The trick to hammering a spike through your nose is simple. You use a false nose. That's what the original Human Blockhead, Melvin Burkhart, used to say when curious audience members would ask how the stunt was possible. "I've had more fun out of watching their expression and reaction, 'How the hell did he use a false nose?'" he said with a laugh.
At 94 years of age, Melvin Burkhart still puts nails into his nose as easily as you'd put a finger in yours. Of course, Burkhart is much more than just a blockhead. He is the Anatomical Wonder and an innovative magician (he's been made an honorary member of several magic societies). He has also been a sword swallower, a fire eater, and a knife thrower. Burkhart is a true one-man show.
Burkhart retired in 1989 and lives with his wife, Joyce, near Gibsonton, FL Ñ aka the Freak Capital of the World. He had logged over 900,000 miles, entertaining millions of people working with Ringling Brothers, Ripley's, the James E. Strates Shows (for 30 years), and other shows over his long, long career dating back to the early '30s. Burkhart knew just about everyone in the business and was liked by them all, including the freaks who could do nothing but exhibit themselves. He was able to help freaks improve their act by teaching them how to engage the crowd and tell their story. He really helped Bill Durks, the Man with Two Noses, by introducing him to the woman who would become his wife. Granted, she was known as the alligator-skinned woman, but still, talk about an achievement. Burkhart spent the last four years of his career at Coney Island. Blood clots formed in his leg and nearly killed him. You'd never know it now.
When I went to meet him in his mobile home park he drove to the park entrance gate to lead me to his home. He had just moved there a month earlier from another nearby mobile home park. Before I could start the interview he ran into the next room to grab his fancy performing fez and his bag of tricks. He was already decked out in a yellow-patterned, butterfly-collared, polyester performing shirt. This wasn't just an interview. This was showtime.
How does one become a human blockhead? What makes someone take a long, thick spike, and say, "Hey, I wonder what would happen if I hammered this through my nose?" For Burkhart, it was a combination of circumstances. He had the performance bug since he was a child in Louisville, KY. "I was a show-off, you know what I mean? I couldn't sing, I couldn't dance, I couldn't tell funny stories. But I could catch attention by anatomical muscle control, which I didn't know I had at the time," Burkhart explained. Others noticed and had him showing his skills to friends. He eventually began performing in a vaudeville act that came to town. Ultimately he developed the Anatomical Wonder act, or, as he also called it, "The Anatomical Blunder."
Burkhart was also a boxer and won the lightweight amateur championship of Louisville. He went on to fight in six professional bouts. "That's where they broke my nose and busted my lips and knocked out teeth and I never won a one of them. They nearly knocked me into what they call stumblebumness Ñ when some of these boxers get hit so many times in the head that it scrambled their brain, and if that was the case you went around sweeping out the gym," Burkhart said. When doctors operated on his nose they removed a heap of bone fragments. He watched them as they went in and out of his nose with scalpels and long pincher-like things. And that's when the lightbulb went off. He could put things through his nose, too. He quit boxing as the doctors had advised. He had also been a sideshow MC at the time and decided to incorporate the Human Blockhead act. Why not? Now that all those pesky bone fragments were cleared out of there.
The Human Blockhead act was a big hit. "It commanded attention. That's what you've got to do when you're doing an act in a sideshow. Not to shock people or make them turn away in disgust. Hold their interest and make them think that what you're doing is not what they think they're seeing," Burkhart explained. Most people would suspect that taking a long, thick spike and banging it into your head would be uncomfortable. Burkhart conceded that at first it bothered him a bit. But he soon got used to it and it hasn't bothered him since. "If it ever does I'm gonna quit. That's the way I figure it," he said. Burkhart was more than happy to pull out his spike and hammer and demonstrate. Of course, it's not just a stunt. It's a show, complete with a humorous spiel: "Take a common ordinary household ice pick and jam it into my head and I'm gonna drop dead. I said that the other night and some young lady said, 'Never mind the ice pick just drop dead!' I didn't do it of course, my mother didn't raise any foolish children, I don't think. All you gotta do is get a good start and then you pound like the devil," he said with the pick sticking halfway into his head. He continued hammering, "Ooh, hit a bone. But what do expect out of a bonehead?"
Over the years Burkhart has taught others how to perform the act. And he gave a quick way for anyone to find out if they, too, are a human blockhead. Simply pound the spike into your head. "If it doesn't kill you, you're a human blockhead, if it does you won't have anything to worry about, all your worries will be over," he said. Or maybe you could try boxing first.
Burkhart was also known as The Two-Faced Man. This was part of his Anatomical Wonder act. He can smile on one side of his face and frown on the other Ñ complete with eyebrow expression. Try it. If you can do it, maybe you can join Ripley's, too. Burkhart explained that "at one time we all had greater muscle control back in the caveman days. We had to have very quick reflexes, climb up trees, jump or this or that or the other. And all animals had reflexes, you know what I mean. And I'm a throw-back to the ancestors, where I can retain some of these abilities, which every once in a while happens with people." The man's a freak of nature. And he took off his shirt to show more of what his body can do. He can pop out his shoulder blades, jutting them out back and forth. He can suck in his gut and become a human skeleton. And stretch his neck like a true rubberneck. At the time he was the only one performing such acts. Naturally, others wanted to know the secrets, so Burkhart gave them some instruction. Then he went on and learned his other aforementioned acts. He'd do five or six acts in a 10-act show. "Sometimes people would say, 'Don't we get to see anything but you?'" Burkhart recalled. But there was always a midget, a fat man, and other acts in between. And despite multiple acts, Burkhart could hold their attention. "You've got a fast crowd in there, they want to come in, see everyone, then see something else. If you weren't able to hold their attention, you lost half of them. So it was our advantage to hold the crowds in there so the acts had a chance to sell whatever trinkets they had, little pictures, or whatever else," he said.
He knew entertaining took more than just doing a trick or a stunt. Burkhart learned to look over an audience, judge what would work, then get them to react to him. "You're not fooling them, because they know they're seeing a trick. You're confusing them by amusing them. And that's the kind of trick that I like," he said. The acts are just as amazing today as they were 70 years ago. Whether it's the blockhead routine or his sleight-of-hand card tricks that, at 94, still baffle the eye.
Over his career, Burkhart has seen just about everything. The world's fattest, thinnest, tallest, smallest, ugliest, the most grotesque freaks, and even a man who could regurgitate a live mouse or bring up various other objects in a requested order. Sadly, those days are gone forever. So what's left to see? "I never have died before, I'm kinda curious about that. I'm all ready for it. I wouldn't care if I dropped over dead the next minute or two. Of course it'd shock the hell out of you, but it wouldn't be bother me at all," Burkhart joked. He'd already shocked the hell out of me with everything else he'd done. That was enough for the day.
Sadly, Melvin Burkhart passed away Nov. 8, 2001. Just a few months after I met him. May he rest in peace.
©2001 Marc Hartzman, Backwash zine. Photos ©2001 Liz Steger