The blog that reaches the wet, dark, secret places where other blogs fear to tread.
The blog that reaches the wet, dark, secret places where other blogs fear to tread.
It was the summer of 1960 and my family was walking past Coney Island’s World in Wax Musee when the barker shouted out, “See the rapist Caryl Chessman in the gas chamber!”
“What’s a rapist?” I innocently asked my mother.
“Uh… ummm… a man who forces himself on a woman,” she flustered.
“Oh,” I replied with no idea of what she meant.
Soon after that we shared another awkward moment of sex education. It happened one night while I was watching TV. She and her friends were in the next room chain smoking and “gassing” when someone on TV mentioned “impotence.”
“Hey, Ma, what’s impotence?” I shouted into the room full of Catholic housewives.
Long frozen silence from the stunned women.
“Unable to perform like a man,” my mother eventually shouted in answer.
“Oh,” I shouted in return and (again) with no idea what she meant.
The World In Wax Musee was owned by one of Coney Island’s great characters, Lillie Santangelo. Caryl Chessman wasn’t the only predatory sex fiend rendered in wax in Lillie’s macabre collection. John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were in there, too; along with “full moon” killers, “vampire” killers, “bathtub” killers, “screwdriver” killers and Richard Speck the sub-human filth who tortured, raped and murdered eight student nurses in Chicago. Speck escaped Chessman’s fate but unfortunately enjoyed his life in prison. He even had a half-assed sex change and acquired a set of phoney tits. These helped him attract and suck every swinging Black dick he could get his lips around.
Chessman and Speck both had scores of bleeding-heart intellectuals, rootless cosmopolitans and Hollywood champagne-socialists pleading their cases and screaming for their release. But, to no avail. Both of these pieces of utter shit died behind bars. Hehehe.
Meanwhile, back at the Wax Musee, Lillie also had an entire exhibit dedicated to Lina Medina, the world’s youngest mother, a Peruvian girl who gave birth at the age of five. The jury is still out on which of her loving male relatives raped the child.
Fast forward to 1981
I was directing an off-Broadway play and told my designer that I’d like our stage set to look and feel like the World in Wax Musee because it was the most frightening space I’d ever been in. The brutal artlessness of the exhibits made it so. Its dioramas-of-death captured a bottom-feeder, off-hand brand of sex-violence that even the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer could not match.
It was the very cheapness of the materials and mannequins used that gave the murder scenes their terrible power. The ill-fitting clothes and ill-posed limbs evoked nothing of reality. Yet, it was this very absence of life, movement or any hint of reality that made the mannequins seem ready to burst into murderous life. It was the gouts of ketchup-like blood splattered on the walls and linoleum; the flickering fluorescent lights and the chicken wire that separated the viewer from the crime scenes that chilled to the bone.
There was something especially unsettling about a cheap dummy sticking a screwdriver into another cheap dummy’s neck or hiding under a female dummy’s bed. It was beyond the stuff of nightmares.
Lillie also had a Hall of Fame where you really needed a score card to tell the players apart. I suspect Lillie had only one Caucasian head mould and one Negro head mould coz Elvis looked like Harry Truman looked like John Glenn looked like Popeye. And, Muhammad Ali looked like Jackie Robinson looked like Louis Armstrong looked like Buckwheat.
Anyway… my designer visited the Musee and later cursed me for scarring her for life. While there, she spoke with Lillie who mentioned that she needed a new recorded announcement to draw a crowd but didn’t know any actors who could make one. Her budget was $10. My designer told Lillie about me and that’s how I got to spend an afternoon wandering around the World in Wax Musee (by my lonesome) gathering ideas and composing my spiel. (I have never looked over my shoulder so many times in my life!) P.S. I did the gig for free.
Lillie let me sit in her office to write my script. I noticed that she had a large ashtray on her desk filled with artificial eyes, ears and fingers that had been plucked or melted off. (I confess that I stole one of the fingers. I like to think it came from the hand of Red Foxx but it might have belonged to Hickman the Fox who kidnapped, murdered and dismembered a child in 1927.)
Lillie didn’t play my recording for long because she shut the Musee’s doors soon after my visit. (Jeez, I didn’t think I was that bad!) But, I wasn’t surprised when she cIosed. I had been there on a summer weekend and I’d had the Musee to myself for hours. Lillie had even tried throwing a few phrases of Spanish and Ebonics into her pitch in an attempt to draw in Coney’s new demographic but, alas, it was not to be. The writing was on the Musee wall.
In 1986, Lillie’s entire collection was sold at auction for a tidy sum – there has always been a lucrative market for circus and side show collectibles. And, her Musee was second in size and importance only to Madame Tussaud’s in London! Along with the dioramas-of-death, 100 wax heads found in Lillie’s attic were also sold. The auction catalogue listed heads of Babe Ruth and Frank Sinatra. But, how could they tell? Those heads could easily have been Leopold and Loeb or Abbott and Costello.
Thanks for visiting my blog. It is a sampler of my murder-memoir Boy Outa Brooklyn. The best way to enjoy it is to start at the first post and read chronologically. I hope you’ll find it both hilarious and horrifying.
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As long as we’re on the subject of female torsos… we rented our Bowery loft to a yoga instructor who was transitioning to yogi, i.e. a female to male transsexual. (Mind you, this was 1976, so the current “I was born in the wrong body” dementia-mania is nothing new.) “Jack” was fresh from having her breasts sliced from her female torso and was wrapped in more bandages than Tutankhamen. This creature was so cranked on pot, painkillers and testosterone that she floated several feet off the ground, vibrating in midair like a hummingbird. (You know the scene in the horror movie when the actor transforms via time-lapse photography from man to monster? Imagine a stop frame of that process mid-way. That was what “Jack” looked like – suspended between male and female, between past and present, between serenity and suicide. Unsettled and unsettling.) “Jack” was so uncomfortable around men, I was sure she would evaporate whenever I got near her. I, of course, delighted in torturing this psychosexual misfit by getting “up close and personal” as often as possible.
It is 3 AM on a rainy night and I’m walking down the deserted, darker stretch of 42nd between 6th and 7th avenues. The wet pavement reflects the neon lights from the two porn stores still open. As I approach one of these, I see a man exiting while clutching to his chest a paper bag filled with photos of female flesh. I immediately detect something odd about his gate. It isn’t the usual overly-casual yet dartingly-furtive walk of men as they enter and exit dirty bookstores and movies. No. This man’s body seems permanently shaped into a posture of “shying away” as if he is flinching before a punch is thrown.
As I get closer to him, I see that he is wearing a plastic medical mask in a pitifully unsuccessful attempt to conceal that he has no face. The mask is the color of Pepto Bismol to suggest flesh tone with features crudely painted on. The lips are much too large and much too red. The eyebrows are even worse. I follow him at a distance and note the practiced, heartbreaking way he avoids the gaze of passing strangers and finds shadows and darkened doorways by which to pick his way down the street and home.
We are a blue-collar Scout troop without a full uniform between us – more Bowery Boys than Baden Powell. We don’t buy our gear at the official Boy Scout store which is strictly for fagateers but at the Army surplus stores on Canal Street. Who cares if our canteens leak and our hatchets shatter? They are what General Patton’s soldiers used and that’s all that matters.
Only once is our tough-guy veneer pierced. It is when we encounter a disfigured boy who pitches his tent right next to ours at a Boy Scout Jamboree. The merit badge sash he wears across his torso contains more badges than our troop has won in its entire history. He is also an Eagle Scout and a member of the Order of The Arrow. This is like being a Green Beret and a Navy Seal. He is tall and well built. But, atop his perfectly formed body sits the most deformed head and face I have ever seen. His skull is squashed, elongated and lopsided. His features are randomly stuck onto the front of it like the plastic ears, mouth and nose of a Mr. Potato Head – a Mr. Potato Head who has been dropped from a great height. He has one misshapen ear on top of his skull and another down near his chin so that his glasses hang on his face in a vertical rather than horizontal line. His eyes, nose, and mouth are not much more than holes. Imagine the face of Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame drawn by Picasso then put through a wood chipper.
I am seven and in Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park – a magical relic of a Victorian amusement park. I’m lost in a dark hallway and I’m ascared. I must have taken a wrong turn getting off the Shoot-the-Chute.
I open a door and I’m in the employees’ locker room. Right before me sits a dwarf-clown in whiteface but only halfway into his Pagliacci costume. Baggy clown-pants below. Guinea T-shirt on top. He is smoking and reading The Daily News. He sports a popular tattoo – a black panther climbing up his forearm and drawing drops of red blood with its claws. The dwarf-clown gives me a genuinely malevolent look – not one of those stagey, evil dwarf-clown looks so popular in modern horror-movies. This dwarf-clown hates being a dwarf. Hates being a clown. Hates being the same size as this seven-year-old punk standing before him. Hates me. “Get the fuck outahere,” he rasps.
I get the fuck outathere.
That same year, I see the freak show at Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus held in the old Madison Square Garden where Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano and Rocky Marciano fight. It’s where Emile Griffith from the Virgin Islands kills the Cuban Benny “Kid” Paret. At the weigh-in, Benny calls Emile a “maricon” – that’s spic-talk for faggot. In Round 12, Paret is out on his feet but trapped in a corner and held up by the ropes. The homosexual Griffith shows no mercy. Remember what I told you about our dusky brothers not liking each other? Remember what I told you about boxing promoters feasting on that hatred? The Garden reeks of that bloody history. And, with the circus in town, it reeks of lion piss and elephant dung. (Henry Miller, like me a Brooklyn boy, wanted an English language that reeked of lion piss and elephant dung. I doubt Henry ever smelled them in combination. The stench stung my eyeballs and melted the enamel from my teeth!)
The Ringling freak show features sword-swallowers, snake-handlers, fire-eaters, bullwhip-crackers, knife-throwers, fat men, skinny men, rubber men, a family of albino midgets and the star of the show – Johann K. Petursson, the Icelandic Giant – the Tallest Man in the World. Johann is no sissy giant, no puny, pituitary-gland pussy he. Johann is a true giant – 8’ 8” tall and brawny with a bear pelt draped over his shoulder.
Johann wears a tall Viking helmet with horns as tribute to his forebears and to make himself look even taller. My father buys me one of Johann’s green plastic rings as souvenir. The giant places it on his finger for a moment as consecration. I can fit all five of my five-year-old fingers inside it. I still have that ring.
Coney Island is where I see my first freak show. I am five and my father holds me up to see the stage. Outside the tent, a painted banner depicts a ferocious man with a head shaped like a ten-foot-wide light bulb. But, inside the tent, the meek, sickly man on-stage has only a slightly swollen head. He drives a nail up his nose to try and compensate for his disappointing deformity. My father explains that the man has a disease and the show is a gyp. There is also a woman on-stage who has dry, scaly skin. Outside she is depicted crawling through a swamp on all fours – a woman’s head on the body of an alligator. But, inside – no such luck. Another gyp.
When we climbed out of the Times Square subway station, I was mesmerized. I’d been to Coney Island plenty, but this was something else again, something electrifying. It was the lights – up and down and all around, lights neon, fluorescent and incandescent, lights all moving, all colors and all ablaze – even in daylight; lights that outshined the sun. The billboards were alive – a gigantic man blew smoke rings while Mister Peanut tipped his hat. I didn’t know it then but I had been rubbing shoulders with Diane Arbus and Bettie Page, both working in that 1956 Times Square world – a world of bustling strangers. A world of men in hats. Women with handbags. A world that smelled of Howard Johnson, Orange Julius, Nedick’s, popcorn and pussy. I was six and I could smell it; six and I could feel it; six and I could taste it. Times Square was a dirty dangerous place. And, I loved it.
Elvis blasted from the music stores and frigid winds blasted from the air-conditioned theater lobbies. I passed a newsstand and an excited man shouted “Extra!” I passed a doorway and a crazy man shouted “Cocksucker!” I heard the shuffle, scuffle and beat of the footfalls. I heard the horns, hollers and bleats of the cabbies – “Ya got wheels! Use ’em, Mac!” I saw my first “Street Corner Messiah.” He wore a sandwich board and was very worried about God. I was transfixed by him. I wanted to ask him why he was so worried but I was pulled away.
It was the bestest birthday party ever. We saw the Torture Chamber in Ripley’s Believe It or Not“ Odditorium.” Then we visited Hubert’s Museum – a freak show in a 42nd Street basement. It was even spookier and sexier than Ripley’s! We gaped at Hubert’s Cowboy Giant, midget, flea circus and Congo Witch Doctor. We gawped at Princess Sahloo and her sluggish snake. I determined that I would live in Hubert’s Museum as barker, caretaker and flea-wrangler. I would befriend the Witch Doctor, play pinochle with the midget and milk the snake.