The Freak in Me: A Conversation with Drew Friedman

[I'm turning over the microphone today to my fellow HorrorDad Paul Gaita, who recently chatted with one of our favorite people: artist Drew Friedman. - RHS]

For the past two decades, award-winning illustrator Drew Friedman has chronicled the lives – both real and imaginary – of the entertainment world’s most unusual and extreme figures, from cellar-dwelling sub-stars like Tor Johnson, Joe E. Ross and Joey Heatherton to larger-than-life personas like Jerry Lewis, Michael Jackson and Howard Stern. His “stippling” style of caricature, which employs thousands of pen-marks to depict every wattle, sweat bead and jowl on his subjects, has been featured in the pages of The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, Time, Rolling Stone and The New York Times, and a series of books, including the collections Warts and All (with brother Josh Alan Friedman), Too Soon: Famous/Infamous Faces 1995-2010 and two volumes of Old Jewish Comedians, which paid tribute to such venerable figures as Sid Caesar, Larry Storch, Milton Berle and Buddy Hackett. (Readers may also remember his work in the pages of Heavy Metal, Psychotronic Video and Spy).

His latest fringe fascination is the world of the carnival sideshow, whose performers have been rendered in a series of painted portraits collected in Drew Friedman’s Sideshow Freaks (Blast Books). Unlike many previous publications devoted to this subject, Friedman eschews a voyeuristic approach in favor of sympathetic and frequently lyrical takes on the likes of Johnny Eck, the “Half Boy” in Tod Browning’s iconic FREAKS (1932); Eddie “The Jewish Giant” Carmel, who appeared in both a portrait by Diane Arbus and the jaw-dropping BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE (1962), and Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, whose unfortunate love lives were the subject of the supremely crass CHAINED FOR LIFE (1950).

Drew Friedman spoke to Movie Morlocks from his home in New York, where he discussed the inspiration for Sideshow Freaks and the highs and lows of sideshow cinema.

TCM: Some might say that you’ve been drawing unusual people throughout your career, but this is the first work devoted to what you might call the most extreme outsiders. What made you decide to devote a book to sideshow performers?

Drew Friedman: Drawing sideshow performers was something I’d had on the back burner for years. I’ve drawn a few of them over the years – Grace McDaniel, the Mule Faced Woman, has popped up in my work a couple of times, one of which was a comic strip where she’s dancing with Fred Mertz. Schlitzie, the pinhead from FREAKS, has popped up a few times as well, and Eddie Carmel – I sometimes didn’t even identify them, but used them as characters or just random faces.

But I knew I always wanted to get to the freaks. And I was commissioned to do all the portraits by a private collector – he’s a collector who’s purchased my work over the years, and he wanted to commission something that I would enjoy drawing. I’d also wanted to do full color portraits (of the performers), because most of the photos you see are grainy black and white, and I hoped that would bring them to life.

TCM: Your theme, which Penn Jillette explains in his foreword, seems to be more about depicting these performers as people than detailing the more lurid aspects of their lives. Was this idea in place before you started the project, or did it evolve as you worked on it?

DF: It evolved when I decided that I wanted to draw those portraits. I didn’t want to draw them like, “Step right up and look at them,” as if I was calling attention to them. I wanted to draw most cases in their everyday habitat – some of them are performing, although their performances are just having people look at them while they stand there. Others played instruments or danced or sang, like Schlitzie would bang on the piano, or Zip would play the violin badly.

I used to go when I was a little kid in the late ‘60s to Coney Island, where my dad (novelist/playwright/screenwriter Bruce Jay Friedman) would take my brothers and I. We encountered a few of them there, especially this 800-pound fat guy named Jolly Jere, who’s in the book, and he would put us at ease. We were nervous, and he was sitting there, not moving, but sure enough, he was jolly, with a big smile on his face and telling jokes about his life and how his wife had left him. And he was actually very funny.

That always stuck with me – that we were nervous and they were just fine with it. Of course, a lot of them were exploited and had horrible lives, but most of the ones that I researched loved working in that world and that life.

TCM: How did you choose the performers depicted in the book? Was it based on the image or their stories?

DF: A lot of it had to do with getting good reference material. A lot of them were photographed just once or twice, so you’d see the same photos over and over of certain people. And others were hardly ever photographed because their handlers wanted to keep them a secret, like Grace McDaniels. There was basically one photo circulating of her, and that’s the one I used when I used to stick her in my work. But a few more of her has been uncovered lately, and some of them when she was younger, when her ailment wasn’t as severe as it became.

But some of them were photographed constantly, like some of the pinheads. And of course, when the movie FREAKS came out, there was that point of reference – would we even be aware of Prince Randian or Johnny Eck if that film hadn’t come out and been as popular as it was?

I didn’t want to use reference that had been repeated over and over, though with some of it, I did, like Chang and Eng, who were photographed by Matthew Brady, and those are basically the only photos that exist of them. So the trick was to convert that to full color.

I’ve always had favorites over the years, like the pinheads, and I also wanted to include an ethnic mix, with some blacks, some Jews, some Hispanics. There’s something for everyone.

TCM: Were there performers that you weren’t able to include?

DF: I centered on ones from the past century, and mostly before 1970. The only two that are still around are the Gaylon Brothers, who are Siamese twins – they’re about 60 now. All of the others are deceased. I definitely kept the Elephant Man out, not only because he had such a horrible, wretched life, but also because anyone who was interested in this topic would have seen that film anyway and know him through that or through Michael Jackson collecting his bones.

I tried to leave the sadder ones out, like guys with horrible boils on their faces or entire bodies. Things that would make people really cringe. And if I did include some of them, I tried to put them in an idyllic setting, like Grace McDaniels, who is hard to look at, but I have her in a lovely dress, and she’s in a beautiful fall setting. That was a conscious decision in some cases. I didn’t want to scare anyone off. I wanted to show them as normal people.

TCM: Books and films about sideshow performers tend to draw attention due to their subject matter. Were there any extreme reactions to the book when it was released?

DF: I don’t know if there was much of an initial reaction. People accepted it, like, “Okay, that makes sense to go from old Jewish comedians to sideshow freaks.” It was a subtle segue. But I did warn people about it by saying that while they found those old Jewish comedians endearing, they might not find these freaks so endearing. The old timers and young people who embraced the comedians are having a different reaction to this one, but it wasn’t as if there was a wave of shock or anything.

I’ve gotten some reaction, like “How could you exploit these people?” And I’ve either ignored that, or tried to explain that I’m showing them in their best light, and for the most part, they were happy. They weren’t locked in hospitals or institutions – they got to perform, and they loved the life, and made a living from it for many, many years. Some of them were world famous, like Chang and Eng and the Hilton Sisters, who were exploited by their manager when they were younger, but then they broke away and had a better life. They didn’t have a great love life, though.

TCM: David Skal, in his book The Monster Show, talks about the 1950s and early ‘60s as a period of extreme interest in and fear of the mutant, the outsider – the freak, for lack of a better term. It’s also the period that seems to be featured frequently in your work. Why do the celebrities and fringe figures fascinate you?

DF: I can’t explain exactly why they do, but they always have, at least the most obscure ones, since I was a little kid. As my dad always says, “Drew always pays attention to the people others pass by.” That holds true with a lot of my favorite subjects – elevator men, waiters, random people on the street – as well as sub-TV stars. I’m drawn to them.

I’m also not locked into a particular period. Someone said on Facebook that “Drew Friedman has his finger on the pulse of 50 years ago.” I took that as a compliment, but I bounce around from different periods. My last anthology includes recent political work and movies and TV shows – things I haven’t even seen.

I’m going from freaks back to Old Jewish Comedians for the third and final book – and again, I had to leave some comedians out. I feel bad about that, but I’m not going to do a fourth book. That’s it. I’m done with the Jews. I’m becoming an old Jew myself – I don’t need to draw them anymore. But I feel bad, because I actually left Arnold Stang out of the third volume, and I’m in touch with what I think is the biggest Arnold Stang fan on the planet, and she was so thrilled. And now I have to break it to her that I couldn’t include him because again, I couldn’t find good reference on him.

TCM: Maybe she’ll read this and it’ll soften the blow.

DF: Yeah, I’ll explain it to her. She seems very sensible, but she’s completely obsessed with Arnold Stang – which is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned. If you’re going to be obsessed with someone, why not Arnold Stang?

TCM: FREAKS is obviously the last word on sideshow performers in the movies, but are there any other films that feature them and that reflect your theme?

DF: I think mainly FREAKS. The book is dedicated to Tod Browning, who treated them respectfully. I haven’t seen it in a while, but I think he treated them as circus performers who happened to work in the freak show and enjoyed – you can see that in Schlitzie’s face. He’s having a great time. As far as other films, I guess no one followed up on that one, as far as fictional films go. NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947) has some performers who aren’t actually freaks, but they’re treated respectfully as performers who made a living in show business. But other than that, there have been some good recent documentaries, including the one on Todd Robbins (AMERICAN CARNY: TRUE TALES FORM THE CIRCUS SIDESHOW, 2008).

It’s hard to top FREAKS, even after 80 years. I know the film was pulled from circulation and condemned for many years – I think it was out of circulation for 30 -40 years. I saw it in the late ‘60s.

TCM: Yeah, (Church of Satan founder and former carnival worker) Anton LaVey was taking it around to drive-ins and grindhouses during that period.

DF: When it was re-released in the 1960s, my parents took us to see it on a double bill with THE DEVIL DOLL (1936), another one of Browning’s films, in Times Square in ’68 or ’69 at the Bijou Theater. That stuck with me, of course, and I knew that some day, I’d want to draw them all, so here it is.

TCM: I’m wondering what some of the performers would think about the level of self-exhibition by sub-celebrities and fringe figures on reality television. That, to me, seems like the new sideshow.

DF: I think they were kind of snobbish about the fact that they were freaks. When you go to a freak show today, it’s people that swallow swords and eat fire and guys with clamps stuck to their nipples – not actually freaks, but it’s still a freak show. You don’t see what you would have seen 40-50 years ago, because most of those diseases don’t exist anymore. You don’t see pinheads anymore – not in this country, at least.

I don’t think they would even connect what they did with what you see on television these days, but I really can’t speak for them. It’s interesting to compare what passes for a freak show today with what happened back then – it’s a little freakier today than back then.

Copyright 2011, Paul Gaita.

Photo by David Burd.

4 Responses The Freak in Me: A Conversation with Drew Friedman
Posted By Medusa Morlock : April 22, 2011 8:10 pm

I can’t wait to get my hands on this Friedman book. I’m a long-time carnival performer aficionado — several crowded bookshelves of material from years of collecting — and am such a fan of his previous work. I’ve always been touched and inspired by the diverse gifts of these very special people — which is the title of Frederick Drimmer’s classic book on the subject, well worth looking for if you want to learn more.

I’ve always hoped somebody would do a Chang & Eng movie — what a crazy and wonderful life they had! And with special effects and make-up so good these days, their conjoined status could be done with great accuracy. Boy, what an American tale that would be!

Thanks for this great interview!

Posted By Medusa Morlock : April 22, 2011 8:10 pm

I can’t wait to get my hands on this Friedman book. I’m a long-time carnival performer aficionado — several crowded bookshelves of material from years of collecting — and am such a fan of his previous work. I’ve always been touched and inspired by the diverse gifts of these very special people — which is the title of Frederick Drimmer’s classic book on the subject, well worth looking for if you want to learn more.

I’ve always hoped somebody would do a Chang & Eng movie — what a crazy and wonderful life they had! And with special effects and make-up so good these days, their conjoined status could be done with great accuracy. Boy, what an American tale that would be!

Thanks for this great interview!

Posted By David Del Valle : April 28, 2011 1:47 pm

I am such a fan of Friedman’s work that this is already a must have book for me. On a personal note I knew Johnny Eck slightly as we exchanged letters and phone calls occassionaly. Eck’s story along with Angleo Rosetto is online at filmsinreview.com in the Camp David columns entitled THE BROKEN DOLL and GOOGLE GOBBLE….FREAKS is now such a part of our cultural landscape, even though it took decades for this to happen……Friedman has taken arcane actors like Tor Johnson and Rondo Hatton and made them immortal…who can forget Joan Crawford asking Rondo if anything else he had was larger than life…….great interview..

Posted By David Del Valle : April 28, 2011 1:47 pm

I am such a fan of Friedman’s work that this is already a must have book for me. On a personal note I knew Johnny Eck slightly as we exchanged letters and phone calls occassionaly. Eck’s story along with Angleo Rosetto is online at filmsinreview.com in the Camp David columns entitled THE BROKEN DOLL and GOOGLE GOBBLE….FREAKS is now such a part of our cultural landscape, even though it took decades for this to happen……Friedman has taken arcane actors like Tor Johnson and Rondo Hatton and made them immortal…who can forget Joan Crawford asking Rondo if anything else he had was larger than life…….great interview..

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