Wednesday, May 15, 2013

bearded ladies, racy clowns and nearly-naked acrobats

 Before I start my  Before Stonewall, After 1899 series I want to talk about my recent writing quandary. Last week my main character met someone, a new character that is. I knew this character was going to be a minor one but even minor characters have significance and must add a new dimension to the story. I racked my brain but couldn't figure out what was unique about this character. Finally it hit me to ask Kumi, my main character, what to do. Who would know better than him, after all it's his story. So, that's what I did and, sure enough, I got the answer. The character doesn't even have a name but he is an overseer who is an aspiring circus performer. That meant I had to do research on 19th century circuses and that turned out be very interesting. I'd like to share some things I unearthed, I use the word ''unearthed'' because it's like I'm uncovering something that's always been there, about 19th century circuses.
    They were not like circuses as we know them today. It's true that they were about entertainment with acrobats, clowns, exotic animals, ringmasters and big tops. The difference was that the acrobats wore tight, nearly nude clothing called ''fleshings'' and the clowns were ribald, foul-mouthed and raunchy. One of these racy clowns, a man named Dan Rice, became so famous that he ran for president of the United States in 1868! Alcohol and gambling were commonplace outside the big tops and the troupe members were always brawling with the locals from town to town. In fact, to get hired one needed to be a good fighter as well as a good performer.
    Circus performers had a rallying call when they were in a strange city/town and needed help fighting some local[s]. It was "hey Rube'' and they yelled it when they found themselves in trouble. When you heard it you knew something was about to go down! The call began in New Orleans around 1848 when a circus performer called a friend named Reuben for help in a fight. Another theory about it's origin is that it's short for ''rustic reubens'' which was slang for country folk called ''rubes.''
    Another interesting thing about these circuses, and sideshows, was a type of performer they often featured called the ''bearded lady.'' Bearded ladies were women with a condition we now know as congenital hypertrichosis. It's very rare and has different types. The interesting thing about these bearded ladies is that most of them were not ladies at all. They were men! Today we would call them drag queens! They wore women's dresses, danced, sang and told jokes[today we call these jokes ''reading'']. I'm quite sure most of these bearded ladies were ''sodomites'', or what we call gay, today. So, if you think drag shows are something new, think again!
     The19th century circus was not the kid friendly entertainment that it has become today. I'm glad Kumi included this character. He has a small part in the story but he brings some little known yet interesting history to it that I did not touch upon in Rainbow Plantation Blues.

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