Confessions of a Coney Island Sideshow Performer
Confessions of a Coney Island Sideshow Performer
Donald Thomas (Donny Vomit; b. 1979) was born in Norman, Oklahoma. He is a classic sideshow performer, entertaining crowds with feats such as sword swallowing, fire-eating, and chainsaw juggling. His specialty, however, is the human blockhead act, hammering six-inch nails up his nostrils. Donny performed at Coney’s Sideshows by the Seashore for several years. He has also appeared at Ripley’s Believe It or Not in Times Square and at numerous burlesque and vaudeville shows. In “Confessions of a Coney Island Sideshow Performer,” written specifically for this anthology, Donny provides two autobiographical sketches, the first a reproduction of the spiel he often gave outside Sideshows by the Seashore to attract customers, and the second a description of his experiences as a human blockhead and the audiences who watch him.
C’mon up, folks! Here we go! This is it! This is the one! You’ve heard about it; you’ve read about it; you’ve seen it on TV! Now it’s your chance to see it live! The Coney Island Circus Sideshow! Freaks, Wonders and Human Curiosities the likes of which you have never seen. They’re here, they’re real, they’re alive, and on the inside!
Gather round folks, gather round. We are going to do it right here. We are going to do it right now. A little free show, a little free show in front of the freak show. We are going to bring ’em out right now. Sally! Sally, send ’em on out. Send out the Snake Charmer; send out the Rubber Boy. Here they come, folks.
Now just step a little closer. I want you to see this. Now take a look. I want you to take a look above us. Now every thing that you see pictured, (p.307) painted and advertised on the outside you are going to see live on the inside. And I can tell you about it.
I can tell you about the Fire Eater. This lovely lady is going to eat fire; she will breathe fire; she will lick fire just the same way that you would lick an ice cream cone. Bathe her body in flames! And you are going to see it live.
Then there is the snake charmer, the Amazonian beauty carrying with her the rare Burmese python, thirteen feet long and rounder than a telephone pole! A creature so rare most zoos don’t have one. Hell, we don’t have one; we have two of them!
I can tell you about the Human Blockhead. He’s gonna hammer six inches of solid steel right into the center of his skull and live to laugh and joke about it. There is the sword swallower, swallowing three feet of solid steel from the tips of her lips right down to the bottom of her hoochie pooch!
Just come a little bit closer. Here they come! This here, my friends, is the Indian Rubber Boy. He’s gonna bend, twist, curl, curve, and contort his body into positions that most would find physically impossible!
That’s right, strange girls! Weird women! We’ve got the world’s tallest midgets and the shortest giants. It’s all right here folks. It’s all on the inside. The Sword Swallower, The Human Blockhead, The Snake Charmer, Madame Electra! The Rubber Boy, The Escape Artist! I tell you, a true panorama of beauty and splendor will unfold before your eyes! Ten amazing acts to amaze and amuse you! Confound and confuse you!
And I want you to see it; you are in the right place at the right time. It’s our first show of the day. Sally! Start that timer! Let me tell you what we’re going to do! For the next five minutes we are going to throw out all the adult tickets! You couldn’t buy one if you wanted to! We are going to throw out all the adult tickets and let each and every one of you in for a child’s ticket! That’s right for the next five minutes you are all my children! So follow our acts on in folks because ONE … TWO … THREE … IT’S SHOWTIME!
I make my living hammering nails into my head.
It wasn’t always nails. I have had things such as ice picks, spoons, screwdrivers, power tools, and switchblade knives up in there over the years. (p.308) But I always come back to the nails. Right now it is a sixty-penny six-inch spike. I tap it into my nostril, and it slides to the back of the skull and it stops short of hitting my spine. This leaves an inch and a half of the nail still exposed for the audience to see. As I run through my related jokes and observations, I tilt my head up and down, side to side. On a good day, the audiences’ eyes lock onto that nail as if it’s a ball at a tennis match.
The initial shock of seeing a grown man doing something any child would be smart enough not to do can vary from person to person and crowd to crowd. And there have been many crowds. In the summers, it is at the Sideshows by the Seashore theater in Coney Island. The audiences are tourist and New York families looking to experience some Coney Island tradition. The evenings are in bars and clubs in Manhattan alongside burlesque dancers, comedians, and magicians. In the winter traveling across the states with a Vaudeville Review jumping from town to town with my trusty hammer and nail. I have hammered nails in front of college classrooms, office Christmas parties, bar mitzvahs, and deep-cable television shows. I once even found myself officiating a wedding under the Brooklyn Bridge. The bride and groom took their rings hanging from the nail in my nose. The reactions are always the same.
First, there are the people who are delighted to see something strange and odd. They may have heard about such a stunt being performed by the Fakirs of India or by performers of the past. They could have read about it in the books that romanticize the tent shows of the old carnivals or circuses. Some may have even seen an explanation of the stunt on TV. Now they are seeing it live. They laugh with anticipation and excitement as the nail is tapped into place. Their minds race back and forth with conflicting arguments. They convince themselves that it can’t be real, but it must be real, but it can’t! When I take the back end of the claw hammer and drag the nail from my face they are cheering and hollering before the nail hits the floor.
Then there are the curious but disturbed. These are the folks who watch the act from between their fingers. The ladies squeeze up against their men. The men grimace and watch out of the corner of their eyes. They squeal and give out nervous laughs. They don’t want to watch, but they will. These are the people I can have fun with. I break the patter and try to comfort them in a calm soothing voice. “Trust me; it’s not hurting you.” This rarely works. They twist and laugh; their reaction becomes the show. (p.309) Sometimes I get closer and demonstrate how I can make the tip of the nail twitch and jump at will. Sometimes I even convince them to pull the nail from my face. They hold it with thumb and forefinger at arm’s length. They may be slightly repulsed but very entertained.
There are also the fainters. Not a common occurrence but always a memorable experience. It is always the larger men who pass out. The gentleman’s body goes limp, his eyes roll back into his head, and he slumps into his seat. This is usually followed by the lady he is with screaming with confusion and fear. I have learned from experience and resist the urge to jump into the audience and help revive. The first thing that you see when you come to should not be me with a nail in my head shaking you awake. The men always say that it was too hot, have a glass of water, and I continue with the show.
Then there are the disgusted, not the fun I-don’t-want-to-watch-but-I-have-to! Disgusted but a specific kind that just shuts down. They stare at the ground stone faced. Some will turn around completely if they have the opportunity. They show no emotion except for great concentration, ignoring what is going on. They do not like it, and they never will. I leave these people alone. Maybe I can get a laugh out of them with the next act when I stick my tongue in a mousetrap.
I have learned many stunts in my years as a professional performer. Swallowed swords in the streets of Times Square and warmed up a room eating fire. I got a great workout from juggling a chainsaw and had indigestion from eating too many lightbulbs. I spent a summer hanging from my ankles escaping from a straitjacket and learned a few jokes along the way. But when I am looking for something that is going to stick with the audience, nothing beats the old hammer and nail.