The Many Faces the Phantom of the Opera


I recently went to see the Phantom of the Opera.  It is the touring Broadway show.  The older matron mentioned something about the Phantom escaping from a sideshow.  Can you give me any information about the Phantom's connection to the sideshow? 


April Anderson, Salt Lake City Utah

April, There has been a love affair with the masked phantom for the past 93 years. The original story was published in 1911 by Frenchman Monsieur Gaston Leroux.  The Phantom of the Opera has been adapted for the movies more than a dozen.  There has also been two television movies and a Tony award-winning play about Erik (the phantom) and his love.


One of the reason for it's longevity many be the universal story about the beauty or darkness of the human soul and how we shouldn't measure the outward appearance or deformities as the value of the human spirit.

The story of the masked musical genius with his deformities that lives in the depths beneath the Opera House is familiar to millions of movie fans and readers.  The alone, misunderstood, person behind the mask was certainly not a monster.  He acted out because of his love for a women and to protect his world far below the streets of Paris.  In a more cotemporary story the Beast did the same thing for his love for Bell his Beauty in the story Beauty and the Beast..


Even though the Phantom has worn the same guise with subtle variations for years, the face behind the mask has provided audiences with a diversity of characterizations. Lon Chaney, the legendary "man of a thousand faces," evokes pity and fear with a repulsive, macabre, and entirely believable make over. In fact, the unmasking of Chaney's Phantom by Mary Philbin  considered one of the great moments of the silent cinema caused many moviegoers in 1925 to faint at the horrible sight.


Gaston Leroux chose to protect the identity of the "Opera Ghost" by referring to him simply as Erik or "the Phantom." Not once does Leroux identify his family name. Though we are given a few details about his background, most of his personal history remains forever cloaked in secrecy. Recent historians and biographers have discovered that his last name may have been "Dessler," "Destler," "Claudin," "Carrier," or "Petrie," that he was born in August or September of 1830 or 1831, and that he came from a working class family.  Years of exhaustive research have produced precious little information beyond that.  Most of what follows is intuitive speculation based on material drawn directly from the original novel.


Erik Dessler was born in September 1831 (??) in a small village not far from Rouen, France. His father was a master mason and builder, and his mother was the towns washer woman. His earliest memory had been of a mask being placed over his head in the cradle to hide his horrific features. As a young boy, Erik was tormented by his fellow schoolmates because of his facial disfigurement. He ran away from home at the age of thirteen, when the horror and embarrassment of his deformity threatened the very livelihood of his parents.


For several years, he appeared in fairs and carnivals as the "living corpse," and traversed the whole of Europe, moving from fair to fair, befriending the other sideshow "freaks." When a greedy showman at the fair of Nijini-Novgorod refused to pay his standard fee, Erik strangled him in his sleep and became a fugitive from justice.


In 1849, he found refuge among the Gypsies, and completed his strange education as an artist, magician, ventriloquist, stage performer, mind reader, and musician. He already sang as nobody on this earth had ever sung before, and soon became one of the Gypsies top performers. In order to protect his identity, Erik assumed a number of elaborate disguises but later relied solely on a mask he fashioned from leather and canvas to hide the look of his "death's head." Word of his astounding acts of ventriloquism and prestidigitation traveled with the caravans returning to Asia, and Erik's reputation quickly reached the attention of the little sultana  the favorite of the Shah-in-Shah of Persia - at the stately palace of Mazenderan.


                    Information From. John L. Flynn book Phantoms of the Opera.

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