Friday, May 31, 2013

Umpired Umbathy, Pathic and Pathological, Part X

“ A favored type of investment among world’s-fair concessionaires is an aboriginal village. Eskimos, Filipinos, or Ashantis usually can be hired at extremely moderate rates to sit around in an appropriate setting and act as if they were at home. The city dweller’s curiosity about exotic peoples, built up by a childhood of reading adventure books, is apparently insatiable. Providing suitable food is not such a problem as it might seem once the concessionaire has learned the fact, unreported by anthropologists, that all primitive peoples exist by preference on a diet of hamburger steak. Dufour derives from this pervading passion a theory that all races of man once inhabited a common Atlantis, but Rogers does not go so far. He just says he is glad they do not crave porterhouse. Once engaged, the aborigines must be encouraged and, if necessary, taught to perform some harmless maneuvre which may be balleyhooed as a sacred tribal rite, just about to begin, folks. This is ordinarily not difficult, as the average savage seems to be a good deal of a ham at heart.

Dufour & Rogers’ debut as practical ethnologists was really caused by a large captive balloon that blew away from its moorings at the Century of Progress. The balloon had been one of the sights of the midway, and its taking off left a large site vacant. So Lew and Joe, who already had a couple of other shows, leased the space for a tropical village, which they called Darkest Africa. Some of the partners’ acquaintances say they opened with a cast of tribesmen from South State Street, which is in the Chicago Black Belt, but Lew insists that he came to New York to engage them all. ‘ Naturally there was no time to go to Africa for performers on such short notice,’ he says, ‘ but you would be surprised by the number of real Africans there are in Harlem. They come there on ships.’

By the time Dufour got back to Chicago with his company of hamburger-eating cannibals, Rogers had built the village, a kind of stockade containing thatched huts and a bar. ‘ We had a lot of genuine junk, spears and things like that, that an explorer had brought from the bacteria of Africa,’ Joe Rogers says, ‘ but this chump had gone back to Africa, so we did not know exactly whick things belonged to which tribes—Dahomeys and Ashantis and Zulus and things like that. Somehow our natives didn’t seem to know, either.’ This failed to stump the partners. They divided the stuff among the representatives of the various tribal groups they had assembled and invited the anthropology departments of the Universities of Chicago and Illinois to see their show. Every time an anthropologist dropped in, the firm would get a beef. The scientist would complain that a Senegalese was carrying a Zulu shield, and Lew or Joe would thank him and pretend to be abashed. Then they would change the shield. ‘ By August,’ Joe says with simple pride, ‘ everything in the joint was in perfect order.’

The partners bought some monkeys for their village from an importer named Warren Buck and added an outside sign which said, ‘ Warren Buck’s Animals.’ By the merest chance, the branches and leaves of a large plam tree, part of the decorative scheme, blotted out the ‘ Warren,’ so the sign appeared to read ‘ Buck’s Animals.’ Since Frank Buck was at the height of his popularity, the inadvertence did not cut into the gate receipts of Darkest Africa.

The concession proved so profitable that Lew and Joe decided to open a more ambitious kraal for the 1934 edition of the Fair. They chose a Hawaiian village this time. Customers expect things of a Hawaiian village which they would not demand in Darkest Africa. They expect an elaborate tropical décor, languorous dance music, and a type of entertainment that invites trouble with the police.”  -- A.J. Liebling, The Telephone Booth Indian, copyright 1942, Library of Larceny Broadway Books New York.


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