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Friday, September 13, 2013

News To Me: The Half-Man Had A Whole Twin Brother


The Johnny Eck Aspect of Freaks (1932)

Here's something everyone else probably knew, but I had missed ... Johnny Eck had a twin brother (by name: Robert). And he was normal, as in possessing the lower body Johnny lacked. Thoughts go immediately to their childhoods. Could Johnny "run" faster than Robert? Were baby pictures of the pair taken waist up so they'd look more the same? Bio-info tells us that Johnny ended, as in stopped, right below the rib cage. We pause a moment to ponder --- how does a body function by half? Interest in Johnny Eck is propelled by his being in Freaks. For that, he was paid $35, according to (much) later interviews. You'd spend that much today filling Johnny up at Olive Garden, were he still around (d: 1991). Handlers really misused people like Eck (real name Eckhardt), as if they weren't human at all. Indeed, they'd be routinely presented as something less than that.


The article above left promises much that wasn't delivered, Tod Browning declaring, for instance, that "we may make enough for him (Johnny) so he can quit the sideshow life, which he abhors, and turn to his true love, which is music." That never happened, of course. Johnny ate sawdust for years to come, as did his brother, who may have briefly studied medicine, but never made a career of it. What I first knew of Johnny was gleaned from a Freaks screening at the long-gone Janus Theatre in Greensboro, NC, where it 1971 midnight-played with Un Chien Andalou. We drove eighty-three miles each way and got back home around three a.m. That's what it took back then to see old movies. Best recollection of the show is a close-up eyeball slit with a razor (Un Chien Andalou) and Freaks' muddy soundtrack, both scented by cannabis that was part-parcel of seemingly all 60/70's midnight runs, Johnny Eck surviving all the while in hometown Baltimore. Awareness of that came courtesy Richard Lamparski's 1985 Whatever Became Of ..., Volume Nine. Johnny's later life was pretty sad. Things happened to him I don't like thinking about. Let's just say they open your eyes to cruelty some folks are capable of.

Thanks to Scott MacQueen for passing along the above 1932 article.

3 Comments:

Blogger Kevin K. said...

I knew someone who visited Johnny at his home in the early '80s. Johnny was initially suspicious, but quickly warmed up and chatted with him for the afternoon.

The same guy also visited Moe Howard and Larry Fine not long before their deaths. Some people dream of doing things like this, others just do them.

2:03 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson explains one of the Eckhardt Brother's more unique stage acts:


Eck and his brother worked with a magician, one Rajah Raboid, during the 20s.


To close his act, Raboid would call for a volunteer and choose Robert Eck, a plant in the audience. He'd put Robert in the box and saw it in half. Then -- as you probably guessed by now -- he'd open the box and Johnny Eck would jump out, accompanied by a topless pair of pants (a midget in a trick costume). The seeming halves would run around and the audience would go crazy.


Even in that pre-spoiler-alert era, one wonders how long it was before everybody knew that payoff was coming. I'm guessing Johnny Eck must have gotten fed up staying invisible between shows to protect the gag (some illusions depended on twins, but offstage makeup and clothing could hide the resemblance enough to allow them to walk around town).

4:07 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer offers more detail regarding Johnny Eck:


This may bring a certain comfort to some, but Johnny Eck was not entirely without a lower body. He was born with a condition known as sacral agenesis, which is associated with a malformation of the spine and pelvis. In severe cases, the legs and feet will be very small and unuseable. Eck hid his with special clothing, in order to enhance the "Half-Boy" persona exploited at freak shows and other exhibitions. More than likely, however, he also suffered urogenital malformation and was almost certainly impotent. In that sense, his appearance in no way belied his true condition.

Leonardo DiCaprio has long been interested in making a film about Johnny Eck, based on a screenplay by Caroline Thompson, the screenwriter for "Edward Scissorhands." Apparently it will be going before the cameras soon for Peligius Films, possibly with James Franco playing the Eckhardt brothers.

Daniel

5:58 PM  

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