With fire shooting from his mouth, Johnny Meah steps onto the stage and into character.
"Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, you're going to see a little of the other half of Johnny Meah--the darker half," he says, after extinguishing a torch on his tongue with a staccato "Hey!"
"I'm going to start with a little sword swallowing, a little fire eating, and one act that's so bizarre, so completely bloodcurdling that I hate to talk about it."
Meah's dressed to the nines in worn but colorful carny garb that recalls the glory days of the midway: flashy gold jacket, black polyester pants, a silver chain around his neck. His makeup creates an appearance that's at once sinister and inviting.
But nothing in this act reveals Meah's current claim to fame: he is a respected painter whose banners of sideshow performers hang in such places as the Smithsonian, the Barnum Museum in Westport, Connecticut, and Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, where he's going through the paces tonight. At 63, he's at the top of his game.
"I call this one the Hindu head of nails," he deadpans. "First of all, using a common ordinary ice pick--" He holds the pick to his forehead as he reaches for a hammer. "What we're going to attempt to do is drive this object directly into my cranium. On the count of three. Are you ready? One."
His practice swing is so audacious it silences the crowd. "Two." The audience squeamishly shouts along. "Three!"
The hammer draws up short. "You really didn't expect me to do that. My God, if I drove that thing into my head I'd drop dead."
"Like any kid, whatever's thrilling and happening you want to learn how to do."
For Meah, growing up in early 1950s Connecticut, what was thrilling and happening was the circus. "Sideshow performance was the thing that really intrigued me," he says. A pair of his uncles performed in vaudeville as an aerial act known as the Casting Campbells.
His father, Harold Meah, was an editorial cartoonist for the Bristol Press, and his grandfather had been a calligrapher. Since the age of eight Meah had been drawing caricatures. "I lived under the drafting table," he says. "I grew up in a totally black-and-white household."
When he was 14, his uncles introduced him to Hugo Zachinni, the original human cannonball, who was then working for the King Brothers and Christiani Circus. Zachinni was also a renowned painter of sideshow banners. For a couple of months that summer Meah served as his apprentice.
"After that first season I was hooked," Meah says. "I discovered color and what you could do with it."
In the morning, Meah helped Zachinni paint the small signs that would hang from the big top to advertise the circus. In the evening, he worked as a clown, a job he found boring. "As a clown you're sort of this gray generic entity," he says. During their downtime, Zachinni instructed Meah in various circus acts. "You learn things to broaden out your repertoire, because it makes you more valuable. At one time I claimed 17 acts."
Meah eventually returned home to attend school--he studied at the Rhode Island School of Design for one semester--but he couldn't stay away from the circus. He learned to eat fire ("a no-brainer," he says) and became fascinated with the swords. "You had to have a sword swallower in a sideshow," he says. Because sword swallowers were in such high demand--due, perhaps, to what Meah refers to as the "unpleasantness" involved in learning the act--he decided to master it.
"You start off with a coat hanger," he says, which is bent into a configuration resembling a trombone slide. Novices are walked through the motions, but, Meah says, "You can't teach sword swallowing. You try, and of course you don't succeed. And you wonder what the hell's wrong, and of course your throat closes up because it's not a natural function.
"You wind up abusing yourself pretty bad," he says. "The first thing you do is rupture the epiglottis. The next thing you do invariably is start striking the solar plexus area. You wind up puking your guts out and sundry other things. Sword swallowing is like Zen," he says, tapping his head. "Eighty percent here....You're in your own little unit swallowing the sword."
In the spring of 1980 the Smithsonian mounted an exhibition celebrating the outdoor amusement business. Curator Richard Flynt remembered seeing Meah's banners years before and asked him to show his work. The exhibit was such a success Meah was invited to perform.
After a 1983 Smithsonian performance, Life magazine ran a story on Meah, featuring some of his banners. Chicago gallery owner Carl Hammer saw the article and tracked down the artist--he'd been looking for carnival and sideshow banners. "At that time there was no real value to the things," Meah says. It was the first he'd heard of anyone collecting them. "We had just made a monster bonfire with probably 50 banners that were shot. Now, hindsight being the wonderful thing it is, that bonfire would be worth $20,000. Then it was just crap we were getting rid of."
That winter Hammer traveled to Meah's home in Riverview, Florida, near Tampa. "Carl showed up. He was a city-locked ex-English teacher, rather starchy, and he'd never been exposed to either the places or the people that I dragged him around to." Those people were mostly Meah's friends in the business who were living in or around the retirement community of Gibsonton, Florida, "Carnival Capital of the U.S.A." Meah estimates Hammer picked up around 50 banners on that first trip.
Over the next few years Hammer returned to Riverview for more banners. Meah was receiving finder's fees from both Hammer and the artists, who, he says, were becoming suspicious, thinking Hammer was making a fortune. In fact, Hammer hadn't sold a single banner. "There was no market for banners at the time," Meah says.
At least not until 1989, when Hammer decided to mount a show. Meah says the dealer was "locking into the idea that this is art in search of a category." The banners were billed at first as "folk art," but Meah accepted the category bitterly. "People were waiting for some guy dragging his knuckles to show up with a frizzed-out paintbrush and say, 'I paint stuff.'" He still feels his work was initially misunderstood. "There was a misconception of folk art and Americana," he says. "I would go categorically to the Americana side--it is a slice of American history." But because folk art had a "monied following," the label turned out to be to everyone's advantage, not least of all Meah's.
Though nowadays Meah does mostly private commissions, Hammer still represents him "after a fashion," Meah says. And, having introduced Meah to Intuit several years ago, Hammer is in part responsible for tonight's performance.
In 40 years on the sideshow circuit, Meah has worked with almost every notable performer of his generation, including Priscilla Dejanno, the monkey woman; Priscilla's husband, Emmit, the alligator-skinned man; Bill Dirks, the two-faced man; and Frank Lentini, the three-legged man.
"People ask what it was like," he says. "Well, it was like anything else. You go into an office for the first time and you have no idea what the people are like. Once you see their peculiarities, whatever they may be, the next day that's all gone. Then you regard them on the merits of their abilities or personalities. It was the same with freaks.
"I had a little fellow that worked for me for three years named Otis Jordan," Meah says. "He used to fix all my sound, and with only mouth and little finger he was a marvelous mechanic." Jordan was billed as the "frog boy."
"Basically, it was a case of arrested development. He had a normal-size head and the body of a four-year-old, and he was totally paralyzed with the exception of a pinky and anything above the neck line."
One afternoon before a show in Darlington, South Carolina, a cop approached Meah, saying, "'You got a couple black people working for you.' And I said, 'Well, I have more than a couple. Half my show is black.'" The cop had come to tell Meah about a Klan rally planned to take place across the street that night. He suggested that Meah keep his black workers "under wraps" after the show closed. "I went to Otis and said, 'Otis, they're having this Klan thing across the street.' And he said, 'Could you put a pillowcase over me and take me over there and I could bite them in the ankle?' You had to have the physical and mental timber of a sequoia tree to make it. His whole outlook was fantastic. Otis Jordan was one of the most remarkable human beings I've ever known.
"The reason I've lasted as long as I have isn't because of the uniqueness of all these acts--there are just very few people doing them anymore. My overview of myself is that I'm incredibly lucky. I've reinvented myself God knows how many times and in essence the things I was doing in 1960 are the same things I'm doing right now, hopefully better. I enjoy what I do."
For his final act, Meah asks for silence.
"If the tube should explode inside me--which is very, very possible--please do not try to come up and assist me," he says. "I know exactly what I'm doing."
He opens a black case and flicks a switch. Inside, a neon sword hums like a light saber. "It's an effect that has indeed claimed the lives of three sword swallowers," Meah says. "It is, very simply, the swallowing of lighted neon."
With that, he tips his head back and down it goes.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.