Saturday, March 18, 2017

In Memorian of Walter Franke

In Memoriam of Walter Franke
By Dominik Schmitz ©2017

 Walter Franke, extraordinary and legendary showman, died in January 2017 at the age of 87 years.

 Walter Franke was one of the last great sideshow and illusion show proprietors of the last century. He represented the traditional sideshow business, which almost extinct on funfairs and festivals of today, like no other and with integrity and class.

 Shortly after the WW II he traveled through the country with his marionette theatre, presenting his art mainly in community halls and local pubs.
A Franke Marionette
Photo by Dominik Schmitz
 Soon he also made a name of himself as a sideshow "talker"-  in cabarets and on the German fairgrounds - and in the 1950s he set up the show programs for numerous famous cabaret shows as well as in his own fairground shows.

Herr Franke's Burlesque Champagne Glass
Still in use
Photo by Tim Cridland
  Acts such as the burlesque "the bath in the champagne glass" - presented by his troupe of artists - and, above all, his own illusion performances such as the "living half lady" and "levitating lady" became famous on the fairs at this time.

 At the beginning of the 1960s, Walter Franke founded his first own traveling Fairground Variety Theatre, with which he travelled in the following years at all the major German funfairs.

 For those who saw him on stage his ability as a sideshow presenter/talker were unforgettable, as his skills as an illusionist, marionette player, and showman.
Franke Punch and Judy Puppets
Photo by Dominik Schmitz

 At the end of the 1960s Walter Franke settled down in Achern (Germany), where he spent many years and - among other things - opend the night cabaret  "Casino Royal".

 However, permanent living in one place and an early "sedentary" lifestyle did not give him the happiness that his showlife and travels as an artist and showman had given him, as he often said that his work as sideshow showman is "not only a job, but a profession".

Herr Franke on the Bally Stage of his Revue Der Illusionen
From Bavarian television
  So in the early 1980s  Walter Franke once again created a mobile Fairground Theatre, named like his first show "Revue der Illusionen", which at that time was not only one of the most modern traveling sidehows in Europe, but also the biggest of all.

 Walter Franke, with his "Revue der Illusionen" ("Revue of Illusions"), continued to tour all the major and well-known funfairs in Germany and beyond, among others the "Munich Oktoberfest" and the "Canstatter Wasen" - before he retired from his active career in 1994 and handed over the sideshow to the next generation.

 But even after his retirement  he always stood by with advice and help - with his approximately 70 years of experience in the field of sideshow and entertainment - until shortly before his death. It was his wish that this kind of entertainment, which decisively influenced his life, should live on the in future.

Dominik Schmitz is the current owner of Walter Franke's Revue Der Illusionen show.

Related Posts and Internet Sites

In Memorian of Mister Miller

Revue Der Illusionen Webpage

Revue Det Illusionen on Facebook

Faller Model of Revue Der Illusionen

Revue Der Illusionen Returns to Oktoberfest

Revue Der Illusionen is Back

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

In Memorian of Mister Miller

In Memorian of Mister Miller

By Tim Cridland ©2016

The year 2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the death of renowned German/English artist and sideshow entrepreneur  Walter "Benno" Miller, better known as Mister Miller. (1926-1996).

 His Mister Miller's Show was well regarded and respected as a part of the post war European fairground scene. He toured with various versions of his shows until the mid-1990s.

 Benno Miller was born 10 October, 1926 near Hamburg, Germany. Although his mother was German, his father was of English nationality.

Mister Miller's 1958 German International Drivers License
 His father, a barber by trade, hoped that his son would take over the family business. Benno was more interested in fairground entertainment. He began to work at the fairgrounds shortly after World War Two.

 He worked with various fairground shows as a talker, notably Hamburg's Rasch family shows and the Mrs. Wittersheim show, which was well known as a part of Oktoberfest in Munich.

 In the early 1950s he started his own show, the first was called Copacabana. After that, they were all known as Mister Miller's Show, regardless of the content or the structure.

Mister Miller's Africa Show
 One version was his now politically incorrect "Africa Show," which he ran in the late 1950s. This was a walk-through with an outside bally. After seeing performers on the outside stage patrons would make their way through a faux-jungle interior, populated by African performers.*

 Miller's shows contained a mixture of variety and cabaret acts as well as lots of illusions. He presented fakirs, knife throwing acts, fire eaters, and at night burlesque acts. His illusions included girl to gorilla, a two-headed lady, a levitation, the zig-zag girl, the Hindu basket, and the witch barrel, which was a version of the Hindu basket with a woman dressed as a witch who would lose her clothes by the end.

 One memorable illusion was the disappearance of a small Italian car, which was perhaps most remarkable in that somehow he was able to have a car on a stage in a fairground theater.

  A renowned part of Miller's shows was his mind reading act, which he performed with his wife, Irene, who performed under the stage name Frau Katja.

 Miller toured with his various Mister Miller's Shows from the 1950s through the mid-1970s.

  During a decade-long hiatus from fairground life, he operated a pub near Duren, Germany called Zum Maiblümche, (literally, To the May Flower).  Although no longer on the the road, his love for show life continued. His pub was decorated wild-west style and would sometimes feature exhibitions of  knife throwing -- sometimes planned, and sometimes drunken, spur-of-the-moment displays.

 He built illusions in his backyard, sometimes performing them at his pub.  Zum Maiblümche  still exists as a restaurant, although in a different location and with no of indication of its former glory.

 In the early 1980s, he put together a new Mister Miller's Show and went out on the fairground circuit again, returning to the showman lifestyle. During the 1980s and mid-1990s, his show appeared at the largest fairs in Germany and the Netherlands. He continued touring and performing until nearly the end of his life.

 Mr. Miller died February, 1996, at the age of 69, after heart surgery.

 His show was the longest running fairground show in Germany, if not Europe.
 He is missed by those who knew him as well as the patrons of his legendary shows. 
Information for this post was provided by Dominik Schmitz and John Duijns.

John Duijns' family owed the Studio 7 fairground show and has owed and operated various fairground shows and attractions over the years. He knew and Mister Miller from the European fairground circuit.

 Dominik Schmitz runs Paradox Sideshows, one of the last fairground shows in Europe. He owns many Mister Miller artifacts and is the only person legal able to use the Mister Miller name for his shows. He provided the photographs and documents used in this post. You can see his website here:
*You may note I am not excessive judgmental, preferring to have an anthropological view of this, and knowing that you, the reader, can and will judge for yourself. In the future I will do a post on racial insensitivity in European popular entertainment.

 If you have enjoyed this blog post, or any of my other writing, please put something into my virtual tip-jar below.

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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Whatever Happened to Mortado The Human Fountain?

Whatever Happened to Mortado The Human Fountain?

By Tim Cridland ©2016

Mortado was a fakir performer from Berlin who was active in Germany and America from the late 1920s until the early 1930s.  He had permanent holes in his hands and feet that allowed him to perform a mock crucifixion act. He is best remembered for his "human fountain" act in which water streamed out of his punctured hands and feet as he posed on a throne.

Mortado at Coney Island

 His time as a performer was brief but spectacular. The image of him doing his human fountain act is unforgettable. Very little is known about him and this has given rise to the spread of unflattering misinformation. Specifically, his sudden departure from public view has been attributed to the public growing bored with his act and him being unable to come up with anything new, resulting in him "fading away."

 In this post I will show more about Mortado than is generally known and will present a much more likely reason for his disappearance from the public eye. I hope I will rehabilitate his reputation while doing so.

 Most of what we know of Mortado comes from two sources, and both are demonstrably unreliable, although both have elements of truth.
One of these is his pitch book. This contains a section with a fanciful tale as to the origins of his punctures. This involving him being captured and forcibly crucified when he was a German naval officer during World War One. This story is doubtful, difficult to verify and typical of the tall tales that were used by performers of the time. That he may have been in the German military is more likely.

 At the end of his pitch book he states "I first presented the exhibition in Berlin, in January, 1929, and it met with instant favor from both press and public. A New York booking agent, learning of my success, sent a representative to interview me with the result that I signed a contract to appear at Dreamland Circus Side Show, Coney Island, N. Y., for the summer season of 1930."

Pretty much all of this is demonstrably true.


Mortado can be seen presenting an earlier version of his act in the 27 October 1928 edition of the Hamburg newspaper Hamburger neust Zietung. He is part of a full page photo essay, "Fearless People," and is flanked by escape artists and acrobats. His act is not fully developed, as the photo shows him sitting with skewers going through his hands and feet.

Mortado in Berlin 1928

 When Mortado says that he first presented his act in January 1929, he was likely referring to his human fountain act. Whatever the case, by the end of that year he was a European sensation, with his Berlin performances appearing in major newspapers. The Estonian paper Virumaa Teataja wrote, "In Berlin a great deal of attention was created by fakir Mortado, who is going to let water belch like a fountain for 12 hours through holes drilled through his hands and legs."

Mortado in Berlin 1929

A Berlin newspaper reported that Mortado's exhibition took place at a restaurant. Strange as it may seem, at the time, Berlin restaurants would sometimes feature an unusual human attraction as ambience while people ate. Often times it would be a Hunger Artist, a performer who fasted for weeks on end. They would be locked in a transparent box as diners gorged themselves around them. The genius of Mortado's presentation is that he could just sit there for 12 hours and still be an attraction.

Mortado in Berlin 1929

His act did get noticed in America. The 16th November 1929 issue of The Billboard, a magazine for the outdoor amusement business, reported on Mortado's popularity in Berlin.

Coney Island

In 1930 Mortado was booked with the the Dreamland Side Show at Coney Island in New York, which opened on the 17th of April of that year (The Billboard, 26 April 1930). His time at Coney Island is the source of most of what has been written about him, as well as most of photographs that have appeared in books and now are now posted on blogs on the internet.

Mortado in Coney Island

Researcher and writer Joe Nickell has written about Mortado a couple of times. In his article "Sideshow!" in the December 1999 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer,  he uses an article by Hilary Barta from The Big Book of Freaks as his source. The Big Book of Freaks turns out to be... a comic book. As soures for his book, Secrets of the Sideshows, he uses that same comic; Dan Mannix's book, Freaks: We Who Are Not As Othersalong with the obligatory pitch book.

 The piece by Barta in The Big Book of Freaks presents the Mortado narrative but freely admits a lot of it is speculation.  An entirely fictitious account of his childhood contains the words and phrases "imagine," "must have," and "one wonders." This continues into the Coney-Island portion, with phrases like "he may...".  As for what happened to Mortado, Barta wrote, "When he failed to come up with anything new, his career slowly faded away." She then tells of an account of a person who had crucified himself on a train platform and speculates that this could have been Mortado. And the source that Barta uses? Mannix's Freaks book. In fact, Mannix's book and Mortado's own pitch book are the sources for everything that has been written about Mortado. And this is a big problem.

 Mannix was a good writer and wrote some enjoyable books. His Memoirs of a Sword Swallower, which I read under the title Step Right Up, was one of my favorites. I pretty much believe that Memoirs happened just as Mannix wrote it.

 Then a friend loaned me a book of articles compiled from a mens' magazine, Saga or Argosy something like that. It had a few stories by Mannix. One of them was a story that he told in Memoirs, except it was different in some key points... a lot different. Later I heard that had Mannix had taken a lot of liberties in Memoirs to create a better story, like combining two seasons into one. I am pretty convinced that one of the stories he tells in Memoirs is something that he only read about, and then wrote that is something that happened to him personally.

 Undoubtedly, Mannix did have first-hand knowledge and experience working in sideshow, but I am convinced he would never sacrifice a good story for the truth, even if there is truth in his stories. This is a problem for entertainment historians in general. There is so much good-natured fabulism in show business -- from performers, press agents, and journalists -- that it is difficult to be sure what is what. This is even more prevalent in sideshow than in regular show business. Ironically, Nickell -- who is an investigator for Skeptics organization Committee for Skeptical Inquiry --  would never put up with someone promoting ghost stories that used a comic book for its source and that source uses a source that is also less than accurate as its source... and that turns out to be the only source. But I am not singling out Nickell. Everyone -- from Ricky Jay to today's internet authors -- have been using Mannix's book as their source, as there is little else to be found.

 Mannix does have some sourced information in his book. For instance, there is an oft-told tale about how Mortado would put fake-blood packets in his pre-drilled wounds, so that when he did his crucifixion act the "blood" would squirt, and this story is attributed to Whitey Sutton, a showman who worked in New York and is likely true. But the most-repeated (and unflattering) part of the Mortado mythos is unsourced and seems to be pure speculation on Mannix's part.

 It is Mannix who wrote, "During his last years, Mortado dropped from popularity..." and then goes on to reminisce about a newspaper account, where a man was found crucified on a New York train platform, but the police thought that it was a hoax and that the man had crucified himself.  "I have often wondered if this was Mortado making a last bid for fame," Mannix wrote. This is also unsourced, despite being a newspaper article.

 I will now resume my narrative and will show what I think is a more likely reason for Mortado's egress from the public eye.

Coney Island and USA Continued

 Mortado became a star attraction at the Dreamland Side Show at Coney Island. He became the blow-off, the act that people paid extra to see, a tradition that Dreamland had discontinued but resumed, we are told, because of the spectacular nature of Mortado's act. Dreamland manager Namy Salih is quoted in The Billboard, 17th May 1930, as saying, "...after scouting the field carefully I located... Mortado the Human Fountain. I am convinced with my theory that attractions of this caliber will always be received with favor by the public." Spoken like a true publicist.

 Something else happened that summer in Coney Island. Mortado got married, presumably to another employee of Dreamland, and with the reception taking place on premise. One story going around about Mortado is that his wife was a nurse who attended to him, but because it is known that his piercings occurred before he met his wife, it is more likely that she donned a nurse outfit to become part of the act.

 Issues of The Billboard show that during 1931 and 1932, Mortado and his wife performed in different shows, most notably with World's Museum. They appeared in Philadelphia, Newark, Buffalo, and other cities. They returned to Coney Island for the summer seasons, sometimes doing the crucifixion act.

Return to Germany

 At the end of the 1932 season, it was announced that Mortado and his wife were going to Germany where they were planning a new act for the upcoming World's Fair in Chicago.

 A lot of interesting things happen at the 1933 World's Fair, which began in May of that year. Ripley's Believe it or Not presented their first ever "Odditorium," a venue that had live acts. Mortado would have fit in well, yet I have found no evidence that he was there, or anywhere else at World's Fair. So what happened?

At the beginning of 1933, the political climate in Germany was changing rapidly, to say the least. In January, Hitler was elected chancellor. The Reichstag fire happened in February. In March, the Enabling Act was passed.

A part of Mortado's press book that is likely true is that he was in the German military in World War One. It has a photo of him in uniform with the caption "Mortado when an OFFICER in the German Navy, 1914." James Taylor, who reprinted the photo in an issue of his Shocked and Amazed magazine, assures me that the man in uniform is unmistakably the same person as the Human Fountain. It is not difficult to imagine what may have happened to him that prevented him from returning to the USA. For a former German military officer in Berlin in 1933 with his new American wife, coming up with new ways to present an act would be the least of his worries.


 The record shows that Mortado was a very successful performer who able to change his act and keep the public's interest. His act was popular until his last appearance in America, and he planned to return. The political turmoil in his native Germany was probably the reason he was unable to continue to perform.

 There is still a great deal to be uncovered about the man behind Mortado. The exact nature of his surgery, the when and why of it, and the biggest mystery of all: what was his legal name?

 Once Mortado's real name is discovered, his true history will be revealed, as well as the actual circumstances of his post-Mortado life. His name can be checked against public records.

 His name may be revealed in New York marriage records. We have the date and location of his marriage. His name might be in the employment records of the Dreamland Sideshow, assuming these have been saved in an archive somewhere. I will leave this for future researchers.

One More Thing

 Hey, you might be thinking, what about that crucifixion story that Mannix wrote about? If that was not Mortado, who was it?

 Come on, you guys, you can't expect me to do everything! I mean, Mannix did not even give a source for that story. Or even a real date. Well, OK, here goes....

 In March 1936, papers nationwide published a story about a man in Florida was found nailed to a cross. It further stated that the police thought it was a hoax and part of their reasoning was that this man was a "human pin-cushion." 

 The incident happened in Florida, not New York, but other than that, it fits Mannix's description almost exactly. It was printed in New York papers, so it is possible that Mannix jumbled the facts when remembering it. The guy is probably not Mortado, but until we know Mortado's real name, this is difficult to say with certainty.

 [Update 22 June 2016: An issue of the Dutch newspaper Heldersche Courant dated 07 June 1934 confirms that Mortado continued to perform his crucifixion and human fountain act in Europe]


 George J. Timmerman, 39, had nail holes through his hands and feet today as the result of a “crucifixion” which Sheriff S. C. M. Thomas declared faked for notoriety or sympathy.

   Found by Friend

   The jobless bricklayer and carpenter who was employed until recently on the cross-Florida ship canal was found by a friend James M. White, shortly after dawn yesterday in a wooded section near where he lived in a housecar.

   Seemingly semi-conscious, Timmerman told a rambling story about being pounced upon by a group of men and nailed hand and foot to an improvised cross.

   He stuck to that story through a day of questioning but investigators discounted his claims.

   “He is faking,” said Police Chief J. H. Spencer, “he is seeking either notoriety or sympathy.”

   Although in a hospital for treatment, Timmerman showed no outward signs of great pain from his experience which also included having his lips stitched together.

   No Bones Broken

   These was little blood on the makeshift cross when Timmerman was found, but police officers who pulled out the spikes said there was some bleeding from his hands. No bones were broken by the big nails which pierced his hands.

   White was held in jail for further questioning today. No charge has been placed against him.

   Officers investigated reports that Timmerman had given exhibitions of a “human pin cushion” allowing pins, needles and nails to be punched through his hands, lips and other parts of his body.

   -Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, 19 March 1936

Thanks to Mel Gordon and James Taylor for sharing some information about Mortado

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Click Below to See Tim Cridland as Fakir Zamora

Links to Mortado Information

Ripley's Fountain

 The Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco had an exhibit depicting Mortado performing his human fountain act. You can see the photo of Mortado in his military uniform beside it in one of the photos

Mortado Banner at Brockton, MA touring Dreamland Sideshow

Sideshow World on Mortado.

The text of Mortado's pitch book is included in this post.

Joe Nickell

 An article by Joe Nickell in The Skeptical Inquirer that mentions Mortado


Jay's Journal of Anomalies by Ricky Jay includes an interesting section on crucifixion acts that mentions Mortado

Secrets of the Sideshows by Joe Nickell as mentioned in the text, includes a reference to Mortado.

Big Book of Freaks as mentioned in the text, includes a reference to Mortado.

Freaks: We Who Are Not As Others by Dan Mannix as mentioned in the text including information and photographs of Mortado.

Shocked and Amazed by James Taylor includes a section on Mortado and reproduces his pitch book.


All quotations and images used in this post are intended to be within the Fair Use Act for purposes of commentary and criticism

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Anatomy Museum Panoptikum - Grand Musée Anatomique

Fun Fair Museum Show Panoptikum - Grand Musée Anatomique

Here are a couple of photographs from the old display box for the traveling anatomy museum Panoptikum - Grand Musée Anatomique. The display box is from the time the museum was owned by Dutch showman John Duijns and was last used in the 1990s

Newspaper Clippings about the museum

Below is a close-up of a clipping from the display case showing previous owner John Duijns holding a mummified monkey, This is from the 24 May 1991 Limburg Dagblad (Netherlands).

Dutch Showman John Duijns 

For more information about the anatomy museum Panoptikum - Grand Musée Anatomique and other European shows go to these links:

Friday, June 12, 2015

Faller Model of Revue der Illusionen Sideshow

Revue der Illusionen is likely the only sideshow in the world to be commemorated in an HO plastic model by a commercial company.

 The renowned German model company Faller has been producing models of fun-fair rides and and one time sold a reproduction of the Revue der Illusionen show theater.

The model is no longer being produced and are now sought after collectors items.

We have a few that are being offered as incentives for the crowd-fund we have set up for the show. The crowd-fund is for repairs and maintenance of the show as well as going towards a new truck which is needed because of the new strict European environmental laws. When you donate to the crowd-fund project you not help keep this classic style of entertainment alive you can also get a nifty incentive gift for your trouble. The Faller model is just one of the gifts.

Take a look at the crowd-fund site here:

And take a look at a Faller miniature fun-fair in the video below:

and read some more info about the model at this site:

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Revue der Illusionen Returns to Oktoberfest in 2015

Now under new ownership the show theater Revue der Illusionen will return to Oktoberfest in Munich for 2015

Pleased to announce that our sideshow attraction Revue der Illusionen has received license again for the "Oktoberfest" 2015 in Munich,Germany. So the "Revue der Illusionen" is not only one of the oldest live-show attractions at the "Oktoberfest" but also has one of the longest consecutive licenses for a sideshow at this "world's largest" funfair.
>> "Revue der lllusionen" : 19th September - 4th October 2015 | Oktoberfest Munich (Germany).

The above video shows Revue der Illusionen at Ocktoberfest in 2014

This is the last touring show theater in Germany. Please help us keep this traditional style of entertainment alive for future generations and learn more about the show's history by visiting our crowd-funding site here:

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Revue der Illusionen is Back

The show-theater Revue der Illusionen is back on the road under new ownership.

 Its first appearance since being acquired by Paradox Sideshows was the Kustom Kulture Forever festival in Herten, Germany.

The show being set up

Kustom Kulture Forever is an rock-a-billy/classic car/low-brow themed event that demanded an edgier show than would be presented at at kermis/funfair. Although there was a family program in the daytime the festival went long into the night and after the sun went down burlesque dancer Marlene Dúebois  was added to the line-up.

People line up for the night show

The show featured classic fairground illusions the headless lady, the bottomless lady, the floating princess as well as real and shocking fakir show from classic sideshow performer Zamora The Torture King .

The show in action.

Although the show is on the road it needs upkeep and repair as well as a new truck that can pass the current European environmental standards. There is a crowd-funding web-site set up to help keep the show alive and on the road for future generations to enjoy. Take a look at