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Stories from the 1981 Tennessee State Fair
By Spalding Gray

 

PT - 3

 

The only thing I saw going on at the midway that I could get interested in was the beer-tasting test between Schlitz and Budweiser. Budweiser was ahead, and the Schlitz people were sponsoring the carnival. The theme of the carnival was "Go for It," and everywhere there were Schlitz posters with men going for every kind of thing for the rapids on the Colorado River they were just going for it. And I tasted two beers and I chose Schlitz. I had to admit, it had more body. I think they may have left the Budweiser out longer to make it taste a bit flat. They were so happy that I chose Schlitz over Budweiser that they gave me a "Go for It" poster all rolled-up.


Around seven o'clock that evening the freak show began very slowly. The Perlow family has run this freak show for years. They are a husband-and-wife team from Montgomery, Alabama. They have four sons and all four work for them. Then they have a collection of "odd and strange people," as they call them. The four sons are a little strange. The eldest was dressed in polyester and had a blow-dried Beatles haircut. He had been news anchorman for a local television station in Montgomery, .Alabama, but he'd given it up to go back to the carnival. He was a perfect salesman. Every time he came out to talk, he seemed to be doing it for the first time: Okay. Gather round, gather round, gather round, people. For our first show, our first show of the day, we're going to have a free show. Gather round the back porch here, and let's see the strange people come out through the doorway. Watch the doorway. We've got a real collection of strange people for you. We've got a free show, too. Gather round.


Behind him he was standing on a big stage were hand-painted banners of freaks, and. behind them, a big circus tent the biggest tent on the fairgrounds. The banners were of the Monkey Lady, the Two-Faced Man, the Human Pincushion, and the Spider Woman, and some banners of freaks that weren't even there. But because the freaks were on the banners this illusion began, as he said, "Watch the doorway. I'm going to bring out some of the strange people." Then he said, "Where's the Pin-Headed Lady? Oh, she's a cute little girl. She's a darling little teenager. Only she's got a head like a pin." And then he said, "Where's the Rubber-Skinned Girl? Where're the Boxing Midgets? Bring out the Boxing Midgets! Where's the Human Pincushion?" None of these people were in the show at all. He was literally asking, "Where are they?" And everyone was falling for it, and a crowd was starting to gather round. But he did call for one real freak Popeye. He said, "Where's Popeye? Where's Popeye? Bring out the Frog Boy!" And then he let out with a little laugh: "He-HEE." It was perfect like a little song, a kind of programmed laugh that he performed between speaking. "Send out the man that pops his eyes! He pops his eyes right out of his head. Send out the Frog Boy!"

 

 

Now, meanwhile, Popeye did not appear. Instead they brought out the "hippie escape artists!" Who are three young girls who travel with the show and do cheap magic acts to keep the audience occupied until Popeye comes out. Randy had told me that Popeye is quite a character. He's black and about forty-seven years old. When he was four years old he learned how to pop his eyes out of his head by muscular contraction. His eyes pop out of his head an inch or so like Ping-Pong balls or golf balls. When he was nineteen he was at a carnival, and he did it in front of one of the sideshow people, and they took him in, and he's been working in the carnival ever since. Randy said they used to go out drinking together, and Popeye would pop his eyes out at the waitress and she would drop her tray. Randy said he is a whisky head, a real whisky head. Randy had bought him some Seagram's 7, a little half-pint, so while the talker was still calling for Popeye, we went over to visit Popeye in his trailer. He lived in a semitrailer divided into three sections with cheap paisley bedspreads. Other people lived in it, as well. He was lying on kind of a burlap sack which served as a bed, and he said, "Did you bring me anything, Randy-boy?" Randy got out the Seagram's 7, and Popeye drank it down just like water. He didn't even take it away from his lips. He could chug-a-lug that stuff. Then he shook hands with me, and his hand was completely limp. His hand was like rubber and his whole body was limp. His eyes had receded into his head like a bloodhound, and I realized that the only energy left in his body was all in his eyes.


Meanwhile, they were still calling for him out front. "Bring out the Frog Boy. Where's Popeye?" The talker was pretending to worry Popeye might not show up. Popeye really wasn't supposed to come out yet, because they were trying to get as big a crowd as possible. Then the talker said, "O.K., now we're going to do some other little tricks while we're waiting for Popeye. Anyone can do these tricks. They're nothing special." He tied a hippie escape artist to a silver cross, as he rang a bell all the time to attract attention, while saying, "Now, if you watch this trick, you could learn how to do it yourself. The knots are no different than tying a shoelace, and she's going to walk right away from that just as though she's walking off to a picnic. Now, if you watch carefully, you might be able to pick it up, and you can go home to practice it on your mother-in-law and go into show business together."


Suddenly Popeye showed up on stage and the talker said, as if he were surprised, "Oh, I'm glad to see you, Popeye! You decided to join us?" And Popeye was going, "Mmmm-wah," and the talker said, "Well, here he is Popeye. We call him Popeye, not because he eats spinach, no, no, but because he pops his eyes out. And many of you have seen him in the motion picture The Sentinel, which also played on television. And the main attraction of the evening is Priscilla Bejano, the Monkey Girl. Her body is completely covered with hair. She was born in Puerto Rico. Her parents were so ashamed of her that they hid her away, but we're not ashamed of her, no sirree! Hold up your arm, Priscilla! Show us that hair!" But Priscilla was back in her trailer, waiting to go on. Nobody was holding up an arm, but everyone thought he could see it anyway.

 

To be Continued

 


Special Thank to Kathleen Russo, the Estate of Spalding Gray and www.spalding.com official website of Spalding Gray

All stories are re-printed with the permission of the Estate of Spalding Gray

All stories are copyrighted Spalding Gray & Spalding Gray Estate and posted here with their expressed permission,


 

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