Le Freak C'est Chic

Aaron Netsky

The musical Side Show returned to Broadway last season, in a heavily revised revival, to once again tell the story of some of the most famous conjoined twins in history, Daisy and Violet Hilton. Joining the Hiltons on stage, as they did in the 1920s and 1930s, were a colorful cast of characters, many of whom looked as though they had walked out of a horror movie. Side Show is currently being produced, in the revised version’s first post-Broadway production, by Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre.

Designers have often covered actors with masks and make-up to grotesque effect, but sometimes this has to be done with great care and sensitivity. For while some creatures of Broadway, like Elphaba or the Phantom, never actually existed, the Hiltons and their fellow side show performers did, and as anyone watching those interesting-looking people on the stage might guess, they led interesting lives. Here are a few of the real life inspirations behind the characters in Side Show.

The musical features a half-man/half-woman, as many sideshows did. Josephine Joseph was one of the more well known of those performers. She may not have been a hermaphrodite, but she spent many years dressed half in men’s clothes, half in women’s, and convinced a lot of people that she was. She also started the famous chant in the 1932 movie, Freaks: “We accept her, one of us…”

While he wasn’t called Reptile Man, as one of the characters in Side Show is, Emmitt Bejano suffered from ichthyosis, which gave his skin the texture of alligator hide. He was therefore exhibited under the name “Alligator Man,” around the time the Hiltons were performing. In a twist perhaps worthy of its own musical, Emmitt the Alligator Man eloped with his fellow performer, Percilla the Monkey Girl.

Fedor Jeftichew, or Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, seems to have inspired the look of the Dog Boy in the revival of Side Show, though he died before the Hilton twins were born. He was from Russia, where he toured with his father, but he eventually came to the United States to work with P. T. Barnum. His particularly hairy face was caused by hypertrichosis.

There were many “little people” acts in those days, and one of the more famous ones consisted of the Doll siblings, Gracie, Harry, Daisy, and Tiny. They performed in Germany before moving to the United States, where they starred in a Wild West show, and then, for thirty years, performed with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. All four played Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz, and Harry and Daisy starred in Freaks.

Frances O’Connor, averaged size, but with no arms, was sometimes billed as the Living Venus de Milo. She would eat, drink, and even fire a gun with her feet. Ask any actor playing a role that the musical or play she is in does not revolve around, and she should be able to give you the whole back-story of her character, even if she had to make it up during rehearsals.

When the material is historical, though, you can just look up the characters you want to know more about yourself. Particularly in the case of Side Show, digging deeper after you’ve enjoyed the material can open up a world you never knew existed, and is tremendously fascinating, and, in turn, deepens your appreciation of the material that inspired you in the first place. Remember that the next time someone plays down the educational value of theatre.

Aaron Netsky writes the 366 Days/366 Musicals blog at http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com. Side Show isn't featured yet, but things are about to get musically freaky as Halloween approaches, so now would be a particularly fun time to start following along