Beasts and Breasts at the State Fair
Cover StoryTheNorth Carolina State Fair is different than it was when I was a kid andsaw Chesty Morgan and the Iceman there. Now it’s all fried treats,reasonably safe rides and livestock. I hope I’ll never be too old foreither creaky little roller coasters or crispy calories on a stick, andI enjoy petting bovines as much as the next animal-loving city boy, butsuch homespun pleasures are a far cry from those of the marvelouslyseedy fairgrounds of my youth. Where are the beast-men, the peepshows,the giant man-eating animals? Where have all the huge-breastedstrippers gone, long time passing? I’ve never been to Coney Island, butin the early Seventies, our State Fair had the kind of vintage raffishCarny ambiance I associate with songs by Tom Waits.
Therewere freaks and fortune tellers and singing mermaids and venerableballyhoo attractions like the one promising you’d “SEE the beautifulgirl turn into a gorilla before you very eyes!” (the rare classicillusion that really was done with mirrors). In the years after my mother died and my father settled into swingingbachelorhood, I relished these yearly pilgrimages, for which he’d takeoff from work and whisk me out of grade (and later, middle) school onthe pretext that the trip was “educational.” He didn’t encourage myfascination with the sleazier ballyhoo, but would grudgingly pay myadmission to the tents displaying allegedly huge and dangerous animals.There was the World’s Largest Rat, said to have killed three men whencaptured in the depths of the Amazon basis. On the gruesome banner, itstood on its hind legs feet and nibbled a headless human corpse (theartist had cribbed from Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son,” which I wasfamiliar with even at that age). Inside was just a sleepy capybara, aninoffensive 100-pound South American rodent whose deer-like legs andlack of a tail kept it from looking disturbingly ratlike. There was the “giant” octopus, displayed live in a tank built to looklike a diving bell, the portholes magnifying the pulsating cephalopodinside, enlarging its probably cantaloupe-sized head to beach ballproportions. There was the World’s Largest Snake, which had allegedlycrushed over a dozen native porters when captured in Darkest Africa(never mind that it was a perfectly ordinary Burmese python, well under18 feet long). There was the Boxing Chimpanzee, billed as possessing ablack belt in karate, whose barker challenged foolhardy bikers, rowdysoldiers from Fort Bragg, and drunken State and Carolina frat boys tobattle this martial simian in a padded pit. The ape, a real adult malechimp no bigger than me, knocked and tossed two-hundred-pound menaround like rag dolls. During recess at Fayetteville’s Glendale AcresElementary School, and later at Alexander Graham Junior High, everyother kid claimed to have a Fort Bragg Green Beret cousin tough enoughto have knocked out or even killed this pugilistic primate. A Googlesearch reveals that this urban legend wasn’t limited to that decade orthis state, and in Texas was later attributed to the young George W.Bush (whom I suspect could no more beat up a chimpanzee than he couldoutwit one). More deliciously horrific than any live and kickboxing apewas what purported to be a dead ape-man. This was the famous Iceman.Billed as the frozen corpse of an actual Bigfoot, it appeared to havebeen shot through the eye and was displayed in a block of ice in arefrigerated trailer, chilled by aging compressors that mademarvelously spooky groaning sounds. The thing had been touring all overthe country since LBJ was in office and would continue to do so untilthe Reagan Era. Google or Wiki “The Minnesota Iceman” to discover moreabout its fascinating history. I still remember the creak of each step leading up into the Iceman’sgurgling dark trailer, which had two flat tires and tiltedtreacherously to starboard. The interior stank of sweat, cigarettesmoke and chemicals from the refrigeration system. I had to walk up a ramp and peer over a rail to stare down at thefrozen “caveman corpse.” The ice was real and cloudy with condensation,obscuring what lay beneath. I was the only spectator in the tent.Rising unsteadily from a stool that seemed scarcely capable ofsupporting his bulk, the wheezing attendant laughed and tossed me afilthy rag. “Here, kid, wipe him off so you can see him better. He can’t hurt ya none.” Bending over dirty ice with a dirty cloth, Idid. There, right beneath my hand, was the Iceman’s face! Not even themost gruesome images from Creepy and Eerie, the blackand white horror comic magazines I loved, prepared me for the frostyvisage grimacing up at me. In some ways he looked more like aneight-foot-tall naked Wolfman than my mental image of a Sasquatch orYeti. His one remaining eye was open and seemed to stare into my own.The other was a bloody socket (in an article for
Fate! magazine,the gullible or delusional “cryptozoologist” Ivan T. Sanderson claimedto have been able to tell that the entire back of the Iceman’s head hadbeen blown off by the exiting bullet that had apparently killed him).None of the various blurry photos I’ve seen of the Iceman over theyears have indicated how realistic and genuinely creepy it was,probably due to the difficulty of photographing it through the ice (itdidn’t help that the guy exhibiting it didn’t want it carefullystudied). Back when Hellraiser 3 was filmed here in Greensboro,I talked about the Iceman with that film’s makeup artist Bob Keen, whosaid that the rumor in his industry was that it was the work of JohnChambers, the genius responsible for the make-up in the original Planet of the Apes (somehave claimed Chambers also made the Bigfoot suit seen in the famous8-millimeter film of a female Sasquatch striding across a meadow). My fascination with the more sensational attractionsdidn’t end with the monstrous or macabre, for in those gloriouslysleazy days, the Fair also offered marvels meant to titillate ratherthan terrify. Not that I would have asked my father to buy me ticketsto such attractions, or even let him know I’d noticed their alluringballyhoo. Sex was something we never talked about, or to put it moreaccurately, that I never talked about with him. He was hardly a sternmoralist, but had a reputation as something of a playboy (it wouldlater cause me some embarrassment when girls my age teased me about how“sexy” he was). By the time I was in junior high, he would sometimes beout all night on dates. There was a stack of Playboy magazinesunder his bed going back to the early 60s (I can’t imagine what they’dbe worth now), and while he must have been aware that I spent longhours of my summer vacations reading them, and sometimes stole one forthe edification of my friends, he never acknowledged it. We’d nevertalked about the birds and the bees; he expected me to learn about sexthe way he did, from schoolyard conversations and reading adult novels,and that’s what happened. While he grudgingly paid for myadmission to see the Iceman, I couldn’t imagine asking him what went onin the “Adults Only” tents, even though I sure was curious. Some ofthese, I figured out decades later, must have been the remnants ofvenerable “educational” exhibits like “The Miracle of Life.” Thatmultimedia depiction of childbirth had been touring the country sincethe 1930s; the attraction was that you got to see a woman’s vagina,even if a baby was emerging from it (of course, by the time I was a kidat the fair, there was such a thing as actual porn, and such shows wereon their last legs). I recall being particularly intrigued by another“educational” tent show called “Sex Vs. The Pill.” What the heck wasthat one about?
Best of all, there were the strippers. The North Carolina State Fair was the first place I ever saw a woman’s breast — well, most of one — outside of Playboy. Ofcourse Dad never took me into the garish tents in which the ladiestwirled their tassels, but they weren’t exactly hidden from the passingeye. As incredible as it seems now, when not performing the women wouldsprawl in lawn chairs on the midway, wearing half-open bathrobes, orsometimes just pasties, hot pants and high-heels, smoking and shootingthe breeze with the carnies. I’d pretend not to see them, and Dadwouldn’t acknowledge their presence, but boy did I stare, once I wassure he was looking the other way. Some of the acts were nationallyknown ones like Satan’s Angel and the ageing Tempest Storm. The biggestof them all, in one figurative and two literal senses of the word, wasthe infamous Chesty Morgan, into whose watermelonsized breasts I nearlywalked one crispy Autumn afternoon at the beginning of the 1970s, anear-collision which surely jump-started my puberty. These days, Chesty is mostly remembered as the star of cult director Doris Wishman’s Deadly Weapons, thegrindhouse “classic” in which she takes revenge on the mobsters whokilled her boyfriend by smothering them beneath her titanic ta-tas.While that film enjoys some notoriety now, it was barely noticed at thetime, and Chesty was never an exploitation movie star on the level ofthe stunning Pam Grier or the willowy Claudia Jennings or even RussMeyer supervixens like Uschi Digard (who, stacked though they were,seem modestly endowed compared to her mammosity). But her star shonemore brightly in another firmament, and by the mid 70s she was possiblythe highest-paid exotic dancer in America. “Chesty” had beenborn Lillian Walc in Poland in either 1928 (according to the IDMB) or1941(according to Wikipedia). Many sources cite her real surname asWilczkowsky, but she got that from her first husband, a meat packerlater killed in the notorious Ice Box Murders that shockedBedford-Stuyvesant in 1965 (she remarried in 1974 to National Leagueumpire Dick Stello). According to interviews in such refinedpublications as Jugs, the experience of being violently widowed and having two daughters to feed ledher to capitalize on her gigantic but all-natural breasts (which musthave caused her some problems in the 50s, when she allegedly served inthe Israeli army). When she began her new career (which Wikipediaclaims was in 1971, but some publicity photos seem to date from the60s), she worked under the name Zsa Zsa, presumably because someonethought her heavy Polish accent made her sound like one of theHungarian sisters once famous for being famous. By 1974 she was amainstay of Boston’s notorious Combat Zone, where she was billed as“Chesty Morgan and her All-Girl Revue.” By 1976, half a decade after Isaw her at the Fair, she was famous enough to have caught the attentionof Italy’s most renowned director, who cast her opposite DonaldSutherland in a scene later cut from Fellini’s Casanova, and of whiskey-voiced bard Tom Waits, who name-checked her in the infectious “Pasties and a G-String” on his great album Small Change. Iwas, of course, unaware of all that, and remained so until I beganresearching her on the internet. Before the day I nearly collided withthis macromastic marvel, I never dreamed that a sex symbol could bemore voluptuous than Fran Gerard, the busty and adorably bespectacledcenterfold from the Playboy I’d stolen from under my father’sbed (or maybe my friend David’s older sister Suzanne, whom I tried veryhard not to be caught staring at while swimming at the Briarwood Hillspool). So when Dad and I pushed our way through the turnstile and ontothe State Fairgrounds and I spied a flyer bearing the following image,I forgot my usual inhibitions and stared at it in open-mouthed wonder. I don’t actually recall whether she was billed as “Chesty” or “Zsa Zsa,” but those were definitely the measurements advertised. Now, as an adult knowing slightly more about bra sizes and who recently rewatched Deadly Weapons ina spirit of scientific inquiry, I suspect the top measurement was morelike 48HH and that her waist and hips were rather thicker and lessidealized, but there’s no doubt she was a staggeringly top-heavy woman.My astonished reverie was broken when Dad noticed what I wasstaring at. He embarrassed the Hell out of me by laughing, patting meon the head, and saying “tits that big can be fun to look at, butbelieve me, they only get in the way!” After the initial shock ofhearing him use the word “tits,” I kept turning that image over in mymind, wondering how he knew this, and just what sort of inconveniencethey afforded. If I’d not been so shy of talking about things like thatwith him, the discussion of how they “got in the way” might have madefor an interesting parental bonding conversation, but instead it becamethe subject of several schoolyard arguments, after I told my friendsthe story of what I’d encountered at the fair.
Abit later that afternoon, I’d just finished riding the marvelouslyrickety wooden roller coaster and was headed towards the barbecue tentwhere Dad was waiting for me at one of the picnic tables. SinceI was out of his eye line, I deliberately detoured past the stripperpavilion and, as I stared at the women lounging outside of it, hopingto glimpse the star attraction, nearly ran smack into her in theabundant flesh. Constrained by nothing but flowered pasties,her famous assets hung almost to her waist, swaying metronomically asshe halted to avoid the collision. She also wore shocking pink hotpants and open-toed pink stacks. Her ill-fitting wig was askew, hereyes hidden behind heart-shaped shades. Behind her and to either side,men were staring with varying degrees of astonishment and interest,several young blacks and all the soldiers being more vocal in theirapproval than the white civilians, while most women either scowled orsnickered. Several outraged parents had clapped their hands over theirchildren’s eyes. Chesty seemed oblivious to the hullabaloo caused byher pendulous presence. I don’t know much my creativeimagination has added to this story over the years, tweaking it everytime I access the memory like a special feature on a DVD, but I recallher as smoking two cigarettes, one in each corner of her mouth, like the chain-smoking prostitute in the silent Louise Brooks film Pandora’s Box. Shecarried a plastic cup full of beer in one hand and a corn dog in theother. As she passed me, she nodded, smiled and jiggled in mydirection, then tottered towards the stripper tent. I turned to stareafter her, my face burning, glad that my father couldn’t see andgrateful for the fact that nobody else was looking at me (anypickpockets in the crowd would have had a field day). Even though herback was now completely to me, I could still see her swaying breasts,first one, then the other, bobbing into partial view on either side ofher elbows as she walked. This sounds like a frightening sightand from a more mature perspective, I might find it so, but you mustremember I was twelve or thirteen years old and a real live woman’salmost naked breasts had just passed within a couple of feet of myface. My pubescent hormonal reaction was something very different fromdisgust. Indeed, it was so strong that one of the hooting GI’s fromFort Bragg actually noticed me, nudged his friend, and cackled “boy gothim a boner! Son, you want us to buy you tickets for her show?” My faceburning, I ran towards the barbecue tent, where my father waited withhis beer and his paperback Dick Francis novel, his view obscured by themilling crowds. Imust have been beet red, but he didn’t remark on my appearance. Theembarrassment passed soon enough and the “man, this is reallygrown-up!” excitement of the fair returned in force. “I just sawboobies!” went the litany in my head, “the biggest boobies that everwere! Wait until I tell John Bass and Joey Miller and the other coolkids who always have the best stories!” When Dad and I left a couple ofhours later, I remember thinking how I couldn’t wait to be old enoughto go by myself, so that I could see all the forbidden sideshows andexhibits, and maybe even pay the fifty cents that would get me into thestripper tent, where Chesty and even more impossible women wouldperform inconceivable wonders. But I never did. I suppose thatspared me disappointment, as the tame shows inside those tents couldhardly live up to my just-out-of-childhood imagination. But they stillseem more tantalizing than anything at a modern “Gentleman’s Club” (notthat I’ve been to one since the nineties, when the Furniture Marketmade Greensboro the capitol of the state’s white collar stripteaseindustry). And more important, those forbidden pleasures seem just assymbolic of the French poet Villon’s famous “Where are the snows ofyesteryear?” metaphor as all the more innocent ones now lost to theravages of time. The gloriously tawdry fairgrounds of my youth havegone the way of Eckerd’s soda fountains and 7-11 comic book racks andWoolworth’s lunch counters and Godzilla double features at downtownmovie theaters with balconies and concession stands that served orangesoda in plastic fruit-shaped containers with built-in straws. There areno more stripper tents, no freaks, no frozen Sasquatch corpses, nogiant beasts or giant breasts. But if I stand on the midway and smellthe funnel cakes and listen to the creaking rides, I can still bring itall back inside my head.