Columbus, Ohio USA
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Freaks and Geeks
Sideshow banner collection at Galeria Zona Corazon
recalls the grit of the circus underworld
by Jennifer Hambrick
Photos by Gus Brunsman III
A twinkle comes to Micky Bletz’s eye when he recalls the day he met Lobster Boy.
“I was ten years old and I went to the fair with my grandparents,” Bletz said. “I shook Lobster Boy’s hand and got his signature. I wish I still had that signature.”
Grady Stiles Jr. was one of many people whose physical abnormalities typecast them in less politically correct times as circus sideshow freaks. His hands and feet – malformed to resemble lobster claws – cancelled him out of the running for many walks of life, but proved invaluable in launching his career as the carny called Lobster Boy.
Bletz says his encounter with Lobster Boy ignited a fascination with the world of the circus, so much so that he came over time to collect not just the banners announcing the sideshow acts, but also the life stories of the carnies themselves. The authentic sideshow banners currently on display at Bletz’s Galeria Zona Corazon have the feel of a tribute to his friends. They also herald the May 2007 arrival of Behind the Banner, a book Bletz is co-authoring with St. Louis writer Mike Zeculin about the world of the fire-eaters, contortionists and illusionists of today’s more politic sideshow circuit.
Bletz’s banner collection is the product of three decades of research and investing, and contains pieces dating from the 1890s through the 1960s and examples of work by some of the banner industry’s greatest artists. One of the orange-edged banners currently on display, depicting the half simian, half homo sapiens female form of “Priscilla the Ape Girl,” was painted by Johnny Meah.
“He’s one of he greatest,” Bletz said.
Banners for “Elaine Marie, the Girl With Two Heads,” a knife-throwing bearded woman named Jennifer, an arachnid-human admixture called Spidora and Barnum’s Fiji Mermaid – so small she fits in a fishbowl—were variously the work of Jack Browning, Synrex and Meah Studios. The father-son greats Clarence and Jack Sigler also are represented in the collection, as is Fred Johnson, whom Bletz calls “the king” of sideshow banner artists.
Although only a few of Bletz’s banners are currently on display, he is making plans to set out the entire collection – and offer many of them for sale – when Behind the Banner rolls off the presses.
Ultimately, both Bletz’s banner collection and his forthcoming book are the fruits of years spent cultivating professional relationships and even friendships with the people who perform in today’s sideshows. They are the people who tell him about banners ready for sale, and who have told Bletz and Zeculin their stories from the underbelly of the sideshow world.
“It’s a real collaboration with the carnies,” Bletz said.
And it has been a labor of love for Bletz, who claims always to have been fascinated by the unusual.
“I just like oddities.”
Galeria Zona Corazon, 1198 N. High Street, 614-291-9453 (wild). Open Tues. - Sat. 11-7.
© 2006 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.