Frieda Pushnik

 

WOMAN BORN WITHOUT ARMS OR LEGS IS STAR OF THE SIDESHOWS AT AGE 73, IS ON HER OWN FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HER LIFE


LONG AGO, when Frieda Pushnik was a bright-eyed child with dreams of far-off places, she learned not to mind the names. Little Half Girl. The Armless and Legless Wonder. Freak. That's just show business, Frieda told herself. Not me. "I had a good life," she says, smiling as she travels through old memories of a world that is no more. "Yes. I think I did." It was a different time, the old days. A time when people born different - like Frieda - sometimes landed in the spotlight of a sideshow stage.

 

Frieda was born in 1923 with neither arms nor legs. In her world, she was a star.

 

At the archives of Ripley's Believe It Or Not! - whose founder, Robert L. Ripley, discovered Frieda when she was 9 and hired her to appear at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair - old photographs and faded clippings reveal the odd sort of fame she once owned.

 

 

Frieda lives on a shady street in Costa Mesa, Calif., in the well-kept ranch house that for years she shared with her mother, sister and brother-in-law. All the others are gone. This spring, her beloved sister - Erma Banks, with whom she lived since childhood - and her brother-in-law Bennett Banks died within weeks of each other. At 73, Frieda is on her own for the first time in her life. Now she makes the decisions, she pays the bills, she calls the shots. "It's not easy," she says, her only response to questions of how she is faring two months after the passing of her sister. Several miles away in Cypress, Calif., her brother, William Pushnik, 77, says he worries about his sister, alone but for her live-in attendant, Marylene Rosado. Her material needs are in good shape, thanks to the Bankses' estate, he says, "but she has never made an adult decision in her life until Erma passed away." Marylene says that in the four months she has worked for Frieda, she has come to admire her strength, her determination to keep control over her own destiny, her positive outlook on life. "She's a positive thinker," Marylene says. "And if you are a positive thinker, even if sometimes you are down, you find a way to lighten the situation."

 

Early on, Frieda says, she put aside any despair at the cards she was dealt at birth: no limbs but for a stub at her left shoulder. It is a disability of great hardship. Never has she walked across the living room of her house. Never has she brushed her own hair. Never has she poured herself a glass of ice water on a hot summer day. "I never resented it," she says. "Not ever. "I never said, `Why me?' That would be a wasted emotion. You could ruin your life like that." A bright child, she learned to read before she started school. She learned to write, holding a pencil between her chin, shoulder and the stub of her arm. Her mother, Anastasia Pushnik, carried her to school. Her brother, William, and sister, Erma - four and three years older than Frieda - helped her during the day and carried her home at night. She excelled at school, winning a national certificate for penmanship. She mastered other skills at home. Improvising with her mouth, her shoulder and the stump of her arm, she learned to eat with fork and spoon, to sew, to crochet.

 

In the small, western Pennsylvania town of Conemaugh, most everybody knew Frieda before long, her brother says. "People treated her no differently than they did anybody else," William recalls. "In school, when she was in the third or fourth grade, she got into as much trouble as any of them." Frieda was born deformed after a botched appendectomy performed on Anastasia Pushnik when she was pregnant, her brother says. "It was nothing genetically wrong, nothing freakish," William says. "It was just a medical mistake."

 

 

 

In 1933, word of Frieda reached Ripley. At the time, Ripley was famous, thanks to the daily newspaper cartoon - Believe It Or Not! - that described the strange feats, bizarre artifacts and human oddities he claimed to have collected from across the globe. Millions of readers in more than 25 countries devoured the cartoon. Some were skeptical, convinced that Ripley and his finds were fakes.

 

As the Chicago World's Fair of 1933 approached, Ripley decided to show his world to the world. On the midway, a large theater arose. A born showman, Ripley named it the Odditorium. For 16 hours each day, slack-jawed curiosity-seekers observed that Mrs. Grace McDaniel was, indeed, The Mule-Faced Woman. They gawked as Melvin "Twisto" Smith - the Man with the Rubber Bones - proved he could, in fact, dislocate every bone on the left side of his body. Then there was Frieda. Oh, it was an exciting time, Frieda says, that moment when the curtains drew back and she found herself on stage before the crowds.

 

 

"I'd say, `I'm Frieda Kathryn Pushnik,' " she said. " `I'm 9 years old, and I attend public school.' "Then I'd do a demonstration - how I'd type and write and sew." It was a small show, maybe five minutes long, she says. But she repeated it many times each hour, sometimes up to 16 hours a day, before returning to the apartment Ripley had rented for her, her mother and sister. The show was the sensation of the World's Fair, Meyer says, attracting more than 2 million people. Its success persuaded Ripley to form a traveling troupe. Throughout the 1930s, Frieda and many of the others traveled the country: San Diego, Dallas, Cleveland, Chicago again. And the money she earned with each six-month contract she signed? Frieda avoids the question with a smile and a two-word answer: "We managed." After six years on the road with Ripley, Frieda and her mother and sister went home to Pennsylvania for several years at the start of the 1940s. Soon, though, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus - which knew of Frieda from her days with Ripley - called.

In 1943, she signed as a sideshow performer, and off and on for the next 13 years she criss-crossed the continent with Ringling Bros. "You didn't even know what town you were in half the time," she said. "But we had a lot of fun after work or on the train. Somebody always had a birthday or something."

 

She corresponds with a few friends from the circus. Each year, there are fewer to write. As fate would have it, in time, her circus days ended. Though years would pass before she left the show, a deadly fire in 1944 signaled the beginning of the end. "It happened during a show, and that's why so many lives were lost," Frieda says of the day the big top burned in Hartford, Conn., and 167 died. "One of the minstrel men ran onto my stage and grabbed me and my chair and got me out," she said. After a few months off, she went back to the circus. But as the years passed, the end of the road for Frieda came closer and closer. Circuses started to move indoors, trading billowy canvas tents for sleek and fire-resistant - convention halls. In that more formal setting and as public tastes changed, sideshows slowly fell from favor. Frieda was tired of the road, anyway.

 

It was time to retire. In 1956, the curtain dropped on her final show. William Pushnik had settled in Southern California, and in the early 1960s, his sisters and mother decided to move west to be near him. Every few years, someone looks her up for an interview about the old days. Earlier this year, The Learning Channel visited to tape an interview for a documentary called "Sideshow" slated for early 1997. The occasional visitor helps ease the loneliness. In many ways, though, life goes on as always. "We dine together, we laugh together," Marylene says. "I take her outside and we see the beauty of our garden. We are just like an old husband and wife." Marylene says she is not surprised that Frieda would not want to leave her home. "She is really a very - what do you call this? - independent person," she says. "And she really is struggling to do all the things she can do. "She has that kind of spirit that she doesn't want to lay back and let it go because of older age."

Peter Larsen; Of the Orange County Register Copyright 1996, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

 


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