Thursday, June 07, 2007

Frozen Ape-Men & Giant Boobies at the NC State Fair

The North Carolina State Fair sure has changed since I was a kid. These days it's all livestock and the standard rides and various fried foods. Mind you, I'm not adverse to any of that; I like petting cattle as much as the next animal-loving city boy, I eat far more fried foods than I should, and the more frightening the ride, the better. But those homespun pleasures are a far cry from the marvelously seedy and more than slightly disreputable old-school fairgrounds of my youth. Where are the beast-men, the peepshows, the giant man-eating animals? Where have all the big-boob strippers gone, long time passing?

I've never been to Coney Island, sadly, or any boardwalk other than Myrtle Beach's, but back in the early 70s the North Carolina State Fair had that kind of vintage ambiance, like something out of CARNIVAL or a Tom Waits song. There were freaks and fortune tellers and singing mermaids and venerable ballyhoo attractions like "See the beautiful girl turn into a gorilla before you very eyes!" (one of the few classic illusions that actually WAS done with mirrors).

There was the World's Largest Rat, which was claimed to have killed three men when it was captured in the depths of the Amazon basis. In the painting on the outside of the railer, it stood on two feet and was nibbling a headless human corpse (the anonymous artist had actually cribbed a bit from Goya's famous painting of Saturn devouring his son, which I was familiar with even at that age). Inside, of course, was just a sleepy capybara, an inoffensive 100-pound South American rodent whose deerlike legs and lack of a tail kept it from looking disturbing ratlike (even as a kid, I was used to seeing hapless capybaras devoured by anacondas on National Geographic TV specials).

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There was the "giant" octopus, displayed live in a tank built to look like like a diving bell, the glass portals of which had magnifying effect on the pulsating cephalapod inside, enlarging its probably soccer-ball-sized head to beachball proportions. There was the World's Largest Crocodile and the World's Largest Snake, which had allegedly crushed over a dozen native porters when it was captured in Darkest Africa (never mind that it was a perfectly ordinary Burmese or Indian python, probably less than 18 feet long). There was the boxing chimpanzee, billed as possessing a black belt in karate, whose owner challenged all comers to battle his martial simian in the ring. The ape, a real adult male chimp bigger than me, handily kicked their asses. At my elementary school, and later my middle school, every other kid claimed to know somebody whose Green Beret big brother had beaten or even killed this pugilistic primate, a common urban legend that a google search shows has even been attributed to the young George W. Bush (who, of course, could no more beat up a chimpanzee than he could outwit one).

And most deliciously horrifically, there was the Iceman, which I saw several times. Billed as the frozen corpse of an actual Bigfoot (it appeared to have been shot through the eye!), it was displayed in a block of ice in a refrigerated trailer, chilled by aging compressors that made marvelously alarming groaning noises. The thing had been touring all over the country since the early 60s and would continue to do so for several decades. Here's a sketch of it by former zoologist turned author and monster-chasing crackpot Ivan T. Sanderson

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And here's an article that takes the Iceman ballyhoo at face value:

I still remember walking up the creaky steps into the Iceman's trailer, which tilted treacherously to one side. The interior stank of cigarette smoke and freon from the faulty refrigeration unit. I can't recall what the attendant looked like, but I remember the overpowering smell of his cologne. I had to walk up a ramp and peer over a rail to stare down at the frozen "caveman corpse" -- the ice was real, not plexiglass or anything like that. The surface was clouded with condensation, obscuring what lay beneath, and the attendant laughed (I was the only spectator in the tent) and gave me a greasy rag. "Wipe him off so you can see him better!" Reaching for the cold ice with the dirty cloth, I did. And there, right beneath my hand, was the Iceman's face! In some ways he looked more like an eight-foot-tall naked Wolfman than my mental image of a yeti. His one remaining eye was open and seemed to stare right at me. The other was a bloody socket (in an article on the Iceman for FATE! magazine, Sanderson claimed to have been able to tell that the entire back of the Iceman's head had been blown off by the exiting bullet that had apparently killed it/him). I jumped back and nearly fell right off the ramp.

None of the various blurry photos I've seen of the iceman over the years have indicated how realistic and genuinely creepy it was, probably due to the difficulty of photographing it through the ice (it didn't help that the guy exhibiting it didn't want it to be carefully studied). Back when HELLRAISER 3 was filmed here in Greensboro, I had a conversation with the film's makeup artist in which I told the story of the Iceman. He said that he'd heard of it, and that the rumor in his industry was that it was actually created by John Chambers, the guy responsible for the make-up in the original PLANET OF THE APES (some have claimed Chambers also made the bigfoot suit seen in the famous 8-millimeter film of an apparently female Sasquatch striding across a meadow).

While dad let me see the Iceman, there the other, more mysterious Adults-Only exhibits that I knew better than to ask him to buy me tickets to, but I practically memorized the ballyhoo on the outside of the various tents and trailers. There were the odd little "educational" show tents, presumably some sort of multimedia thing. Some of these, such as the ones depicting childbirth, had been touring since the 30s, I later found; the attraction was that you actually got to see a woman's vagina, even if a baby was emerging from it (of course, by the time I was a kid at the fair, there was such a thing as actual porn, and so exhibits like "The Miracle of Life" were on their last legs). I still recall being particularly intrigued by one called "Sex Vs. The Pill." What the heck was that about?

And then there were the strippers. The North Carolina State Fair was the first place I ever saw a woman's breast -- well, most of one -- outside of the PLAYBOYs under my father's bed. No, dad, never took me into the tents in which the strippers did their acts, but when not performing the women would sprawl in lawnchairs outside, wearing half-open bathrobes, or sometimes just pasties, g-strings and high-heels, smoking and shooting the breeze with the carnies. Some of the acts were nationally known ones like Lilly St. Cyr and Busty Russell. On one particularly memorable October afternoon, I nearly walked right into the literally water-melon-sized breasts of Chesty Morgan, the infamous star of DEADLY WEAPONS, the film in which Ms. Morgan takes revenge on the mobsters who killed her boyfriend by smothering them beneath her titanic ta-tas. I'd already noticed several posters proclaiming Ms. Morgan's presence at the fair, all with some version of this image:

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Dad had actually embarassed the Hell out of me by laughing when he saw me staring at one of the posters, patting me on the head, and saying "tits that big can be fun to look at, but believe me, they only get in the way!" After the initial shock of hearing my father use the word "tits," I kept turning that image over in my mind, wondering how he knew this, and just what sort of inconvenience was afforded by such astonishingly large boobs. Perhaps if I'd not been so shy of talking about things like that with my father (he never gave me the standard lecture about the Facts of Life, expecting me to learn about them from my peers, as I did), the discussion of how they "got in the way" might have made for an interesting parental bonding conversation, but instead it became the subject of several schoolyard arguments, after I told my friends the story of what I'd encountered at the fair.

A bit later that afternoon, I'd just finished riding the marvelously rickety wooden roller coaster and was headed towards the barbecue tent where dad was waiting for me at one of the picnic tables. My route took me past the stripper tent and, as I rounded a cotton candy booth, there was Ms. Morgan in the swaying flesh, all 76-28-36 of her (well, that's how she was billed; I suspect her actual measurements were more like 56H-40-44). Her famous assets were constrained by nothing but flowered pasties and they hung almost to her waist, bouncing metronomically as she walked towards me. She wore shocking pink hotpants and open-toed pink stacks. Her ill-fitting wig was even more askew than in the photo above and her eyes were hidden behind heart-shaped shades. Behind her and to either side, men were staring with varying degrees of astonishment and interest, the young black men and the soldiers being more vocal in their approval than the white civilians, while most women either scowled or snickered. Several outraged parents had clapped their hands over their childrens' eyes.

Chesty seemed oblivious to all this. I swear to God, I remember her as smoking two cigarettes, one in each corner of her mouth, like the chain-smoking prostitute in the Louise Brooks film PANDORA'S BOX. She carried a plastic cup full of beer in one hand and a footlong hotdog in the other. As she passed me, she nodded, smiled and gave her nearest breast an extra jiggle in my direction, then tottered off towards the stripper tent. I turned around to stare after her, my face burning, glad that my father wasn't nearby and grateful for the fact that nobody was looking at me (any pickpockets in the crowd would have had a field day). Even though her back was now completely too me, I could still see her swaying breasts, first one, then the other, bobbing into partial view on either side of her elbows as she walked. This sounds like a frightening sight and from a more mature perspective, I might find it so, but you have to remember I was 11 years old and A REAL LIVE WOMAN'S ALMOST NAKED BREASTS HAD JUST PASSED WITHIN A COUPLE OF FEET OF MY FACE. My preadolescent hormonal reaction was something very different from disgust. Indeed, it was so strong that one of the hooting GI's actually noticed me, nudged his friend, and cackled "boy got him a boner! Son, you want us to buy you tickets for her show?"

My face burning, I ran towards the barbecue tent, where fortunately my father, absorbed in his beer and his paperback Matt Helm novel, hadn't noticed any of this, his view obscured by the milling crowds. The embarrassment passed soon enough and the seedy, "man, this is really grown-up!" excitement of the fair returned in force. "I just saw boobies!" went the litany in my head, "the biggest boobies that ever were! Wait until I tell John Bass and Joey Miller and the other cool kids who always have the best stories!" When dad and I left a couple of hours later, I remember thinking how I couldn't wait to be old enough to go by myself, so that I could see all the forbidden sideshows and exhibits, and maybe even pay the fifty cents that would get me into the stripper tent.

But I never did, not until after the fairgrounds of my youth had gone the way of Eckerd's soda fountains and comic book racks and Woolworth's lunch counters and Godzilla double features at downtown movie theaters that served orange soda in plastic orange-shaped containers with built-in straws. There are no more stripper tents, no freaks, no frozen yeti corpses, no giant rats and gators and snakes. But if I stand on the midway and smell the sawdust and the cotton candy and listen to the creaking rides, I can still bring it all back inside my head.


Blogger Amanda and SuperAmanda said...

this was fun to read, you have an excellent memory!

11:51 AM  
Blogger Amanda and SuperAmanda said...

I commented back on the first place you posted in response to your Baaba comments.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Ian McDowell said...

Thanks, sweetie. This wants to be part of something longer, but whether fiction or non-fiction, I'm not sure yet. I've thought about incorporating it into my novel in (so-called) progress, CUSTOMER SERVICE, but I'm not sure how well it would fit there, since that would entail shoehorning it into a darker and more cynical narrative that's a bit at odds with the wistful tone here.

6:07 PM  
Blogger THIRD OF NEVER said...

Being a North Carolinian myself, I too have fond memories of the North Carolia State Fair. My best memory is not of the Fair but of the fairgrounds....on Sundays when it's a flea market. Gene's Records was in one of the permanent buildings for years, and I got at least 30% of my vinyl collection from him. I was devastated a few years back when I bopped up to his store only to find that he had vanished.

Oh well...I've still got that pristine copy of Quadrophenia to remind me.

8:51 PM  
Blogger Ian McDowell said...

Crap, I completely missed out on its Flea Market aspect, that sounds great. Speaking of vintage North Carolina attractions, I'm really pissed that it's looking like the Starlight Drive-In will never re-open.

4:07 PM  
Blogger Amanda and SuperAmanda said...

I finally read all of this, great stuff!!

1:20 AM  
Blogger Amanda and SuperAmanda said...

Hve you ever been to the Dickens faire?

1:21 AM  
Blogger Ian McDowell said...

No, m'dear, I have not. What and where is it?

3:24 PM  

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