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BOSTON — This is a story about a man who gave up a career in publishing to chase his dream — and the woman who supported him.
The man is Tony Gangi — a.k.a. "the Amazing Human Head." His dream? To revive the art of sideshow performance. Suzanne Gangi is his wife.
This weekend, Gangi brings his new sideshow review to The Great New England Steampunk Exposition in Fitchburg. (Steampunk is an aesthetic movement that fuses modern technology with Victorian sensibilities. Click here for a primer.)
To find out more about his calling, and how this couple copes with the fact that it involves swords, nails and all types of sharp objects, I visited their home in Beverly.
Fair warning: this story may not sit well with the squeamish and often hedges on grotesque.
From outside, the Gangi’s house looks pretty typical. The inside does, too — minus the array of deathly devices laid out on their dining room table. Those items are the reason why the phrase “don’t try this at home” was invented.
Seriously, do not try this at home.
There’s a mouse trap. Tony Gangi proceeds to snap it shut on his tongue.
Next, an animal trap crunches the bones in his hand.
“The tough part is always getting it off,” he admitted while shaking the heavy contraption's clenched jaws.
Then there’s a long, flat, scary-looking metal thing.
“I’ve been trying to sword swallow for quite some time,” Gangi explained, “but sword swallowing takes real dedication.”
And a well-trained gag reflex.
All of these accoutrements are part of Gangi’s sideshow act. Like an Olympic athlete, he's been studying and training to bring this age-old performance art to contemporary audiences. He says it's endangered.
“What I’m going to do today is I’m actually going to swallow a sword that’s about 18 inches long…” he begins, presenting his lead-in to an unusually intimate audience: myself and Gangi's wife, Suzanne.
But, what he just proposed isn't actually true. In front of a crowd, the 44 year old would promise to swallow such a lengthy blade but then would instead invite an unsuspecting audience member to slide a 6-inch nail, fashioned to look like a tiny sword, into his nostril.
In sideshow circles this type of act is known as "The Human Blockhead," made famous by Melvin Burkhart, a sideshow performer popular in the 1920s. It's said when Robert Ripley (of "Ripley's Believe It Or Not") saw Burkhart do his thing he declared, "Melvin, you are a human blockhead!" The moniker stuck.
For his own 2011 blockhead demo, Tony Gangi enlisted Suzanne, his squeamish better half, to do the honors.
“And if you take the sword it can slide easily into the nasal passage,” he coached her.
She moans. He laughs.
Then Suzanne, clearly disgusted, pulled the little sword out of her husband’s nose.
I asked if she'd ever pulled that thing out of his nose before, and she replied, "No, I have never had the privilege of actually being the one to pull it out of his nose."
"Even after all these years?" I asked. Again, Suzanne said "No," adding, "I usually avert my eyes and look somewhere else."
Suzanne has been turning her head since 2006. That’s when Tony Gangi gave up his career in book publishing so he could learn how to safely stick sharp objects into his nasal passages at the Coney Island Sideshow School. In order to pursue his passions, though, Gangi had to convince his wife to let him leave a stable job to do something that might very well lead to bodily harm — or death.
At first Suzanne was reluctant, but then she had a change of heart.
"There were a number of years where he was, you know, working in a career that really wore him down," she recalled, "and as a spouse you can see it, because he wasn’t able to do what he wanted."
So, even though he had to sign what's known as a hold harmless agreement (it relieved the school of any responsibility in case Gangi got injured or killed), Suzanne agreed to support Tony and their son Shaefer while her sideshow husband set out to fulfill his dreams. But, she made him promise one thing and it’s become a familiar mantra.
"Well at least I’m not going to be eating glass," Tony Gangi repeated, saying, "and that seems to put her mind at ease."
But Todd Robbins, Tony Gangi’s mentor at the Coney Island Sideshow School, actually does eat glass. Lots of it.
"I’ve eaten more than 4,000 light bulbs during the course of my career," Robbins said, recalling how he learned this practice 30 years ago from a man who had been eating glass for 30 years before him.
You could call Robbins a consummate sideshow man. He just finished a successful off-Broadway run in New York of his own morbid spook show with Teller, of Penn and Teller fame, called “Play Dead.” When asked to recall Tony Gangi’s sideshow school days, Robbins said he remembers them well.
"Tony was one of the more saner people we’ve had at the Coney Island Sideshow school," he explained with elaboration. "It’s what is referred to in the world of the sideshow as someone who came from ‘three hots and a cot.’ Meaning that he grew up in a traditional environment with three meals a day and a good place to sleep: three hots and a cot."
Since the Coney Island Sideshow School, Gangi has published a book about sideshow life titled "Carny Sideshows: Weird Wonders of the Midway" and has been working to keep the art of the sideshow alive.
Gangi developed his own sideshow revue which premiered a few months back in Salem. He named it “Lydia’s Carnival Sideshow,” after the 1939 song “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” Gangi pulled together a menagerie of performers –- a contortionist, an escape artist, a spoon bender, and, of course, his own human blockhead routine. On the night I went, Gangi said he had one goal that goes against a saying common among some sideshow performers.
"The best audience reaction you can get is somebody vomiting in the aisle," they say. But Gangi admits he enjoys what he calls, "a good gasp."
This weekend Tony Gangi hopes to hear some more good gasps when he takes the stage at the Great New England Streampunk Exposition in Fitchburg.
This program aired on September 16, 2011.
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