Honolulu Lite

by Charles Memminger

Monday, June 9, 1997

If the jumping mule
could only talk

THE sad thing about the use of animals at the 50th State Fair is not that the animals are being abused, but that the acts are so lame.

A mule that jumps off a platform into a pool of water? Big deal. A goat that blows up a balloon? Baloney. These animals should be ashamed of themselves for getting away with hackneyed tricks that wouldn't have even gathered a crowd of winos at the famous boardwalk in Atlantic City. The animal rights people should be happy that this is all the animals are doing in Hawaii. In the old days, animals really knew how to perform.

Of course, this was before watching married trailer park cousins scream at each other on daytime television was considered entertainment. People had to go out for their amusement. They worked hard for their money and if they paid to see a performance, either animal or human, it had to be good. A mule who simply plunged off a 20-foot platform would have caused the audience to mob the ticket booth for their money back.

What kinds of acts did real sideshow entertainers do in the good old days? Well, here's a run down, according to one of my favorite books, "Learned Pigs & Fireproof Women:"

In 1783, an "Amazing Learned Pig" put on an entire show in London, spelling names, solving math problems, telling time and pointing out flash cards that had been mentally picked by the audience. (Today, he could have started the Psychic Pig Network.)

In 1829, a "Wonderful Intelligent Goose" performed card tricks while blindfolded.

In 1835, a "Great Wonder of the Age" was a singing mouse who warbled "sufficiently to be heard across a room for several hours in succession and continued to do so until weary from exertion." Now, that's a mighty mouse.

ANIMALS of the equine variety were expected to do a lot more than simply jump off platforms. In 1785, Marocco, a learned horse, was able to fetch objects thrown by the audience, play dead on request, count the dots on dice by tapping his foreleg and drink a "great quantity of water and divest himself of it on command." You don't see many water-divesting horses these days.

Now, you might think that forcing animals to do this kind of stuff wasn't humane. But humans were doing even more dangerous things.

In the 1800s, there were a number of astonishing acts that toured fairs and resort locations. A wacko named Chabert, "The Human Salamander," would enter a blazing oven with two raw steaks. He emerged tartare, but the steaks were cooked. He also swallowed boiling oil, ate burning charcoal and inhaled arsenic vapors.

Women were seeking equality even then. Some of them naturally got in on the "Incombustible Phenomenon." Signora Josephine Girardelli was able to swallow boiling oil and do everything Chabert could. But she did it in a dress and heels. And not only could women emerge unharmed from a burning oven with two steaks, the meat was actually cooked to order and they'd do the dishes afterward. Women were women in those days, by god.

Men, not wanting to be outdone, came up with the "living fire hydrant" trick in which they drank large quantities of water and then "spouted it a distance of four-and-a-half meters." Others actually perfected playing songs by emitting noises from parts of their bodies not normally associated with musical entertainment. The book mentions no women doing that. I suspect that they could -- and probably do it better -- but had better taste.

So go watch the balloon-blowing goat and jumping donkey if you must. Until the 50th State Fair gets a pig that can tell my future or at least a fireproof woman, I'm not going.

Charles Memminger, winner of
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
awards in 1994 and 1992, writes "Honolulu Lite"
Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Write to him at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,
P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, 96802

or send E-mail to charley@nomayo.com or

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