The World’s Only

I first started hanging with the carnies when Gabriele worked as development director at Coney Island USA in the late ’80’s. John Bradshaw produced the ten-in-one sideshow that worked the summers there. One of John’s performers was Otis Jordan. Otis was billed as “The World’s Only Human Cigarette Factory” As John would say in the bally to the crowd gathering outside the sideshow entrance on the boardwalk, “It’s amazing folks. Watch him roll a cigarette, light the match and then smoke that cigarette using only the lips of his mouth.”

During the off season, John sold Ginsu Knives or similar to that as his day job. He was probably a good salesman, but he thrived on his sideshow carny life more than anything. He loved bringing them in. The over-the-top hyperbole, winking at the crowd even as you emphatically proclaim, “It’s all true, folks!! It’s all real!!” He’d take the “slightly dishonest” buck over the so-called honest one any day.

But this presents an incomplete picture of John Bradshaw. To some he may have looked more like an exploiter than promoter of Otis Jordan. But even more than just a promoter, he was Otis’s caretaker and close friend, his family away from home.

During the season, Otis lived with John and his family in an apartment they rented in Coney Island. Otis needed someone to take care of him most of the time. He could roll his own cigarette, but there are many things someone without real use of their arms or legs needs help with throughout each day. I’ve seen a video in which an ignorant interviewer asks Otis how he made a living in the off-season. Straight-faced, Otis answered, “I drive a truck.” But in fact, even though Otis had actually outfitted a car he could drive, in the off-season he had no income and was completely dependent on friends and family. By the time Otis reached Coney he was 50-some years old and had been around the sideshow block a few times. In less politically correct times he had been billed simply as “The Frog Boy.”

One late-summer day in 1991, John was carrying his youngest child in the Rockaways, when a stray bullet from somewhere pierced the baby’s leg. So after a six season run, “Bradshaw’s Circus of World Curiosities” was finished with NYC and Coney Island. A short time later Otis died of kidney failure at family’s home in Georgia.

Without Otis, the Sideshow now had only “self-made freaks” – tattooed men, bearded ladies, sword swallowers, fire eaters, and such. So when in 1994 the NEA withdrew the Sideshow’s grant on grounds that the show was exploitative, no real “freaks of nature” were even working there. The NEA had funded Coney Island USA throughout the days when “The World’s Only Human Cigarette Factory” was one of the acts, so now what it was really doing was redefining art with the help of Jesse Helms and others. This was only one of numerous examples of what was being done in this era of the “NEA Four.” During this same period of time the Coney Island Sideshow had been sent on tour to Europe with money from Phillip Morris, some of the same tobacco money that helped keep our good Senator from North Carolina in power. To contemplate on the tangle of ironies here is to contemplate on the gloriously ridiculous state of Late Capital itself and how art is woven into its fabric.

A theater peer of mine once said we should weigh our need to do theater against the other needs of action in the world. We should judge the necessity of a play about a cure to a disease against the discovery of the serum for that disease. So I think of that necessity that puts Otis on his sideshow stage. And the necessity of the IMAGE of “The Frog Boy” on the sideshow banner that sells his show.

As we all try to do, Otis eked out his dignity in this world. Not the least among the other accomplishments in his life was the one that earned him a living; he could “roll a cigarette, light the match and then smoke that cigarette using only the lips of his mouth.”

The late great Marlboro Man on his billboard was a poser. Otis was the true archetype. The IMAGE of the individual in command of his domain. “The World’s Only Human Cigarette Factory” or “The Frog Boy” was never meant to compete for space on the Lincoln Center’s marquee or buy a billboard along some interstate. This larger-than-life IMAGE was owned and operated by that Ginsu Knife salesman and his friend Otis in the so-short season of their Sideshow Banner.

* John Bradshaw also lived another of his passions in life that few in his sideshow circle knew about. “He was a consummate blues guitarist, schooled by the long-gone legends of the music….Bradshaw’s extraordinary acoustic guitar skills developed during the rich local coffeehouse scene of the 1960s, particularly at the Crossroads, a long-vanished folk and blues venue in the basement of a Franklin Street church. Bradshaw steeped himself in the tradition, seeking out the surviving architects of the music, Son House, Bukka White and Skip James, among others. Bradshaw once brought a Son House record to Son House’s home, Curry recalls, only to find the impoverished musician had no way to play it. So Bradshaw bought him a record player, and remembered the old bluesman listening to his own music and crying.”

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Charles Wain and the Seven Dramaturgs

Charles Wain and the Seven Dramaturgs

As long as no Stalin breathes down our necks, why not make some art in the service of… an insurrection?

Never mind if it’s “impossible.” What else can we hope to attain but the “impossible”? Should we wait for someone else to reveal our true desires?

If art has died, or the audience has withered away, then we find ourselves free of two dead weights. Potentially, everyone is now some kind of artist — & potentially every audience has regained its innocence, its ability to become the art that it experiences.

Provided we can escape from the museums we carry around inside us, provided we can stop selling ourselves tickets to the galleries in our own skulls, we can begin to contemplate an art which re-creates the goal of the sorcerer: changing the structure of reality by the manipulation of living symbols (in this case, the images we’ve been “given” by the organizers of this salon — murder, war, famine, & greed).

We might now contemplate aesthetic actions which possess some of the resonance of terrorism (or “cruelty,” as Artaud put it) aimed at the destruction of abstractions rather than people, at liberation rather than power, pleasure rather than profit, joy rather than fear. “Poetic Terrorism.”

Our chosen images have the potency of darkness — but all images are masks, & behind these masks lie energies we can turn toward light & pleasure.

For example, the man who invented aikido was a samurai who became a pacifist & refused to fight for Japanese imperialism. He became a hermit, lived on a mountain sitting under a tree.

One day a former fellow-officer came to visit him & accused him of betrayal, cowardice, etc. The hermit said nothing, but kept on sitting — & the officer fell into a rage, drew his sword, & struck. Spontaneously the unarmed master disarmed the officer & returned his sword. Again & again the officer tried to kill, using every subtle kata in his repertoire — but out of his empty mind the hermit each time invented a new way to disarm him.

The officer of course became his first disciple. Later, they learned how to dodge bullets.

We might contemplate some form of metadrama meant to capture a taste of this performance, which gave rise to a wholly new art, a totally non-violent way of fighting — war without murder, “the sword of life” rather than death.

A conspiracy of artists, anonymous as any mad bombers, but aimed toward an act of gratuitous generosity rather than violence — at the millennium rather than the apocalypse — or rather, aimed at a present moment of aesthetic shock in the service of realization & liberation.

Art tells gorgeous lies that come true.

Is it possible to create a SECRET THEATER in which both artist & audience have completely disappeared — only to re-appear on another plane, where life & art have become the same thing, the pure giving of gifts?

We take Kirkegaard’s “leap of faith,” but absent the old existentialist’s Fear & Trembling & Sickness unto death. Our leap of faith into sorcery & secret theater is more like a wet dream than a nightmare, “awe-full”, not awful.

We name our peerage of this new plane Charles Wain & The Seven Dramaturgs. But no Peer Panel here, please. We prefer, like Jacob, to wrestle with our angels, & if our tussling turns amorous, all the better. Let the games begin. The Seven Dramaturgs show us that the universe wants, more than that, intends to play with us. We can be pawns or partners in this intention of The Seven Dramaturgs.

In Sufiism there is a belief in The Forty Guardians who protect & keep mankind from destroying itself. What’s interesting is, these Guardians are human, but they remain completely unknown & are constantly in flux. Anyone in the world could be one of The Forty at a present moment, including oneself. Of course you would never know if you had been one of The Forty — they remain anonymous even to themselves. That is why Sufiism calls for you to bow your head whenever you meet a stranger — he could be one of The Forty Guardians.

Do we lead or follow The Seven Dramaturgs in their sorcery & secret theater? Ali Baba is merely one of The Forty Thieves — each of The Forty Thieves is Ali Baba. The text does not begin or end here — the pencil is passed like a baton amongst The Seven Dramaturgs. The universe is still being written.


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Butoh Fu for The Ghost of Hamlet’s Flesh

Something is rotten in Denmark. Old Hamlet’s putrid flesh decomposes but will not surrender its ghost. Manifold earth would take the decomposing flesh as its own, but the flesh cannot surrender its elemental nature until the usurped monarchy is brought back into the natural order of the universe.

Old Hamlet rises as a frightful Frankenstein of disparate elements out of the bowels of the putrefied kingdom. As sovereign king on earth he summons all of nature to the place of his murder, the site where the natural order was usurped. At this Orchard of Crime, all flora and fauna begin to misbehave. Half-ripened fruit falls prematurely to the ground, fermenting into a stew of alcohol on which the bionetwork will feed. All of the court and Denmark will become drunk with the poison of the crime, but none so much as the son Hamlet, flesh of the flesh of the disintegrating realm.

Flesh in this usurped kingdom and unnatural world is no longer subservient. Old Hamlet/Claudius are the same flesh and blood. The kingdom is now ruled by the gangrene of this dual King, who is both living and dead. This dead and dying flesh must be amputated, purged and burnt away. The elements Fire, Earth, Air, Water convene to contain this rebellion of unholy flesh.

I am thy father’s spirit, doomed for a time
To walk the night, and all the day
Confined in flaming fire,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of Nature
Are purged and burnt away


But the rebellious flesh will not surrender dominion over earth. The diseased family unit is the unholy trinity at the core of the kingdom. The Father, Son, and Unholy Ghost. Gertred animates not so much the dead king as the dead and dying gangrened flesh of the First Family.

The earth in the Orchard is moist, almost alive in the fermentation of the fallen, decaying fruit. Flesh would differentiate itself from the other elements. Wind/Air is breath. Rain/Water is saliva. Earth amalgamated with muddy flesh of fallen fruit. The moldering rot gathers its body together.

The body of many rises from the ground. The eyes look backward into the hollow head in an attempt to see the tail being pulled from the earth. Wind enters through the anus, swirls in the stomach, up through the throat, but cannot escape the mouth, returning back through the body. Moist humid air enters the mouth to become saliva. This water and air would gather into Fighting Words. This body cannot speak yet but may be able to Spit Nails in its anger.

Who has better teeth
The blood or the stone

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