A Tribute to Johnny Eck

A Review by Walt Hudson


Johnny Eck the half-man was a leading sideshow attraction during the 1930's. Born in 1911 without legs he got around by running on his hands.
He gained national recognition after his appearance, along with dozens of other human oddities, in the film FREAKS.

In April of 2008 Eck was voted into the Coney Island "Freaks Hall of Fame." A special program was presented May 10, 2008 at the Creative Alliance Theater in Baltimore MD Eck's hometown.

"Half Man/Whole Life: Johnny Eck!" began when Elias Savada, historian and co-author of Tod Browning bio "Dark Carnival" presented a commentary on the film FREAKS. The film would prove to be one of the most influential horror flicks of the early sound period. When the 1932 shocking film was released many theaters refused to exhibit it. Many states heavily censored it and it was banned in England for three years. Savada described the scenes cut from some of the censored versions and also related alternate endings that were made to the film. These were later shown in his presentation. The horror film which is technically primitive by today's standards has become a cult favorite and is available on DVD.

Following the film presentation^sideshow historian and author James "Shocked & Amazed" Taylor discussed Eck's continuing mystique.

To add a sideshow flavor to the evening, champion sword swallower Johnny Fox and Taylor performed several sideshow acts.

Local magician Jack Gaylin, friend and colleague of Eck, told of personal experiences with Eck who often performed magic as part of his sideshow act. Jeff Gordon a local collector of Eck's artifacts recently purchased the house where Eck was born and lived all his life. Gordon has long range plans to turn it into a museum honoring one of the city's most fascinating figures. Gordon has spent $100,000 on all things Eck.

Gordon related that Eck whose height was only 18 inches was extremely talented. He carved and painted toy circuses, perfected magic tricks, and operated Punch & Judy shows.

He drove race cars, kept in shape with gymnastics, swam for the weightless fun of it and was a scenic artist.

He owned and operated his own railroad from 1957 through 1970's: a miniature train with engine, three cars and 300 feet of track. It carried 20 kids at a time. Eck died of a heart attack Jan. 5, 1991 at the age of 79.

Following Gordon's presentation there was an hour long question and answer period with the panel consisting of Savada, Taylor, Fox and Gordon.

It was an informative and entertaining program about half-man Johnny Eck, Baltimore's multi talented Renaissance man.


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