To begin, would you tell our readers about Harley Newman,
The Professional Lunatic.
Hmmm. I like to make physical
shapes. So I like gardening, sculpting, working with my
hands. I also like psychological shapes, so I like
performing and teaching. ďProfessional LunaticĒ was a
marketing gimmick that many people find apt.
How long have you been performing?
When I was a little kid, I
had hats. I had to wear the right hat to play cowboys. It
was a kind of show. Through high school, I played clarinet
and bassoon, which was another kind of performance, and
started being in plays. I had my first professional gig in
In 1975, I was the mascot
for the Indianapolis Clowns Baseball Team. I got to put
firecrackers under the umpire, steal the bat from the
opponentís star batter, interrupt the game and go to bat on
the unicycle. I had a 6 foot bat, that I only had to get
into the right position, and itíd slam the ball. I actually
learned how to play baseball.
When I was little, nobodyíd
have me on their team, because I didnít know how to throw
too well. As a kid, I could throw more accurately with my
feet, than with my hands. Iíd spend hours, picking up
pebbles with my toes, and throwing them at particular leaves
on bushes, trees.
Ď76-77 I was with Hoxie
Brothers Circus. Iíve been mostly self-employed since then.
Hoxie was my first big-show
experience. In a circus, nobody has one job. Everybody does
multiple things. I did a lot of PR appearances, took
townsfolk around on tours, clowned, etc. ďEtc.Ē is the key
word. That was in addition to set-up and
tear-down. The show went up and down, almost every day.
Roger Boyd, Jr. was the
sideshow manager. When Roger was done with the bally, heíd
go in the tent to do the inside talking. Iíd take over the
outside talking, and sell tickets. Margaret Ann Robinson
(midget) was there, Bill Unks (fire-eating,
sword-swallowing), Joe Eddy (Fairchild) was the magician.
Rogerís wife, Marina, did bladebox and electric chair.
The sideshow and menagerie
were in the same tent. There was a lion named Clarence, an
old sweetie who liked to have his eyes and chin rubbed; a
red-face macaque; some baboons; a bear; llamas, a yak, a
camel, the elephants; and Mongo, one of Bob Noelís gorillas.
Mongo was pretty shy.
It seems like quite a jump from playing clarinet and bassoon
to becoming a clown. How did that come about?
changed schools. The new school didn't have the same
opportunities musically. Then I started doing school plays.
In college, having decided to try clowning, I majored in
theater, because it was the closest thing.
How did you go from working as a front talker for Roger
Boyd, Jr. to performing sideshow stunts?
It was roundabout. After my
seasons with Hoxie Bros, I quit performing for a while. I
got a master's degree, and had jobs for a few years as a
counselor with de-institutionalized street people. During
that time, I crept back into performing, and started doing
stunts that I'd learned about. I got to the point of running
a place, and I just didn't get along with my board of
directors, most of whom were preachers. They seemed to think
that my job was to turn folks into middle-class citizens,
living in middle-class houses, and of course, going to the
correct middle-class churches. Most of the folks were lucky,
just not to space out, crossing the street, and get run
over. Middle class was out. When I chose to return to
full-time performing, this was the direction on which I
What type of venues do you work in?
Mostly colleges. I might be in a cafeteria, a theater, a
hallway, sometimes outside. Iím grateful that nobodyís put
me in a broom closet yet, but thatís probably just a
question of time, and somebody not having the right form
filled out. Colleges arenít the most organized places in the
world. Iíve also done a couple hundred TV shows, and a few
What are some of the TV shows and movies you have been in?
Rodney Dangerfield's "Meet
Wally Sparks". American Carny. A couple of things many years
ago, titles that I don't recall. One of them won an award,
but all I remember was that it was one of the few times I
was hired to mime. Today Show. Tonight Show. Penn & Teller's
Sin City Spectacular. Geraldo. Jenny Jones. Don Francisco.
Steve Harvey. Those are probably the best known.
have you traveled to perform?
I think only 6 foreign
countries, and in the US...44 states. But thanks to the
wonders of television, Iíve been seen by the entire Arabic,
English, and Spanish speaking worlds, and most of the rest.
Re-runs put my face into over 85 countries a year. Probably
a billion people have watched me work. But almost none of
them know my name. They say ďDid you see that guy who...Ē
Thatís me, that guy who. I wish I had a penny for every
person whoís seen me on TV, but I donít. I think one of my
What are some of the reactions you get from people watching
They laugh. They squirm. They
cover their eyes. They howl. They groan. They hold their
breath. They sit down. They jump up. And they applaud. A
there any place you particularly enjoy performing?
I used to like
street-performing a lot. Thereís immediacy to it that tells
you if youíre doing a good job. Now though, Iím beginning to
like theaters. Sound and lights can enhance the experience a
lot, for the audience. We play with the imaginations of our
audiences, so this is important. And the stages are bigger,
which means more workspace.
Even so, to me, a show will
never feel quite right, if it isnít under tent.
Please describe some of the sideshow stunts you perform.
That would take a very long
time. I play with a lot that I donít have in my show. I just
donít put them into a regular program, because I havenít
discovered a routine I like. And I donít need to do a
performance thatís hours and hours long. Usually, I have
16-18 routines in a performance, though I'm about to
How did you learn to do the various things you do in this
Some things are traditional,
and I learned from other folks. Some things I've had to
discover. I'm always working on stuff.
Do you have a favorite stunt?
No. I like the storytelling,
playing with the audience. The stunts are often just
punctuation marks in the story.
People always ask what scares
me most, what's the most dangerous. I don't think about it
that way. When I'm doing a stunt, I tend to be very focused
on it. I've learned that if my mind wanders, that's when I
mess up and get hurt. Any stunt is the most dangerous, when
I'm doing it. The same with favorite.
You put on a show that is different than many others who do
stunts. Would you explain how your show is different?
Most of the people in this
business, at least the ones Iíve seen, do one of two things.
They use a presentation style that comes from the mid-1800s,
or they try to copy the Jim Rose shock treatment.
Todd Robbins is the
absolute best at the historical approach. Nobody else comes
even close, though a lot of folks try to copy his style.
And theyíre NOT Jim, whoís
a brilliant talker. They try to copy his style, and they
fall on their faces.
Also, a performance that
lasts 15 minutes, needs to be handled differently than one
that lasts a couple of hours. Each has its own requirements,
to be done well. Each has its own performance conventions,
habits, some of which work, some of which donít. Thereís a
lot more. Thatís why folks come to me for training and
There are some other folks
who are great. Johnny Fox, for example, whoís a great
variety performer. One time, I was fixing some ladyís
bathroom tiles, and she started describing Johnnyís show to
me, in amazing detail. Sheíd seen it 7 or 8 years
previously. That says a lot.
There are some other folks
(Lucifire, John Kamikaze, Frodo Sandven, Tyler Fyre) who are
playing with some interesting forms. Iíve heard that the
Circus of Horrors is phenomenal.
You mention many great performers. Who was particularly
influential to you and your style of performance?
Pio Nock. Laurel and Hardy. The Marx Brothers. Otto
Griebling. Tom Sink. Nick Weber. There are quite a number of
others I like a lot. I discovered my style, over a long
period of time. It combines elements of theater, circus,
street-performing, stand-up comedy, prop comedy, and
slapstick. History, philosophy, comparative religion,
psychology, it's all there. And I'm still experimenting and
Your performance involves the use of story lines and
background before the actual stunt. Why do you take the
time to develop a story for your audience?
There are a couple of basic
styles to performing. In the traditional circus style, we
often announce what weíre going to do, drum roll, we do it,
cymbals clash, and then we ask for applause. In the
traditional theater style, there are characters, plot,
dramatic conflict and resolution. Iíve tried to create a
place that uses the strengths of each. People are creatures
of emotion. Telling a good story plays into that, enables a
performer to lead the audience down a particular garden
path. It doesnít always mean a story in the sense of ďOnce
upon a time, they lived happily ever after.Ē It means that
each part of the performance has a reason to happen.
Something happens, thereís a reaction, and something
develops from that. The audience understands, without having
to take the time to ask questions. To know different styles
of story-telling enables me to use different tools for
different situations, so I can lead the audience right where
I want them.
Hereís an analogy. Itís
like swimming. If youíre swimming along, thereís a rhythm to
it. If you bump into something, you break the rhythm, and
have to start it all over again. So if you want to swim a
mile, you try to also develop a strategy that enables you to
Also, Iím a bit of a
history nut. I love finding obscure references to the
history of our art form. I just found reference to Ladder of
Swords, from about 450 AD, 150 years before what Iíd
previously found. It might end up in my presentation. There
were just six words.
Most of the folks reading
the text would have no clue about the meaning. It suggests a
new prop design, a powerful image, and the story would come
out of the text.
You have two impressive World Records. The first record is
for the minimum number of nails in a bed of nails (four 9Ē
spikes). How did you evolve from doing the traditional bed
of nails to this version?
Somewhere in the mid 1980s,
there was a one-paragraph note in Circus Report, about
somebody attempting to get the world record for minimum
number of nails in a BON. I donít think the article even
said who it was, but he was going for 11 nails. Iíd been
doing BON for a number of years then, and it just bugged me,
that I couldnít figure out where the 11th nail was supposed
to go. So I did 10, then 8, then 4. I think that was 1986 or
Ď87. Around í99 I cut down to 2 nails, but didnít like the
way it presented. I donít know what it was, but I just
didnít like it. Around í02, I did one nail, just to see. And
in the fall of í06, I started doing one nail for audiences.
Doing it consistently is very different than doing it once.
I had to figure out how to get audience members to help, to
get them to do exactly what I want, because thereís no room
for error. Thatís only the first part of the stunt. The
second part, is knowing what to do, when something doesnít
go the way I want. I had to learn that also. So far, so
good. Iíve only slipped once on it. It took me a couple of
days to get all the pieces of thread (from my pants) out of
the puncture. Itís a weird thing. I have phantom sensations
for a few days, every time I do one nail, and I think I need
to be concerned about tissue degradation. Iíve been trying
to figure out how to do less than one, but it seems so
Your other World Record is for having over 1,700 lbs. on you
while doing a bed of nails. Why did you decide to perform
I was just curious. When I
was a little kid, I hated ďyou canít do thatĒ, and would
promptly have to go out and do the forbidden thing. As an
adult (whatever that is), Iíve come to learn that itís
related to what people fear. Itís like wearing blinders. I
donít HAVE to go do something because itís ďimpossibleĒ, but
I might have to push boundaries. One thing I love about this
business, is that the idea of whatís possible, is very
different than what the towner world accepts. So we can make
a living, giving them dreams.
You probably got that
figure from my website, which I havenít updated in years. My
personal best is now 2700 lbs. If I recall correctly, my
nearest competitor tried 2300 lbs, and passed out in the
attempt. Itís not a thing to be taken lightly. Several
times, Iíve cracked ribs doing weight things. That hurts.
Do you have plans for breaking any other records?
Not particularly. I donít
care much about records. My standards are more personal
goals. One day for fun, I made a list of 17 established
records I could break in a morning, based on my current
skills. Then I threw the list away.
When you started out performing in sideshows, were there
many opportunities for sideshow performers at that time?
Not outside of sideshows. I
was never really a sideshow performer, though itís a
thatís sometimes pinned on me. My idea in the mid Ď80s, was
to take some of the stunts, and some escapes, and create
something that would work in different markets.
I actually worked for Ward
and Chris for a couple of evenings, a couple of years ago.
They were at the Allentown Fair, and had put out a call for
help. Todd Robbins and I showed up on the same day, and took
over the inside. It was great! I always enjoy working with
Todd. And Iím glad to count Ward and Chris as friends.
Even though the golden age
of sideshows is long gone, itís important to remember that
most of this material was around for a long time before
sideshows, and will be around long after theyíre gone. 1000
years ago, many of these stunts were part of
street-preaching. 150 years ago, who wouldíve predicted
vaudeville? 100 years ago, movies were just a passing fancy.
50 years ago, who wouldíve thought of MTV or the internet?
Fortunately, people still
like to be entertained in person. It provides a kind of
emotional interaction that we canít get in other ways. And
people are emotional beings.
What advice would you give someone getting into this art
Probably it'd be different
advice for different people. But it's important to find your
own style. Don't just copy the things you get from your
teachers, the stunts, the lines, the business.
Find your own way.
You mentioned you are a sculptor; please tell us more about
I have to make shapes, that's
all. Sometimes it's a physical shape, carved, welded, cast.
Sometimes it's an emotional shape, which is what we create
onstage. It's just something I have to do. Some sculptures
are pictured on my website.
Where can our readers find information on catching you
Since most of my performances
aren't really open to the public, I don't publish my
schedule. However, if people really want to see me perform,
I'm open to suggestions.
Have a venue?
Thank you very much for
taking the time to do this interview. I must say it has
been a pleasure to get to know you!
Robinson, Sideshow World
with 4 Nail Bed from American Carny
Nick Basile -
copyright 2008 all rights reserved Quattica Pictures
The Blue Monkey
Sideshow with Harley Newman September 20th, 2003 -
Worcester, MA - Derek Rose
© copyright 2003
All rights reserved
Harley doing the
eye hooks at the 2003 Sideshow Gathering
All rights reserved
performing the sword ladder at the 2003 Sideshow Gathering
All rights reserved
One Nail Bed of Nails - Harley
All rights reserved
Harley performing fire blast
with Ward Hall and Poobah World of Wonders Sideshow
All rights reserved
Untitled sculpture made from
Birch - click on this image to see more of Harley's
sculptures - Harley Newman
All rights reserved
Do Not Attempt Without Professional Training