martes, 19 de junio de 2012

Melvin Burkhart, The Original Human Blockhead

Born:  Born 1907 Louisville, KY, Died November 8, 2001 Gibsonton, Florida. Biography: From his obit(Associated Press):

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Magician Melvin Burkhart, known in the heyday of
carnivals as ``The Human Blockhead'' for his ability to hammer a spike
into his head through a cavity behind his nostril, died Thursday. He
was 94. 

Burkhart could make both sides of his face do different things, and he
could squeeze into enough shapes to be known as ``The Anatomical

``He was 60 years in the sideshows, and he's the last of them,'' said
friend and magician Bill Dahlquist. ``It's the end of the era, it
really is. It's sad.''

Burkhart recently was in New York to trade stories with friends and to
perform at a wedding. When he returned home, he checked into a
hospital, and shortly afterward suffered a stroke. He had time for
private goodbyes before his heart gave out.
``He taught me how to be a rich man,'' said his son, Dennis Burkhart, a
biochemical engineer. ``He said a rich man is someone who can make one
person smile everyday. If I can be half the man my father has been, I
will be a great man.'' 

The elder Burkhart and his wife, Joyce, with whom he had three
children, were to celebrate their 52nd anniversary this month.
``He did what everybody else always talked about doing,'' said
daughter-in-law Jane Burkhart.

``He ran away and joined the circus.'' 

from James Taylor (excerpt of an unpublished essay, "How I Spent My Carny Vacation," 1998):

You've seen the act before, though the horrific elements of it probably had you wondering, "Why in the hell would anybody do that?" more than, "Who came up with that act?" Human Blockhead or just Blockhead, the act's straightforward and frightening: The performer takes a hammer, a bottle, the microphone, whatever, and with a maniacal laugh proceeds to pound a spike as big as your finger right into the middle of his head. Well, that's right up his nose. Maybe you saw the blockhead push an ice pick up his sinuses. Regardless, whether you saw it with those implements or others, when the act's done for comedy, a stand-alone act for the gross-out stand-up, it's origins are traceable to Gibtown. Specifically, to Melvin Burkhart, the Anatomical Wonder. The man Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley dubbed the Human Blockhead. The man who took a pretty gruesome piece of fakir performance, made it even more gruesome, and then made it comic. 

Melvin's done the act a million times. Taught it to a million wannabes who've taught it to a million others. Some of them don't even bother to invent their own patter. If he'd had a copyright on that material and the wherewithal to file suit, Melvin would be a millionaire by now, that is, if you could ever collect from other blockheads. As it is, he's just proud to know he's left his mark on the business. And on any given day, he'd just as well be doing magic anyway (yes, he's invented acts there, too). 

On the day Kathleen and I stopped by to see him this year, he told us before we left that we had to watch him do one more card trick. "I think you'll like this one," and he was all self-deprecating in tone, a sure sign from Melvin he's setting you up. True to form, he handed Kathleen the deck, told her to cut the deck anywhere, look at a card, not show it to him, hand it back, let him shuffle, he gave them back... and he never touched them again. And for the next five minutes, Melvin pretty much told her to do whatever she wanted with the deck. Cut them where she wanted. Divide them into a couple piles anywhere she chose. Pick left, right, middle, her choice. And when it was all over, Kathleen having apparently controlled the entire show, Melvin told her to make a final choice between the face-down piles. Any choice at all. She chose. Randomly. Of course she chose her own card, the one she'd picked at the beginning of that little performance. "That," she said, no small amount of awe in her voice, "was really good." "Good?!" Melvin came back, laughing through it, "That was perfect!" And, as always, he was right.



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