Could you give us some background information about
I went to the school of Visual Arts in Manhattan. I
graduated in 2001 with a BFA in directing and editing.
Thatís what I am trained in, thatís what I do. I have acted
for years. I enjoy that, especially here in New York I do a
lot of theater. I am in a production of Much ado about
Nothing coming up in February running thru March here in New
York. Ya know, I get a check for acting and I love it and I
enjoy it and it kind of supports my directing habit in a
Producer and Director of the movie American Carny.
How did you become interested in film and visual arts?
Well, I have always been that kid who watched monster movies
and stuff like that. I grew up on a steady diet of Walt
Disney and Stephen Spielberg films and Star Wars and you
know Lucas. Iíve always wanted to do it since I was a kid.
I made my first horror movie when I was twelve. I was not a
person who had to discover or come across it in college; Iím
the other kind of guy. Iím the guy who was doing it as a
kid. It was a natural progression to go to film school and
then do it. I am lucky that I grew up in New Jersey, which
is right next to New York City. New York has been my home
since I was a kid. You have a lot of people with the
decision of do I go west to LA or do I go east to New York?
That wasnít a decision for me because IĎm here, Iím home.
Itís easier, I mean itís hard, but itís easier to already
have a support group a foundation of family and friends.
Your home town happens to be one of the biggest cities in
the world. Thatís always beneficial because you have to
choose to be one place or the other if you want to do this
Please tell our readers about the movie American Carny.
The film is really
essentially about a guy, Todd, who is in New York and has
this bizarre job as a sideshow performer, a magician, and a
historian. To me he was always the key. It was never meant
to be this all encompassing movie about everything in
sideshow. I had seen that before; like the one that was
narrated by Jason Alexander on History Channel. And I had
seen stuff that broke down the history. I thought it was a
chance, you know youíre going to get history and see other
performers, but it was going to be told through Todd. We
were going to mostly keep to the people that were in his
theater. I got introduced to Jennifer Miller, Harley
Chris McDaniel, and all these people with acts and I thought
heís the center point really when it comes down to it. His
life is so much Mr. Sideshow. Then you find out that he and
his wife get married and they have a show for a wedding with
all of these performers there. He to me was a catalyst to
break off and then you can learn about this world. But it
was always through him. It was a little bit more of an
intimate behind the scenes movie about people who are there
today rather than just a history or just this academic
exploration of sideshow. It isnít as if I am here and Iím
talking about this exterior thing, I wanted to be in it. I
wanted to be part of it.
Why do a film on Todd Robbins and the sideshow?
I had a friend who was stage managing Carnival Knowledge,
Todd Robbinís show that went to off Broadway (at the fringe
festival). I knew nothing about Todd Robbins and I didnít
even know that much about sideshow per se. I guess I knew
just what the average person knows about sideshow; you know
like freaks and stuff like
that. But my friend said to me, ďHey ya wanna come down and
see a freak show tonight at the Fringe. This guy does a one
man show about sideshow and he eats light bulbs
nails into his nose and thingsĒ. And I said ďOh that sounds
disgusting I donít wanna see thatĒ. And my friend said,
ďNo, no, no, youíre picturing some punk with a thousand
rings in his face doing crazy stunts. No Todd is definitely
going to be up your alley. The way he projects himself itís
not what you expect. It goes against expectations.Ē And
that kind of lured me over there and as soon as Todd came on
stage I was completely hooked! It was this very
traditional, or old school, presentation of him in this
outside talker sort of uniform and just the way he presents
himself. By the end of the show you almost feel like you
want to jump right into that old world of a sideshow that
you would see at Luna Park or Coney Island in the early
1900s. After that I started working at Monday Night Magic
on Monday nights to pick up some extra money while I was
going to film school. I became friends with Todd and some
of the other people there. At one point I said to him ďYa
know Todd, youíve been on a lot of TV shows and specials but
has anybody ever done a movie really on you and your love of
the world of sideshow?Ē He said ďWell, no,Ē and he then
said, ďSure we can do that, that is fine,Ē and it kind of
bloomed from there.
What were you doing at Monday Night Magic?
I was just giving a hand to a friend who was the stage
manager. It was actually the benefit show right after
September 11th. Monday Night Magic usually had 3 magicians
and 1 MC in a show. This night, because it was a benefit
show, they had about 14 to 20 magicians performing. My
friend called me up, he had worked with me in theater
before, and said hey I need someone else to come down here
and help work backstage. I said sure. We were down at the
Sullivan Street Playhouse, which is a very little theater.
He had about 20 magicians and jugglers and acrobats, you
know all these acts in this little, little space. It was
the Ed Sullivan show. I was just kind of thrown into it.
Ya know, ďWhoís Amazing Larry, I need Amazing Larry on
deck!Ē And they liked me over there and I continued to stay
on with them for a while working periodically on Monday nights;
just working backstage. And of course, the magicians
became comfortable with me back there. And knowing their
acts, you know David Oliver, Magician Simon Lovell, and thatís how I kind of
ingratiated myself into their click. Itís a world that I
have always been fascinated with anyways; the magic world.
How did you become friends with Todd Robbins?
When I first met him at the Fringe festival that was just a
handshake. At the 9-11 benefit show I said, ďOh I saw your
show about a year ago,Ē and you know Todd is always very
gracious and said, ďOh, Thank you, Thank you.Ē Besides that
I would talk to him whenever I could grab a chance when we
were backstage. Every so often when he was there I would
come up to him and ask him a question about how he got into
this stuff; that is what kind of fascinated me. Todd is so
articulate and such a great story teller (sit down with Todd
and you know he loves telling you stories). It seems the
movie just became an extension of me asking him questions
backstage at Monday Night Magic. I was like, letís get a
camera in here and we can continue on and we could probably
get a whole movie off this. So thatís how I really became
friends through Monday Night Magic and making the movie.
Was it as an adult that you first became interested in the
Well, Iíve always been fascinated by monster movies and things
of that nature. You know the old universal studios monster
movies with Val Lewton at RKO movies. Like Todd
Browningís Freaks, you know things like that which are sort
of connected to it. It came out of a love of horror movies
or science fiction or fantasy. So the next natural step
would be someone like that falls across these sideshow
performers. Itís not sort of a big jump if your interests
lie in that sort of darker stuff to jump into the sideshow.
Your knowledge of it before that has always been from a sort
of mysterious Elephant Man-esque perception of it. And when
you meet the real people there are certain similarities that
kind of justify what you expected, then there are other
things that you didnít expect at all in their outlook and
the way they perceive performing these acts, sideshow acts.
It was kind of a natural progression to fall into it, but it
was really through Todd Robbins where I really started to
view the inside of this.
What were some of the things that you didnít expect that you
Maybe not that I didnít expect it, but I was kind of
pleasantly surprised that there were still this amount of
people, there arenít many on a large scale, but there were
many more than I had thought there
were that were still out there working sideshow. They were
Island or were performers that were out there doing this
stuff. For the most part I thought it was all but pretty
much dead. I didnít even know there was even a sideshow
running in Coney Island. Not until I went out there and
met, through Todd, all the guys out there. Or
even knew about Ken Harckís Brothers Grim, I had no idea
about those guys. Thatís the one thing I guess you could
say that I didnít expect was these people. Even though itís
not really a lucrative career, thereís such a love for it.
There are still people carrying that torch in their own
way. They all have their different perspectives on it of
course. But theyíre still out there doing it and that was
impressive to me.
As you filmed the movie, were there any changes in your
perceptions about what you had thought the sideshow would
be to what you found through being there and discussing with
Every time we interviewed somebody another performer would
come up that I had never heard of before. I didnít know
them, the performers all know who these people are and it
comes up in conversation. So in a way, each interview led
to the next interview. Somebody mentioned Shocked and
Amazed and James Taylor
and his tie with the American Dime Museum. I was like who
is that? You find out, you call
up, you go down there. Then you find out What is the
Dime Museum and you get this whole thing from him. In that
way I learned about different aspects related to sideshow if
not the sideshow itself. Like Wild West Shows and how
closely they were related to the circuses and sideshows from
people like Chris McDaniel and other performers who are
still out there and their perspective of why they are doing
what theyíre doing. The why to me was always more important
than how. How do you swallow a sword or hammer things into
your face, of course thatĎs interesting. But to me the more
interesting question is WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS?
Do you feel like you answered that question in your film?
I think so, I think everybody answers in their way, there is
no one answer per se. Iíve tried to express the answer in
each of the interviews and performances that you see.
Jennifer millerís perspective on things sideshow, why Harley
Newman does it; they each
their own perspective. I didnít get into this because I
wanted Todd to teach me, Iíd be the last person who would
attempt to do any of this stuff. But what it did tell me is
that other things in my own life, in say pursuing film
directing, (the things people constantly tell you oh thatís
impossible) Todd says this show is to tell you the
impossible can be possible. And if that has you thinking
that means people will go out and do great things. And I
thought that that translates to a lot of people, that it
doesnít have to be about sideshow but in any form of career
or art or anything somebody wants to do, and somebody says
you can never do that, thatís impossible, you know you can
do that stuff. That to me was what I locked into. I guess
if you could say there was a message to the movie that would
be the message in a way.
What were the differences in perspective between Jennifer
Miller, Harley Newman, or Todd Robbins?
Thereís a contradiction between different peopleís
perspectives on this stuff when you get in to it. Even in
the end whether sideshow is coming back or not. You have
all these people who are carrying the torch and others
saying no itís dead. So you have these contradictions of
view point which I think is interesting. I tried not to
push one personís view point over another by saying I agree
with this and not that. I know one of the reviews I read on
the movie criticized that a little saying that they felt
that the film itself didnít have an exact perspective on
it. I disagree; I mean obviously I have a love for this
stuff. Itís undeniable; itís already in a good light. But
at the same time, I didnít want to do a movie, where like a
lot of documentaries now where it is them pushing a view
point or an agenda so strongly that there is no way that you
where they are coming from. Iíd rather show that Jennifer
views it as one thing and Harley views it as another. Just
show that and let people see it for what it is. You donít
push so hard in one way or the other. It seems like
Jenniferís is different. Like she says
she loves the banners, and the circus, and her Circus Amok
is much more political in its drive. Then you have Harley
who is not as outwardly political as Jennifer is more about
confronting fears and bringing the art form into a
contemporary medium. And you have Todd who is more about
resurrecting an atmosphere and a feeling that is nostalgic.
So to me all three of them make up completely different
approaches to this thing; which is interesting to me. When
I read certain criticisms about that I think people are used
to being really pushed or spoon-fed something, whether itís
a political documentary or anything else. I just didnít
want to do that with this. But it obviously makes it less
controversial and less sensationalist, so you know you give
You commented that you would be the last one to learn this;
do you have any interest in working in a sideshow?
No, Iím like one of those guys, you know I donít like roller
coasters I wouldnít go on a roller coaster, but I love
watching other people go on a roller coaster. I love
watching them scream. I would be somebody that would want
to build a park full of roller coasters but never go on my
How was it filming the Sideshow Gathering at Wilkes-Barre?
down there for a couple of days. I attended a very
interesting, talk about learning things, seminar by a guy in
a lab coat. I donít remember his name. I donít think he
was a doctor but he did have a lab coat on and he gave a
seminar on Siamese twins and parasite twins. Which now I
know what a parasite twin is. I love to bring this up at
gatherings when people are eating food and explain to people
what a parasite twin is. I now have good stories for
Well, Iíll tell
you a quick little funny story about that. Weíre back there
in this little room in Wilkes-Barre PA. And I know my whole
crew, theyíre all these film guys and theyíre doing their
job there. We arenít filming; we are just sitting there to
engage with everybody. And you know everybody else in the
room is very much into the whole thing. I am into it but
not to the degree that these people are, they know these
peopleís names. I know my crew is looking at me, I brought
them into to the middle of Wilkes-Barre PA and we are now
sitting in this little room talking about parasite twins.
At one point they start talking about this guy who had an
act, in the early 1900s or late 1800s, where he had a
parasite twin on his arm or wrist where it just had a mouth
that drooled. To prove it was real to people he would have
them come up and slap or pinch it and it would squeal. So I
remember leaving this seminar and my crew were quite pale.
My camera operator turned to me and said, ďWhat about that
guy with the parasite twin? He let people pinch it or hit
it. That guy was a sadist or was he a masochist? I donít
Where did you first premiere this movie?
We premiered it at the Coney Island Film Festival in 2006.
They gave us a very nice spot. They opened the festival
with it. It played before the gala opening of the event.
But after people watched the film we went upstairs to the
Coney Island Museum and they had a live show with some magic
acts and the burlesque acts. So it was quite a fun way and
a perfect venue for this movie to premiere in.
What was the overall feel from the audience about the movie?
I always get pretty good feedback. Itís always fun to hear
what people say to you afterwards. But I like to sit in the
back and see what parts of the movie people are reacting
to. Just literally you can hear, you know like
when the great Nippulini performs, right there you could
hear that whole audience just go crazy. Thatís the stuff
that I latch onto. Whether theyíre laughing or screaming or
you know hiding their eyes at certain spots in the movie.
That to me is more of a feedback than someone giving me a
critique later on.
The peopleís reaction in watching Todd is captured in the
movie. How did the screening audience react to that?
That was important for me. I loved watching the audience
actually watching Todd on
film at a screening, to see how they react to the crunching
of the glass and the light bulb eating, but the part for me
within the context of the film to show the audienceís
reaction while he is doing this. Itís a really bizarre
experience to watch the movie audience watch the audience on
screen react to Todd. So theyíre laughing at the fact that
the people on screen are shutting their eyes or getting
squeamish or throwing their hands over their face.
Have you shown it anywhere else? Was it released in
theaters before you released in on dvd?
It had screenings at a number of different festivals. It
ran at the New York Anthology. It ran at a Spud Fest in
Idaho. It ran at several festivals. I didnít go to all of
them. But I did go down to the New York Anthology. It
actually ended up being a pretty full house. It wasnít
advertised that well, but it was down there. You know the
essential people know when it is playing somewhere. People
love this stuff and they go. And if I get the cult
following Iíll be happy with that. That was really fun;
especially when certain people who are into this stuff drag
other friends and family who donít know anything about it.
You can tell by that initial reaction at the beginning of
the movie when Todd bites into the glass. You can tell
whoís really shocked and going, ďWhat?Ē
What would you like your audiences to take away from this
hope that people know that it still exists and itís still
around. There are so many people that will see the movie
that will go I didnít even know there is still a sideshow on
Coney Island or I didnít even know the stuff was still
there. And thatís fun. And the other thing is I tried
making it so it wasnít just a movie for preaching to the
converted. Thereís stuff that makes you wince, obviously,
but I didnít think it should be packed with stuff so
disgusting to look at that only people into this would watch
it. For the most part I think itís a pretty general movie.
People who knew nothing about it, I think they latch onto
Toddís story; he and Krista, this husband and wife team
thatís working in this bizarre field. And Toddís
relationship to Melvin Burkhart. I donít think you have to
be into sideshow to relate to it. Whenever anything means
something to somebody, whether it be cooking or anything, if
somebody has a passion and love for something no matter what
thatís what I hope people will get out. To really
that sort of love that you have for something and I think
people will identify hopefully with Todd. It is to me more
than about the sideshow. People like Jennifer Miller have
an interesting perspective; whether she happens to play the
woman with a beard or no beard in a sideshow. Ok she has a
beard on her face, well what if she didnít work in the
sideshow. What if she worked at FedEx? She would still
have the beard. So how does it affect you to walk around
when youíre not in the sideshow? I mean you almost expect a
woman with a beard to be in a sideshow, thatís her place.
You go to a sideshow and you expect her to be there. Take
that person out of that world and now what is it like? How
do people react to that? How have you dealt with that? She
was one of the more interesting people to give a perspective
on the relation on what she does in the sideshow world and
then who she is. And how one influences the other.
What are your plans for upcoming projects?
We have a
project called Crawl Space that we want to get into
production in 2008. We are doing a budgeting break down now
with the producer. That movie is a very bizarre and dark
cerebral horror love story. Itís very bizarre. Itís a
story by Candace Caponegro; who Iíve known for many years.
She came to me with the story and I co-wrote the screen
play with her. Weíve been working on the script for a long
time on that. Now were finally getting to the stage where
weíre going to go with it next. The other thing Iím working
on and producing with someone else is to bring the Grand-Guignol,
French Theater of Horror, to New York City off Broadway. I
would like to have that for September, October, or November
of 2008. Were looking into venues now and were into
development. Weíre putting together all the plays. Some of
the plays are new plays written as a sell of the Grand-Guignol.
And one we are going to revive a classical piece called the
Torture Garden. The Grand-Guignol is like in the movie
Interview with a Vampire. The scene when the vampires go to
that theater and devour the girl on the stage is a direct
homage to the Grand-Guignol. In fact they even shot the
exterior in front of the chapel in Paris where the Grand-Guignol
was performed; it has since changed into a theater school.
It influenced horror movies for the most part. But
bizarrely it was a theater movement that ran from the late
1800s to 1962 and became the biggest tourist attraction in
Paris second only to the Eiffel tower. It was a theater of
the macabre. Four or five one act plays a night. They
would be psychological dramas, bloody raunchy sex farces,
but the staple was the horror play. There would be a lot of
over the top on stage graphic violence; throat slashing, eye
gouging. It is something that for some reason a lot of
people in theater they skip. It is something that gets a
chapter when you study to get your BA in film. It is
something that is right to come back in a theatrical
movement because there is not a lot of true horror in
theater vs. movies. So were trying to get that going in NY
for this year.
Do you plan on any other films about the sideshow?
I am trying to
stay away from anything sideshow for a while. It creeps in
there. I wrote a one act play for this Grand-Guignol thing
I told you about that actually takes place in a sideshow
setting. It ends up creeping up in there in some way. But
I am trying to jump away from that for a while.
AT the end of the film you give some updates on the cast of
the film. Do you have any further updates?
The great Nippulini is on the mend. He is lifting things
again. But he doesnít do performances around like he used
to. He does things on TV or radio now. I believe he is
planning on pulling a car or something heavy to get into the
Guinness World Book. I think the car has to be something
over 2000 lbs or something like that he is going to pull by
his breasts. The Nippulini is on the rebound; I guess you
could say the nipples are coming back. The ones I have
talked to recently are still out there working and doing
their thing. I know Todd has a number of projects heís
pitching for television. I think Todd is really pushing it
into television now. I am hoping the movie will help that
Have you made any lasting friendships with anyone from the
been so many years since we started this thing. It is 2008
now and I met Todd in 2000. In fact Todd may be involved in
the Grand-Guignol. We havenít decided on a role yet but he
is interested in that. I definitely have collaboration now,
with Todd especially. And Harley Newman, Harley is somebody
that I always enjoy talking to when we do get to talk by
phone. Itís nice to have those friendships that kind of
come out of that.
After spending this much time involved with the sideshow, do
you feel it is a dying art?
no doubt it is a dying art in the form that it used to be.
It doesnít make any money. This movie was a hard sell. It
took a year to get somebody to look at the movie and say
itís worth putting out there that there is an audience for
it. There is an audience for it, but I think it is going to
be in a different medium. And it is in a different medium.
Sideshow as going under a tent and seeing it I think thatís
There is really nothing you could do to really run that and
breakeven at least. But definitely there are elements of
the sideshow that will always be there whether itís in
movies or on these weird reality shows where you have people
doing crazy stuff; you know weíve got people eating bugs.
Well thatís what someone would do years ago in a sideshow
but that was done professionally and they have an act around
it. I hope that the performance aspect of it, people that
have a persona about them, will still be around rather than
people just doing things because thatís not, to me, as
impressive. Itís impressive to me when someone creates a
character around it. Itís almost like a vaudeville type of
thing. I think itís dead in its original form but thereís
going to be a new sideshow-esque form in television and
Is there anyone you would like to thank?
It was a
pleasure to get to know these people and get these
friendships. People were so willing to share and thatís
really because of Todd. Todd kind of gave me his blessing.
I was allowed to video tape these peopleís performances; you
know this is their bread and butter. They sat down and
talked to me very openly and honestly about it. So I hope
that the movie does all of the people in it justice. I hope
people are entertained by it.
I would like to
thank Nick for taking the time to do this interview with
Shawnee Robinson Sideshow World
is available on DVD from
for more information.
Courtesy of Nick Basile - copyright 2008 all rights reserved
2 Chris McDaniels - Whips - Wild West
Robbins - Eats Light Bulb
4 Group at
Robbins & Nick Basile
Taylor - American Dime Museum
8 Harley Newman
- 4 Nail Bed of Nails
9 Jennifer Miller
- Woman with a Beard
Island Film Festival Banner
Great Nippulini - Bowling Ball
Robbins - swallows Neon Sword
Nipple - "OUCH"
16 Pete Turhune
and Ward Hall - Sideshow Gathering