Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Evolution of Freak Shows

According to the Star Tribune, James Lileks will be out at the Minnesota State Fair each and every blessed day, on display and blogging from the "back porch" of the Star Tribune booth. I knew bloggers were a bit of a curiosity in the world of normal human beings. But to see we're now on the level of Lobster Boy and The Wolf People, well it causes a tear to run down my cheek and across my cleft palate.

Although they had them back in the 70's and 80's, I never went to the freak shows at the MN State Fair in my youth. But I did once get caught up in the sales pitch for a side show attraction called Little Irvy. As you may recall, year after year, there was a semi parked just outside the Midway grounds with a tinny speaker broadcasting a taped message about a real whale being inside. The hook was that if it wasn't real, they'd give you the truck.

Even as a child, I was incredulous. There was no way they could have a living, breathing whale inside a truck. Yet there sat the truck, all day, every day. Maybe no one had the guts to challenge the claim and bring this bizarre charade to an end? Well one year, I was about 12, I had had enough (and I felt I needed a semi) so I convinced my parents to pony up the dollar, or whatever it was, for me to get in there and put a stop to this once and for all.

I think that was the day I learned, to quote another master of the sideshow swindle, to pay close attention to what the meaning of the word is is. There was a whale inside that truck. And I guess he was real. What he wasn't doing was breathing. From the looks of him, he hadn't for quite some time. Little Irvy, we hardly knew ye.

Upon exiting the truck and further reviewing the precisely and subtly worded sales pitch painted on the side of the truck and playing on the taped message, they had me. They were using what is known in some legal circles as the Old Frozen Whale Loophole.

According to this terrific Phoenix New Times article from 1995 profiling Little Irvy and his owner Tyrone Malone, I apparently wasn't the first rube to be suckered in:

Shaking his head, Malone tells of the angry customer who stormed out of the trailer, demanding to know why the word "FROZEN" didn't appear on Irvy's truck. Malone snorts derisively. "Well, for the same reason banks don't paint '21 PERCENT' on the front of their windows. Grow up! A guy gets a bad hamburger and he doesn't complain, but sell him a ticket to see a dead whale and he's got to tell the world.

Looking back now, my wounded pride finally healed, I guess seeing a frozen sperm whale is almost as cool as seeing a live one, especially for the measly price you paid. Even if it did look like this:

In spite of placards identifying the location of Irvy's blowhole, mouth, glass eye and other points of anatomical interest, the creature is not even immediately recognizable as a whale. His skin severely peeling (freezer burn set in less than six months after Malone entombed him in the refrigerated case), the aquatic mammal looks less like a whale than it does a gigantic semideflated tire that's lost its tread.

Which is still better than it might have been. It seems dead whale exhibitions have a long, proud history in this country, even before the miracle of refrigeration:

... showman extraordinaire P.T. Barnum raked in a bundle displaying the iced corpse of a 12-foot black whale at his American Museum in New York City. "Years ago, there were guys who'd load a dead whale--unrefrigerated, mind you--onto a railroad flatcar," continues Malone. "Then they'd haul the thing around the country until the flies outnumbered the paying customers. When the whale started decomposing too badly, they'd just dump the thing along the side of the tracks and disappear in the night.

I haven't seen Little Irvy at the Fair for years. I would imagine its hard to earn a lot of repeat business when your sales pitch is based on deception. According to The Phoenix New Times:

But Little Irvy hasn't played the Arizona State Fair for a while--or very many other big venues, either. "That whale has been around forever," says Jim Simpson of the Michigan State Fair. "To get any longevity out of that kind of attraction, you can't bring it in year after year. How many times can you look at a dead whale? It just doesn't have the staying power that's going to draw people back time after time."

Perhaps something for James Lileks to remember. The blogging routine, like dead whales, probably can't remain viable State Fair attraction for more than 20 - 25 years. Enjoy it while you can.

Post Script: This sad note on the 1997 death of Tyrone Malone, the genius behind the whale, in a car accident. It looks like his plans for a permanent memorial for Little Irvy were prematurely ended as well. The ultimate fate of this State Fair legend is unknown.

The Elder Blows: My favorite State Fair freak show (pre-Lileks) had to be Lobster Boy, even though the murals on the outside of the trailer of him frolicking in the waves snapping up fish with his claws didn't quite live up to the reality inside. I also recall the Snake Woman (I think) trying to hit on a friend of mine (we were in college) one year. Had he been a little drunker, it would have made for an interesting morning after.