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42nd St. is Alive on the Inside with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus

by Marc Hartzman.
photos by Liz Steger

"SEE the sword swallower swallow 24 inches of solid steel! SEE the aerialist swing high above your head! SEE the human blockhead pound a six-inch steel spike directly into his cranial cavity! STEP inside! It’s all right here, live on the inside!"

These are not the promises of a carnival barker from a bygone era of sideshows set up at some dusty, small-town fairgrounds. No, this is Mr. Pennygaff, aka Keith Nelson, co-founder of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, shouting to passersby along New York's famed 42nd Street. He's standing outside the new Bindlestiff Family Cirkus Palace of Variety and Free Museum of Times Square. It's raining heavily outside and showtime is in just a few minutes. Pennygaff still has seats to fill. So he grabs the mike to gather an audience the old fashioned way. Entice them. Lure them in. Promise them things they’ve never seen before. Offer them a place to stay dry. And give them a little taste for free - a woman lies across the bed of nails in the window display, comfortably of course, with nary a scratch.

The Bindlestiffs perform three nights a week, and other acts fill the rest of the time, including a flea circus on weekends. The Times Square Museum is always there, and, as the name clearly indicates, it's free. A wall of photos dating from 1878 to 1975 show the evolution of the neighborhood. A large display case offers vintage props and a history of vaudeville. Captain Don Leslie's life-size "Tattooed Lady" stands against the wall, right next to Helen Melon’s chair - a fat lady of the old Coney Island Sideshow. Freakish memorabilia hangs on the wall: photos of the half-boy Johnny Eck, the Three-Legged Wonder Francisco Lentini, and Jean Libbera with his Parasitic Twin. Painted sideshow banners adorn the ceiling, and one large banner hangs above the bonus exhibit: The Horrors of Drug Abuse. Pay a dollar and you can peek behind the curtain at the horrible, disgusting things that can happen to your kids if you screw around with drugs. The bodies floating in formaldehyde make crack babies seem lucky. For one dollar per kid, the city could save every potential junkie in town.

What the heck is a Bindlestiff?

"When we were looking for a name, that word leapt off the page of my thesaurus!" explains Stephanie Monseu, aka Philomena, the other co-founder and ringleader of the Cirkus, "A little research showed that 'bindlestiff' is an old word from depression-era American slang which referred to the migrant jobless." These bindlestiffs were the people who carried their sole possessions in a bundle tied to a stick. "The bindlestiffs of that era had a very strong network and used their unified power to demand fair wages and social treatement. They were really a seminal labor union. We knew we wanted to travel extensively in the US, and our level of experience in the entertainment business was nil. DIY was our motto. In the years of travelling we have done, Bindlestiff has been instrumental in creating a network of venues and performers who want to keep variety arts flourishing," Monseu said.
Nelson and Monseu met working a graveyard shift at an all-night diner in New York's East Village. "Steph would beg me to take her into the alley and teach her fire eating," Nelson said. His interest in the sideshow arts began as a kid when he was given an Emmett Kelly ventriloquist doll. In college he learned to juggle, having been taught by David Hunt, who now runs the New Orleans Circus School. "A few months later I traded a bottle of whiskey with a group of jugglers who taught me to eat fire," Nelson said. Before the Bindlestiffs he had done some street performing, street theater, and community theater. "Though I think being a camp counselor and leading songs gave me most of my chops," he said. Nelson also spent some time working with Ward Hall swallowing 30 to 50 swords a day at Hall and Christ's World of Wonders (which gave him the occasional sore throat). Monseu was a competitive ski racer and runner as well as a visual artist. Sideshow acts gave her the opportunity to combine theater with extremely physical stunts using the body as the primary instrument. "Whether eating fire or performing in a comedy character, the stage gives me the same adrenaline rush that running a super giant slalom course at 45 miles an hour in icy conditions used to!" she said. Plus, as a former singer in a top-40 cover band, Monseu was no stranger to the microphone.


Pennygaff has filled over half the seats and it's time for the show to begin. It's the type of show Times Square hasn't seen in over a generation. It's real people doing real things live on stage. And it's just a block or so from Broadway, but far from anything you'd find there. You won't be spending $80 for a ticket to some long, potentially boring musical. No, tonight's show was a mere $10. A bargain even outside of notoriously expensive New York. The hour-long show will feature circus, sideshow, vaudeville, and burlesque acts accompanied by a live band. If you don't like an act, not to worry. It'll be over in a few minutes. Though it's hard to imagine not being entertained by any of the unique and talented performers. The shows vary by night, with different acts coming and going.

Philomena steps into the ring dressed spectacularly in her all-denim outfit. Denim boots, short shorts, a long Tuxedo-like jacket, and top hat. The denim ensemble is classy - no whitewashing, bleaching, or cheesy pinned-on rock star buttons. She welcomes the crowd and introduces the first act, Mr. Pennygaff. Pennygaff is a man of many talents. And for his first segment, he waves a rope and magically produces a knot. Then he does it again, this time fashioning three knots at once, like some sort of uber boy scout. Next he spins the rope into a flat loop parallel to the ground so he can dance in and out of it, never tangling his feet. To top it off, and to add a touch of grotesquerie, he attaches the rope to his pierced tongue and keeps the loop spinning by shaking his head. The audience is impressed, but not entirely grossed out. That comes next. Pennygaff grabs a hand drill and demonstrates the human blockhead routine. Gasps fill the room as he turns it slowly pushing the drill deeper and deeper into his nose. Right into the cranial cavity, as promised outside on the sidewalk.
Philomena isn’t just the Mistress of the Ring. She could be a dominatrix with her whip. She grabs a fellow from the audience and tangos briefly with him on the stage, then hands him a rose to hold out in his hand. With a couple cracks of the whip, she smacks the flower from the stem. Then she bends him over, puts another rose between his legs, and destroys that one, sparing the involuntary volunteer a harsh spanking. For her final feat, she places a stem in his mouth. "Wait" cries the band leader, "It's too long." Philomena agrees and cuts the stem, bringing the rose closer to his mouth. "C'mon, he's not a pussy! Shorten it a little more," the band leader requests. Again, Philomena obliges him. She steps back, swings the whip a couple times, and decapitates the head of the rose, avoiding a similar fate for the poor sap holding it.

The show continues on with several other performers, including a comedic juggler, an aerialist’s high-flying antics with a rope and a hoop swing, and a pony-tailed, long white-bearded man named Peter Bennett from New Orleans who played 26 water-filled goblets. Glassical music, as he called it, including incredible renditions of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "Stairway to Heaven." Philomena and Pennygaff returned to the stage for a few more tricks, including stuffing balloons up their noses and out their mouths, then kissing and swapping balloons. Pennygaff also demonstrated his sword swallowing prowess, bragging that while some in the audience could swallow 6-8 inches, he could put down 24. In addition to swallowing the sword and a long pair of scissors, he tried something new. An idea he claimed he got while sitting at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. He swallowed the handle of one of those wheelie things. You know, the toy you had as a kid with the wheel that spun up and down a bent-over wire guide. He swallowed it and let the wheel spin back and forth. You wonder if he swallowed other toys as a kid.

Although Nelson would like to stay in Times Square for 42 years, by the time you read this, The Palace of Variety may be closed. But the Bindlestiffs perform regularly in New York, usually downtown where the freakier crowd gravitates. And they spend plenty of time on the road and visiting other countries. But at least for a few months, they managed to defy the Disney-fication of 42nd Street, and bring back a part of history that's sadly been missing for too long. Then again, who knows, maybe Disney will buy them out, and let them keep the space. Pennygaff may just have to add mouse-swallowing to his repertoire.

For more information, visit www.bindlestiff.org
©Marc Hartzman, 2003. Backwash.
Photos ©Liz Steger, 2003. All rights Reserved. Liz Steger Photography.