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Funhouse mirror

Edward Kelty's photos peek under the bigtop

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The pictures in Step Right This Way are fascinating. The text fills you in on how Edward J. Kelty supplemented his income as a photographer of weddings and executive banquets by taking pictures of traveling circuses. He photographed lions and elephants and acrobats and cowgirl troupes with a banquet camera the size of a small oven, hustling back and forth between the big top and his Manhattan office with new prints to sell to customers and circus employees for a quarter apiece. Readers can learn about Kelty’s chief rival in the circus photography business, a full-time Barnum and Bailey man whose employers allowed him unlimited access and waived the 50 percent commission they demanded of Kelty for the performers’ time. Renowned nature and travel writer Edward Hoagland’s introduction to Step Right This Way is wonderful. Hoagland, a circus worker himself in the 1950s who lived the life on summer breaks from Harvard, writes a gritty eulogy to the traveling circus that leaves the reader feeling the one that still comes to town every year is a sad, pale imitation.

What’s missing from Step Right This Way is a satisfying amount of information about the performers themselves, particularly the human curiosities who lined up every year to have their photo taken for Kelty’s biggest-selling item: the annual “class picture” of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey “Congress of Freaks.” Not a scrap of detail about tiny Major Mite, the Smallest Man in the World, who beams cherubically at the camera in top hat, tails and cummerbund with the youthful face of a three-year-old. Not a peep about Zip the What Is It?—the original “Zippy the Pinhead”—son of former slaves, discovered in New Jersey by an agent for the Van Emburgh Circus, and eventually indentured to showman P.T. Barnum. Zip, born Henry William Johnson in 1857, was not truly microcephalous (the hoity-toity word for “pinhead”) and displayed at least average ability for both speech and reason. The cagey Barnum had Johnson’s head shaved of all but a tuft of hair to emphasize its unusual shape—“like the slim end of an egg,” one observer noted—and paid him an extra dollar every day he kept silent. In his 67 years of performing, Zip developed a taste for expensive cigars and even offered himself as evidence of the “missing link” for the defense in the Scopes “Monkey Trial.” One of the most convincing proofs of both his own hidden intelligence and Barnum’s famous sucker edict is that when Zip discovered that onlookers would pay him extra to saw away tunelessly on an old violin, others would eventually pay more to make him stop. It has been estimated that Zip’s violin earned him around $14,000 in the six years after he took it up—and put it down. And took it up—and put it down. Pretty sharp for a guy whose boss used to dress him in a furry outfit and pawn him off as half man, half monkey.

But you won’t learn any of this from Step Right This Way. You won’t learn much about the origins of the traveling circus, either, or its importance in American entertainment at a time when dozens of them plied the eastern seaboard in the 1920s. And another huge chapter, also unwritten in this book, might have been devoted to what the circus performers did with the rest of the year when the summer touring season ended. Many of them, including Zip the What Is It?, found off-season work in the permanent sideshows set up at Coney Island, where Kelty first began taking pictures of sideshow acts and also where a Missouri showman named Samuel W. Gumpertz successfully persuaded many veterans of traveling shows to settle down for good.

The exploits of Samuel Gumpertz deserve a book all to themselves. Arriving at Coney Island in 1904, he built a miniature community called Lilliputia to half scale resembling a 15th century German town, complete with a fire brigade that respo-nded to hourly false alarms, and peopled it with over 300 midgets drawn from circus sideshows all over the country. Compared to Gumpertz, P.T. Barnum was a slouch in the entertainment business. When Barnum started exhibiting a local black man as the Wild Man of Borneo, Gumpertz actually went to Borneo and leased 19 wild men from a local chieftain for the bargain price of 200 bags of salt. In 1905, he imported an entire tribe of 212 non-headhunting Bantocs from the Philippines and set them to work demonstrating their skill with both blowguns and brass handicraft.

Then again, it might not be oversight that so much goes unmentioned in Step Right This Way. This is supposed to be a picture book, and if Kelty’s photos show anything, it’s how easy it is to get left behind when the circus moves on. Hard drinkers, drifters and petty criminals, many of the faces in Kelty’s group portraits of clowns and circus workers would have vanished from the midway shortly after the sitting. Kelty himself might have been forgotten, in fact, if his apartment hadn’t yielded this handful of prints and stamped proofs after his death in 1967. The photos included in the book represent only a tiny fraction of the ones he took his lifetime.

But the Great Depression hit Kelty’s business as hard as it did the traveling circus. When the money dried up and dozens of circuses shut down, leaving workers and animals stranded across the country, Kelty moved to Chicago, where little is known about the rest of his life. He worked briefly as a vendor at Wrigley Field—a pale and sad imitation of the gangs of candy butchers he captured in his photos—but when the circus folded, so did he.

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