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Buskers on the Bowery

A Johnny Fox's Freakatorium

By Rachelle Meyer

I stand outside the Freakatorium with my face pressed against the glass, something that many Lower East Side residents and passer-by have probably done. With an intriguing name and an amazing collection of oddities, human and otherwise, even when closed and only marginally illuminated, it's mesmerizing. It's in this Peeping Tom position that I'm discovered by Johnny Fox, the proprietor. He saunters towards me in a newly-acquired leather studded cape that he later describes as "Liberace meets Evil Kenieval".

It's no surprise that this man would appoint himself the historian for dime museum and side show history. He has lived the story of the human oddity as well as preserved it. With an ability to swallow sixteen swords at once (a world record if not a Guinness Book's; they closed the category after the previous record holder slid down a mere thirteen), and a long run living in a school bus while travelling from street fair to street fair, Johnny Fox has settled in close to the Bowery and made the region's peculiar history his own.

Johnny throws his cape over a wax figure of Mao Tse-Tung and lights a cigarette. It isn't long before another pedestrian comes by, holding a two-year-old child up to look through the glass. She raps on the window even though the door is locked. Johnny lets them inside briefly, giving the little girl a finger puppet to entertain herself. You'd think that the fascination with this atmosphere belongs in childhood: the sideshow, the circus, the sleight of hand magician who pulls a coin out from behind your ear and startles you into crying. It takes a special perseverance to take that fascination through adulthood and adopt the lifestyle as your own. Johnny found something lacking from all comic books he read as a kid, and started looking for around him for living breathing heroes to emulate. "I thought, 'I want a real superhero,' and my dad bought me a Houdini book and said, 'Here's a real superhero, no jail cell could hold him.' And I read the book and thought, 'Yeah it's cool, but he's dead. I want a real superhero, who's alive.'"

But beyond the obvious influences you find dotting the walls of the Freakatorium, he also credits storytellers like Spalding Gray, Garrison Keillor, and Eric Bogosian for shaping his life. And his love of history and storytelling is evident as he continues on about the history of dime museums and his own personal history, either gnawing on the edges of his fingernails or blowing smoke rings towards me, which dissipate around my fingers as I try to penetrate them.

Though he spent close to twenty years in Colorado, Johnny Fox grew up closer to the influences of the Bowery in Hartford, Connecticut, and even learned many of his magician's skills from Slidini, a local performer known as the godfather of closeup magic. He would stay up until three or four in the morning practicing these tricks. But the calling of sword swallowing followed soon after. "I was doing the magic act in Aspen. And one of the ways we'd get people into the restaurant was to go out and perform and gather a crowd, and say, 'Hey, you guys wanna see the good stuff follow me back into the restaurant.' And I started getting more interested in street performing, and thought I could see the world this way."

He hasn't retired his act while maintaining the Freakatorium. He still keeps a vigorous touring schedule, as well as donating his talents for worthy causes. "I do a show every year for kids. Every state has a burn camp for kids that are severely burned and burn survivors. And once a year the fire fighter's union, the AIFF, they do a national burn camp in western DC, and they bring in one kid from each camp around the country and provinces of Canada. It's happened six times, and I've done every one of them. As a kid, I had this thing about never growing up seeing sideshows and superheroes, you know, that thing. Anyone who's got the courage and bravery to stand up in front of anybody and say, 'This is me, this is how I am, and I'm comfortable with that.' "

The Freakatorium itself is a tribute to that spirit. The current site located on Orchard Street is a prototype he wants to relocate to the Bowery, the original home of the dime museums, where human oddities exhibited themselves before there were sideshows. Johnny points out one of his favorite acquisitions – the wood pieces carved by The Armless Wonder, Charles Tripp, with his feet. And as I look around the shop, at the poster for the Fiji Mermaid, at the two-headed troll dolls, I sympathize with these people eternally consigned to the status of 'Freak!'. Scenes from The Elephant Man where the unwanted and abused are exploited or starved for affection flash through my head.

Johnny disagrees with that portrayal. "There were some people who seemed like they were being exploited. For JoJo there was a concocted story, they would say he was captured by trappers in Siberia he doesn't speak much, he just grunts and growls a little bit. In reality, he was fluent in five languages. He was not being exploited. It might have appeared that, but sideshow performers were making a fortune. There were also pinheads, microcephalics. Mentally retarded. Whoever was their manager was taking care of them; they were making them good money. There was no way they were going to mistreat them or abuse them. They wanted them to be healthy, they wanted them to be happy. They taught them simple little magic tricks and they were entertaining people. And people were laughing at them, and they would introduce them saying they were Aztecs, a lost tribe. So after sideshows stopped doing that, what happened to these microcephalic pinheads? They went into institutions. And I believe they were much happier entertaining people. So is it exploiting if someone is happier?"

He does concede that some sideshow performers were mistreated. "Sometimes it was unfair. The managers were taking the lion's share. Like in the case of the Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton." But when it comes down to it, some people choose this sideshow lifestyle, and will willingly participate in it and memorialize it like Johnny. "This is a part of New York history that isn't being preserved that there is so much interest for nowadays."

The interest has extended to media coverage, including a story by ABC news and a feature by Time Out during The Freakatorium's year-and-a-half existence. "I think the media wants to see it happen. I don't know why people would give me free advertising like that except that they'd want to see it turn into something. So they're giving me the tools to use and see what I do with it."

And the project is still in the making, involving valuing and inventorying his collection, and presenting a business plan to possible investors in the hopes of buying a building on the Bowery. In the new home of the Freakatorium, Johnny envisions combining the resources of his sideshow artifacts with a small beer and wine garden. And of course there would be performances. "When I first started the place the vision was to have a theater, to do the theater shows and to have the lobby of the theater to be a mini-museum so the show would start as you walked into the theater. The inside of the theater would be decorated with old sideshow banners, and present some illusions that were done, like Spidora, the head of a human being and the body of a spider."

It seems like an awesome task to bring this project together, but Johnny's years of busking and street performance have given him a Darwinian approach to business, and his passion for the sideshow freak an ability to isolate that unique quality and become its foremost expert. "I think we're all freaks. We all have something that's unique and unusual about us, whether it's the way we think about things, the way we react to things, the way we dress. There's people that are freaks about their looks, they go and get plastic surgery and they don't have to. You know, there's so many different types of freaks. Some people admit it, some people embrace it, some people hide from it and deny it." And some appoint themselves to keep its history alive.

This article originally ran in December 2000 in

The freakatorium is located at 57 Clinton Street between Stanton and Rivington. For more information visit

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