Volume 74, Number 33 | December 22 - 28, 2004

Villager photos by Jennifer Bodrow

Johnny Fox shows off his pipes — by swallowing a sword. Because of lack of business, he plans to close his 6-year-old Freakatorium.

Freak out: Sideshow museum calls it quits on Clinton

By Divya Watal

“Welcome to the Freakatorium — El Museo Loco! Admission’s $5 — half the price of a movie, memory of a lifetime!”

The sword-swallowing, fire-eating Johnny Fox greets visitors to his museum at 57 Clinton St. on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with an élan that befits a man who has lived, breathed, dreamed sideshows for the last 30 years — ever since his cognitive senses came into being.

The Freakatorium, Fox’s personal collection of freak show, sideshow and circus memorabilia, is a dedication to the history and preservation of the dime museum, one of America’s oldest and most distinctive forms of entertainment. With an assortment of over 1,000 artifacts and curiosities, like a two-headed turtle, Tom Thumb’s vest and a 4,000-year-old Egyptian mummy, Fox’s museum evokes the old, 19th-century vaudevillian traditions of New York’s Bowery.

“I felt like this was important to share with New Yorkers,” said Fox, explaining that the collection of art, old photographs, taxidermy and antique objects, which he has been accumulating since the ’70s, had been displayed in his various homes over the years. But in 1998, he decided to assemble everything for the public to view, and the Lower East Side seemed like a nice enough, cheap enough neighborhood for him to rent space.

“But, for a place like this to survive, it needs tourist traffic. It needs to be in a location like Times Sq., where people from all over the world can see it,” he said.

He receives 20 to 30 visitors on weekends, which, Fox says, barely pays for the maintenance of the place — the museum “doesn’t make any money.” Fox’s income stream flows in from an almond business, which he sets up annually at two renaissance festivals, one in Sterling, N.Y., and the other in Maryland. He also runs a “chamber of wonders” at the two festivals and makes money from performing at comedy shows all over the country.

“I’m looking for a new home for this stuff — it costs me too much money to curate the collection,” Fox said, adding that he would try to sell the entire museum — not piece by piece — to a buyer on eBay for a minimum bid of $3 million. “It would be nice if I meet someone who’s willing to put up equal funds, so we could have a partnership.”

New Yorkers want to support and encourage his eclectic museum, Fox says. He frequently receives requests from people who want to host parties at the Freakatorium. There is a strangely intoxicating element in attending a do amid images of Johann the Giant, Priscilla the Monkey Lady, Susy the Elephant-skin Girl, Laloo the Double-body Wonder and Lucky Rich the Most Tattooed Man in the World — not to mention, a rotating cylinder of conjoined piglets preserved in formaldehyde.

“I want it [the museum] to stay in New York — it’s part of the area’s history” Fox said. “And for someone to put together a collection like this again, it would take years and years.”

The problem of low traffic and zero profits is not confined to Fox, says Clayton Patterson, a Lower East Side gallery owner and photographer. “People are just not investing in culture anymore,” he said, adding that the Freakatorium is “a classic, extraordinary sideshow museum.”

“It’s a tragedy for the neighborhood — it’s losing everything that represents the community, all its critically important cultural institutions,” Patterson said. The only thing people in the neighborhood seem interested in spending money on is drinking in bars, he said.

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