series of predictable responses that resulted in global economic losses in the trillions of dollars.

For me it personally started to suck back in early 2007 when, after a series of contractions that had taken place over the course of years, I was finally squeezed right out of my lucrative position in the DVD industry. I spent the next six months searching for a job that paid anything close to what I had been making, until my old company finally contacted me and offered to take me back - as a production worker, making a little less than 2/3 of what I had been earning before. (Through the magic of overtime and at considerable personal expense I was able to bring in a decent paycheck from time to time.) That position lasted another three years - three years during which I kept my eyes peeled for anything better - until it went away in December 2010. In 2011 I was brought back again as a temporary employee (by a recently-hired personnel manager who would lose his own job just a few weeks after I met him), a job which lasted intermittently until in April of 2012 I finally accepted a full-time position in an entirely different industry - now making 40% of what I had been earning in 2007.

A few years ago a friend who works for the federal government in a place that could be discreetly described as "just outside the beltway" told me of a conversation she had come across between two fellow employees who were blithely discussing the prospects for the nation now that the recession was over** and the economy was improving. She pointed out to them that in places like Northeastern Pennsylvania the recession had not ended, that unemployment and the local economy were bad and were getting worse. And they looked at her like she was an idiot. Well, obviously they weren't concerning themselves with the peons in the sticks. For the people that counted, the recession was over, and things were looking great. The economy had winners and losers, and it's better to be a winner than a loser. You can't worry about the losers, baby.

Articles in magazines from around Washington, D.C. bore out this attitude. Employment in the region was great. Real estate sales and rental rates were as strong as ever, and prices were as high as ever. New restaurants and bars were opening all the time to separate federal employees, lobbyists, and the associated camp followers from their money. For those whose lives and jobs were entirely within the beltway bubble, the recession was over, and a new era of prosperity was at hand.

So has the sequester brought the hard times to Washington, D.C.? Maybe a little. I haven't heard much complaining from the privileged set down there, and I expect that they are as insulated from the sequester as they were from the other negative effects of the recession. It's not like any members of Congress or their staffs have been affected, and so it's likely that the bars and restaurants that they frequent are doing as well as ever. The pain is being felt by the lower-level employees of the federal government, but the professional bureaucracy is still doing just fine, thank you.

A few weeks ago a staunch opponent to gay marriage, Senator Robert Portman of Ohio, changed his position after discovering his son was gay. This news was given a generally cynical reception, as it was widely assumed that Portman only changed his mind because now he had a personal stake in the matter.*** But Portman's conversion suggests that perhaps the way to make members of Congress take a genuine interest in an issue is to bring the issue home to them. Since having their constituents suffer the effects of the continued economic downturn is clearly not enough to make them care about getting the economy back on track, perhaps having members of their own families lose their jobs, homes, and incomes will make the plight of the rest of the nation real for them?

Of course, if that happens, they will always be able to retreat to the insular bubble of Washington, D.C. to continue to focus on the winners, and continue to ignore the losers.

*That is to say, the nineteen terrorists who died on the planes that day.

**Technically, the recession ended several years ago. But as any economist who has the faintest idea what they're talking about knows, the effects are stll reverberating through the economy.

***Arizona Representative Matt Salmon has maintained his opposition to gay marriage despite having an openly gay son, suggesting a sort of integrity, or at least consistency.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Nominate NEPA Blogs as Best Local Blog!

This is by way of Michelle, my co-administrator at NEPA Blogs. The local weekly The Weekender is taking nominations for its annual "Best Of..." lists. In the past we've missed out on the nomination process, but this time Michelle caught it in time.

From her post:

We Want to Win!

The Weekender is holding their annual "Weekender Readers' Choice" nomination and awards.  We'd really love it if you'd take a moment to nominate NEPA Blogs for the honor of Best Local Blog.  The link to vote is located here:

You must vote for at least 25 categories and only once to be counted.  You have until Tuesday, April 12th to cast your ballot.

We completely missed the nomination process last year while focusing on other things (mainly Spring BlogFest).  We want to win the whole kit caboodle this year, baybee!  

Please share with anyone who is casting a ballot.  A vote for us can help them make their quota of 25 entries!

If you live in NEPA, we'd love to have you nominate NEPA Blogs as best local blog! We do our darnedest to publicize blogs and blogging throughout Northeastern PA, and it's nice to get some recognition in return!