SSW:  To begin, would you tell our readers about Harley Newman, The Professional Lunatic.


Harley: 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.


SSW:  How long have you been performing?


Harley: 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 1972, clowning. 


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.


SSW: It seems like quite a jump from playing clarinet and bassoon to becoming a clown.  How did that come about?


Harley:  I 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.


SSW:  How did you go from working as a front talker for Roger Boyd, Jr. to performing sideshow stunts?


Harley: 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 decided.


SSW: What type of venues do you work in?


Harley: 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 movies.


SSW: What are some of the TV shows and movies you have been in?


Harley: 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. 


SSW: Where have you traveled to perform? 

Harley: 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 agents does.


SSW: What are some of the reactions you get from people watching you perform? 


Harley: 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 lot.


SSW: Is there any place you particularly enjoy performing?


Harley: 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.


SSW: Please describe some of the sideshow stunts you perform.


Harley: 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 increase it.


SSW: How did you learn to do the various things you do in this art form?


Harley: Some things are traditional, and I learned from other folks. Some things I've had to discover. I'm always working on stuff. 


SSW: Do you have a favorite stunt?


Harley: 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.


SSW: You put on a show that is different than many others who do stunts.  Would you explain how your show is different?


Harley: 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. Toddís brilliant.


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 consultation.


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. 


SSW: You mention many great performers.  Who was particularly influential to you and your style of performance?

Harley: 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 discovering.


SSW: 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?


Harley: 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 avoid collisions.

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.


SSW:  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?


Harley: 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 pointless.


SSW: 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 this stunt?


Harley: 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.


SSW: Do you have plans for breaking any other records?


Harley: 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.


SSW: When you started out performing in sideshows, were there many opportunities for sideshow performers at that time?


Harley: Not outside of sideshows. I was never really a sideshow performer, though itís a label 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.


SSW: What advice would you give someone getting into this art form?


Harley: 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.


SSW: You mentioned you are a sculptor; please tell us more about that.


Harley: 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.


SSW: Where can our readers find information on catching you perform?


Harley: 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?


Let's play!


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!


Shawnee Robinson, Sideshow World



Harley 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 James © copyright 2003 All rights reserved

Harley performing the sword ladder at the 2003 Sideshow Gathering James © copyright 2003 All rights reserved

One Nail Bed of Nails - Harley Newman © copyright All rights reserved

Harley performing fire blast with Ward Hall and Poobah World of Wonders Sideshow ©2003 copyright S.Keeler All rights reserved

Untitled sculpture made from Birch - click on this image to see more of Harley's sculptures - Harley Newman © copyright All rights reserved




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