James Taylor, an authority on carnival and sideshow history, is a living link between the outrageous performers of carnivals' colorful past and the new generation of vaudeville-style entertainers. Taylor has a simple explanation for why he thinks this American art form remains vital.
"Nothing trumps sitting in front of a guy who's driving 8-inch stainless steel spikes in his face," Taylor says. "I think despite the fact that everybody lives in the virtual world — everybody lives in 'Gee, let's push a button and make a thing happen,' or 'Let's all go on Facey-book' — despite all of that, you start to see that maybe all this living and breathing trumps all the virtual."
Taylor is the keynote speaker at this weekend's Snake Oil Festival (www.snakeoilfestival.com), a three-day event that features burlesque dancers, acrobats, aerialists and other circus and sideshow performers from across the country. The festival kicks off Friday night, June 19, at the Howlin' Wolf with Taylor's lecture, How I Spent My Carny Vacation, in which he recounts his entry into the carnival world.
"After my father died, my ma took up with an old carnival guy," Taylor says. "I thought he was the most outrageously, hysterically humorous character I'd ever met in my life. It was one ridiculous, outrageous story after another."
When Taylor started looking for books on the history of carnival and sideshow performers, he came up empty-handed. That's when he decided to write his own. He made the pilgrimage from his hometown of Baltimore to Gibsonton, Florida, a small town south of Tampa, where carnival and sideshow workers regularly migrate for the winter. In Gibsonton, Taylor interviewed many performers who were active in the 1920s and '30s, a period he calls the "golden age" of sideshow. These interviews became the basis for Shocked and Amazed, a periodical journal Taylor started publishing in the late 1990s that is dedicated to contemporary and historical sideshow acts and novelty exhibitions.
"All of those acts traced their way back to the carnival midway," Taylor says. "On the carnival midway, the differences from show to show may seem profound to the average fairgoer, but in point of fact, sideshow people of all stamps — including burlesque, magic shows, monkey speedways, you name it — all of those people were jumbled up on the carnival midway."
Snake Oil Festival aims to recreate the magic of the midway. Festival producers — New Orleans-based performers Ben Wisdom, Little Luna and Ginger Licious — wanted to build on the popularity of burlesque shows in the Crescent City, which often feature variety acts between striptease performances. With three shows over the course of three nights, the festival will present nearly 60 burlesque and sideshow acts, highlighting a number of local artists alongside their nationally and internationally acclaimed peers.
Friday night's show, Carnival at the Crossroads, includes acts like strongman Rusty Bolts from Fairfax, Virginia, and Donny Vomit, a former host of Coney Island's Sideshow by the Seashore, known for his human blockhead act and more. Friday night's lineup leans more heavily toward sideshow acts, but the bill also features several burlesque performers, including Mourna Handful from Washington, D.C., and Charlotte Treuse from New Orleans.
On Saturday, burlesque moves to the forefront with Hoochie Coochie Babylon, a show headlined by New Orleans' own Bella Blue and hosted by cabaret MC Armitage Shanks from Seattle. ("There's some amazing people on that bill, but that guy (Shanks) could sell you the clothes you're already wearing," Taylor says.)
Sunday's Unholy Roller Revival is hosted by Ben Wisdom and includes burlesque performances by fellow festival producers Little Luna and Ginger Licious. The show is a sensational sendup of the traveling evangelical tent revivals that competed with carnivals for paying customers. Wisdom takes the stage as the proselytizing Preacher of Perversion, the Reverend Pastor Father Brother Ben Wisdom.
"My character, along with all of the other performers in the show — whether they be burlesque, or sideshow, or performing music — we're all extolling the virtue of having no virtue," Wisdom says.
In addition to the variety shows, Snake Oil Festival will host an after-party at Hi-Ho Lounge Friday night featuring gypsy jazz band Mayhayley's Grave. Another after-party at Siberia Saturday night features Debauche!, the self-described Russian mafia band. The festival presents a series of workshops with festival performers Saturday and Sunday afternoon, covering topics ranging from Tarot card reading and glass walking to production advice and travel tips. During the festival, vendors at the Snake Oil Market will sell clothing, accessories, jewelry, art and other wares.
Festival organizers hope to make Snake Oil Festival an annual event. They envision it as a gathering spot for a diverse community of performers and an opportunity for a wider audience to experience sideshow and carnival culture.
"We are the other show business," Taylor says. "We're not Broadway, we're not the film industry, we're not major network TV. We are weirdness as entertainment."