"The Thing?" the
billboard read in the shaky font of horror movie titles. "98
miles." I had seen these signs many times in my youth while
driving the dusty highways of southern Arizona with my father.
Every time the lurid green and yellow ad would incongruously
appear in the desert, like Pavlov's dog I would again
anxiously field the question "Dad, could we go see the
Thing?" Of course
"No!" was the inevitable answer, thus leaving my youthful
curiosity about the esoteric nature of such roadside mysteries
crushed until the next billboard appeared.
It would be years later that I would finally get to satisfy
that curiosity (for better or worse). But this time, it would
be a personal matter. You see, in the strange web of fate, it
had turned out that I was related, if only through marriage,
to the very man who created the Thing, Homer Tate.
Some of you who read this might recognize the name Tate from
his Tate's Curiosity Shop, which he used while producing gaffs
for sideshows in the 1940s and '50s. But as I have found, only
a few know much more about him than his last name and strange
creations. This is sad considering the interesting life and
complex nature of this "Barnum of the Southwest.
" I wish I could
relate to you all the anecdotes I have learned, but the tale
is a long one, and I could probably fill this entire magazine.
Homer Tate was born into a pioneer family in Poetry, Texas, on
September 7, 1884. Over the next eleven years the family
pushed westward in covered wagons, settling for a time in
Indian Territory (now Graham, Oklahoma) then on to Spanish
Fork, Utah. After a three-year stay they again set out and
ended up in central Arizona in 1898. As a young man, Homer
worked at many different occupations, from a miner in Globe to
a farmer in the Gila Valley to the sheriff of Graham County,
where during prohibition he served as a still breaker. He also
ran a motel and service station in Safford. This is not
atypical for men who were finding themselves in the wide open
early years of the twentieth century; however, none can recall
what motivated him in 1945 to pick up his family and move to
Phoenix to start his museum and curiosity shop. From all
accounts Homer was a consummate practical joker, and one can
only speculate that this endeavor was an extension of his
incorrigible sense of humor.
This excerpt from a 1940s travel magazine gives us a window
into that sense of humor, and a rare description of the
interior of Tate's workshop and museum:
"Phoenix is still a town where free enterprise can, as a
Western saying goes, scratch its own itch. Rugged
individualism expresses itself in strange and sometimes
awesome ways along East Van Buren Street, one of the principal
thoroughfares, where alligator farms, cactus curio shops,
junk yards and reptile gardens crowd each other. None has more
fascination than Tate's Curio Shop where in a single room,
Homer Tate, a pink-faced Irishman, manufactures oddities for
side shows, carnivals, and "people who like to scare other
people out of their wits." On the sides of his four walls are
cases of arrowheads, two-headed calves, deer with curly horns,
skulls, pictures of freaks, and his own handiwork represented
by an appalling assortment of shrunken heads, mummies, Devil
Boys, Fish Girls, necklaces of hands, fingers and ears
(they'll last a lifetime and only cost twelve dollars). Curled
around the room's ceiling are forty-five feet of vertebrae
ending in a dragonlike skull. This is, according to an
attached sign, A GENUINE PSEUDO SNAKE. "Over there,"
he says, pointing to a molting creature in one corner, "is a
bamboozle bat a bird that flies backwards to keep the dust
out of his eyes. And them," he adds, indicating some dark
crouched figures, "is my mummies. They're liked as much as the
real ones. It's all baloney, of course," he concludes, "but
this stuff would have scared my father to death."
Tate had, in fact, two museums. The first one was in Apache
Junction before he moved to the location mentioned above. And
just as the "free enterprise" and "rugged individualism" that
exist now on East Van Buren Street consists of crack whores
and drug deals, this passage is a poignant glimpse at a city's
past that has utterly disappeared.
Even though Homer's creations were, shall we say, rather
vague, he was quite successful. He marketed his wares mainly
through the mail via catalog, and it is said that there was
not a show in the '40s and '50s that didn't have at least one
of Tate's gaffs.
Not that he had much competition. There were only a few other
producers of such "midway monstrosities" in his day. Still, he
wasn't in the habit of telling many folks exactly how
he made his uncanny progeny.
I have heard many theories concerning their makeup, including
the outlandish notion that he used excrement! Looks aside,
this was definitely
not his medium. Although, in fact, it is also not far off the
mark, so to speak. No, the more mundane but none the less
amusing answer is toilet paper. That is, toilet paper mixed
with horse glue that would reportedly eat the flesh right
off your hands! This formed the "skin" over a body of
newspaper. Add some choice goodies scavenged from the
carcasses of deceased desert dwelling animals to the mix and
there you have it! Of course, none could match the subtle
sophistication and innate artistic complexities of the master
sculptor himself! And for the final touch, that moldering
patina of the grave, Tate had the somewhat limited palate of
shoe polishes to choose from.
Another aspect of Tate's life that is virtually unknown was
the fact that he was a poet. In 1965 he and his nephew
published his work in a book entitled Through These Eyes: A
Poetic View of Life by Homer Tate. His subject matter
ranges from the humorous to somewhat maudlin religious verses.
Here is an example of the former:
These old bones are gettin' achey,
My old legs are growin' shaky; Day by day I'm growin' older,
Got a pain in my
right shoulder. Well, perhaps he didn't have anything on
Robert Frost after all, and, unfortunately, none of his poems
have anything to do with his chosen career; however, the book
is valuable because it contains rare photographs of Tate in
his workshop creating his oddities!
There are only two known copies of this book extant, both
belonging to family members.
You may be asking, "Whatever became of Homer Tate and his
museum and curiosity shop"? The answer is a little mysterious.
The family is reluctant to talk about it. It seems that in the
late '50s or early '60s Tate got into a little trouble with
the law and may have spent some time in the pokey! For a good
Mormon family which had always taken a dim view of its
patriarch's bizarre hobbies, enough was enough and,
apparently, Homer's sons tragically liquidated his museum and
curio shop. More than likely the items were just taken to the
dump. He spent the rest of his life writing and working in the
church and passed away quietly on Friday, February 21, 1975 at
the age of 90.
Not much was told to the grandchildren of their grandfather's
eccentricities. They heard the stories of his numerous and
sometimes very elaborate practical jokes and had vague
memories of receiving shrunken heads on Christmas morning. But
all in all his sideshow business was forgotten. That's where
I come in. You see, I had been collecting oddities for some
time when a collector from the East Coast asked me about
Tate's and that's when it clicked. I had heard the same
stories from my stepmother about the shrunken heads and put
two and two together. Thanks to her intervention, I am able to
present this brief history of a man who would otherwise have
been mainly forgotten, except for his heads, of coarse.
Feejee Mermaid Courtesy of Vade Tate
Devil Boy from the collection Shad Kvetko
Wolf Boy Courtesy of Mark Frierson