Q. You have a lot of interest
and knowledge about the sideshow industry, past and present, not
as a performer, what is it that drives your interest? What
A. I'd like to say it's all some altruistic, high-minded
force of nature, but, in fact, it's simple fascination coupled
with knowledge of posterity. I realized pretty early on in my
interest in the business that fans of the show business were rabid
about it and had very, very long memories, especially freak show
fans. The math was simple after that: being involved in reporting
on the business would guarantee the resultant books a half life
of, oh, hundreds of years. At that altruistic level, though, I
admire any showman who can accomplish what 99% of the writers on
planet earth can only dream of: hold an audience and make them
react in a major way. Can you see an audience for a typical poet
or short story writer or novelist reacting the way a typical
sideshow audience does at a show? That writer would never want to
get off stage.
Q. Who else is involved in making "Shocked & Amazed!"
A. Although we've got a pretty standard line about all the
show-people who make it possible, and although we've a number of
people we bug on a regular basis (our artists being the hardest
hit crowd), the lion's share of the project is mine and Kathleen
Kotcher's. In all honesty, though, no Kathleen, no "Shocked &
Amazed!" She started as production manager a decade ago, and she's
now co-writer on the project. And that's above and beyond doing
her own on-line newsletter, the NetFreakAlert. I might be the
public face of "Shocked & Amazed!", but Kathleen does all the work
Q. What goes into putting together an issue?
A. You mean other than never having enough money?
Oh, that's right, I'm supposed to tell
you what goes "into" an issue. Seriously, so much of any issue is
plotted and constructed so far ahead, we tend to "build" them
almost last minute. Volume 6, for example, with the exception of
the inevitable production glitches, could've been built in about a
month; it's all mechanics. No, what goes "into" an issue is
staying connected to the business 365 days a year, interviewing as
regularly as I can (even if the interview might not see print for
years) and acquiring as much text (books, articles, etc.) and as
many images (original and copy-stand) as we can. Whether we make
any money on this (and we don't: it's the book business for god
sake) isn't the concern: if you don't handle the project as though
it were a full-time job, you miss too much, and I don't owe that
kind of performance to the fans of the business.
Q. Tell us a bit about the American Dime Museum.
A. For me, the museum is a natural outgrowth of the
journal. If "Shocked & Amazed!" Documents the history of novelty
and variety exhibition, then the museum shows it to you. Though
it's very much a work in progress, my partner, Dick Horne, and I
would very much like to expand on what's there now into galleries
not just representing sideshow and the old-time dime museums but
also galleries on vaudeville and burlesque and wax shows and
world's fairs and wrestling and European music hall and wax shows
and, well, you get the picture. All things in time, I suppose.
Q. Where would you like to see sideshow as an industry down
A. Where I think it's going anyway: generally accepted by
the public as a
significant part of a novelty & variety & spectacle arts industry,
an industry that I think is in the midst of rather fitful
renaissance at the moment. It seems to be happening in a huge way
in burlesque, it happened a decade ago with the tattoo business,
so I guess we'll just have to see where all this goes. Frankly,
I'd like to see at least one house in every major city where, on a
regular basis (no, not just once a month but maybe a couple nights
a week), novelty & variety was a staple. For that town. That way,
performers could roam the country making money in those venues in
addition to all the others they cultivate currently. Sure would be
nice to see people in the business make a living out of it.
Q. What was the first act you learned and performed?
A. First and only was the nail board which I assumed -
rather stupidly - was just a gazoonie act, so how hard could it be
for me to get it down and use it when necessary? Needless to say,
I busted myself up some in the early work with it. Thanks to a
couple of real pros - Harley Newman and Todd Robbins, specifically
- I'm not nearly killing myself in the act. I've started doing the
nail board sandwich, another stunt that has its moments (some
pretty stupid ones on my part, I might add, such as the time I
place the top board too far up my chest and got an instantaneous
and unplanned blood tattoo; not smart). I walked the sword ladder
in the American dime museum twice, and it was the most painful
thing I've ever done willingly in my entire life; needn't do that
Q. Why is documenting the history of this industry
important to you?
A. Above and beyond the reasons noted above (and that it's
a hell of a lot of fun dealing with the people in this business),
I think it's important to get the true word out on a business that
prides itself on humbug. Not that I'm into being the secret
magician revealing the man behind the curtain, mind you, but I
think it's important to preserve the history of the people who
make their lives out of this business, certainly as important as
documenting anything that comes out of traditional theatre,
Q. Who's been your most interesting interview thus far?
The one I'll do next.
Q. What are your most memorable moments since working on
"Shocked & Amazed!"?
A. Jeez, there's almost too many to recount. And so many of
them represent moments that'll never come again. I think my most
memorable moments come whenever I can retell some jackpot for
someone who's never heard it and watch the look on his or her
face. It's as close as I'll ever get, I suppose, to what it must
feel like for those showmen whose lives I try to document.
Q. What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?
A. I could be doing something other than this?
Interview By Charon Henning
For more information on James
Taylor's Shocked & Amazed! visit
Each month we will try and
interview a new performer for the site. Because of the logistics
of it face to face interviews are tough to come by. A good
percentage of the interviews we will be doing will be via e-mail
or telephone. If you are interested in being interviewed for the
drop us a line.