The Great Fredini Interview – Through the Modified Looking Glass


The Great Fredini

“If Homer Simpson wants his son to work in a Burlesque house, then Homer Simpson is gonna let his son work in a Burlesque house! Oh! Hi... Marge, now you’re gonna hear a lot of talk about Bart working in a Burlesque House...”

- Homer Simpson

The Great Fredini is a man of many hats — and I understand the rest of his wardrobe is pretty nice too. Onstage he is an MC, a talker, magician (the world’s worst, by his own description), a blockhead, a ventriloquist, and a sword swallower. Fredini also does the Coney Island website design (coneyisland.com) and works with Funny Garbage (funnygarbage.com). And while he no longer regularly performs as part of the Coney Island Sideshow cast, he hasn’t left the stage behind as he now hosts This or That (thisorthat.tv), the resident burlesque show.

Meet Fredini!


THE LIZARDMAN:
Let’s start out with the basics.

FREDINI:
My name is Fred Kahl, The Great Fredini. I’m 38 years old and live in New York City. I’m a sword swallower and currently work as a creative director at a New York Design and Production company named Funny Garbage.

THE LIZARDMAN:
How did you first get involved with sideshow and Coney Island?

FREDINI:
I was an art student interested in illusion. I spent a lot of time up at Flosso’s Magic Shop perusing old magic books. At the time I was doing sculptures based on illusion principles — a lot of stuff inspired by Duchamp. I got into performing magic on the street, and through the Flosso connection became enamored with Coney’s history. This was in the early 80’s, at the same time that Dick Zigun’s Coney Island USA was just being established, and the Coney Island Hysterical Society was running the funhouse in Coney.

There was a lot of great underground art going on out there and it seemed like the perfect place for me. A few years later John Bradshaw hired me to be in the sideshow and I went for it. I only worked about a month for him because I had an artist-in-residency somewhere that summer, but that was it — I had the bug. The following season, Dick set up his own show and signed me on for the season.

THE LIZARDMAN:
Do you have any tattoos or piercings?

FREDINI:
I have one small jailhouse style tattoo on my foot — it’s of a key, and it’s about an inch long. I’m the straight man in the show.

THE LIZARDMAN:
You worked closely and were good friends with the late Michael Wilson (who many readers will probably know from his interview in Modern Primitives). He is probably one of the better known and respected tattooed men of the modern sideshow revival. Can you give us a favorite story or moment?

FREDINI:

Michael was really an amazing artist — himself being his most famous work, but he was quite an accomplished painter as well. We had a lot of good times together. One of my favorite ways he dealt with hecklers was when they shouted out “take your pants off” or “what’s on your butt?”, to which he’d reply “There’s a rose on my ass, wanna smell it?

Believe it or not he was actually very modest about revealing the tattoos he had down there. He was once on the Robin Byrd Show (an adult cable access show in NYC) and Robin tried to get him to strip down but he refused.

Michael was also the first person I knew with a tongue piercing. Back when he first started hammering a nail through his tongue, we literally had people practically fainting or walking out of the show. Later in his career, piercing got more prevalent and it lost its shock effect.

THE LIZARDMAN:
What was your perception of heavy tattooing and piercing before you got into sideshow — has it changed much now that you have worked with and known so many heavily modified people?

FREDINI:
I remember seeing Captain Don perform at the modern primitives show in Seattle, and seeing Jonathan Shaw at the first tattoo show in Coney and remember being impressed by their tats — specifically the fullness of their coverage. I guess over time I’ve really grown to have an appreciation for the artform and have refined my tastes of what I like best.

I really like the old school American sailor flash myself, as well as artists who do contemporary stuff in that style. I keep thinking I’ll get some when I turn 40… But the only way I’d go for it would be to get a big area — a full back piece or sleeves — none of this piecemeal stuff.

THE LIZARDMAN:
As a sword swallower, you engage in a very serious form of body control and manipulation, if not modification. Tell us a bit about that.

FREDINI:
When I fist worked the sideshow, I just did blockhead and magic, as well as lots of ballying. Michael Wilson and I had a competition as to who would swallow swords first. I always wanted him to do it so he could swallow neon. I wanted to call him the human lampshade because of the way the light would go through the tattoos on his neck.

At the time no one in the show was swallowing swords, but Michael would say it’s all yoga. During the off season, I started studying yoga, and got really into it. I tried to swallow a coat hanger periodically, but had no success. When the season started, I brought my coat hanger out to Coney. I figured I’d learn backstage between sets. My first attempt in Coney Island worked — and boy was I surprised. That afternoon I began performing it on stage, and by the following week I had a sword.

THE LIZARDMAN:
You have children, which in my experience, is a little bit rare for sideshow performers. Did you consider how the sideshow environment might impact raising them?

FREDINI:
I just do what I do, and they take it at face value. They’ll probably grow up to be bankers in a backlash against it!

THE LIZARDMAN:
Would you encourage others to learn acts and join the sideshow? Is it a career path you would like to see your children carry on?

FREDINI:
Like Melvin Burkhardt used to say, “It’s a hard way to make an easy living.”

THE LIZARDMAN:
What does the word “freak” mean to you?

FREDINI:
Ugh, I don’t know. People who are mentally and emotionally malformed? Not most people in the sideshow. Michael Jackson is a real freak — both psychologically, and in the self-made freak kind of way.

THE LIZARDMAN:
You are a guest lecturer at the Coney Island Sideshow School. Tell us a bit about your experience with that.

FREDINI:
Todd Robbins is the real master of Sideshow School. I just do a little sword swallowing tutorial. We do some breathing and relaxation exercises and try swallowing coat hangers. The old law was that a sword swallower would only ever teach one other person — just to pass the act on, but I guess I’m doing the opposite… teaching more sword swallowers than anyone else! But really, Todd Robbins deserves all the props for Sideshow School.

THE LIZARDMAN:
Tell me about the Coney Island Burlesque show.

FREDINI:
For the last seven years, I’ve run the Coney Island Burlesque at the Beach series, which gave birth to my latest project — “America’s favorite Burlesque Game show – This or That!”. This is the TV show I want to see when I turn on the TV! We’re about to start pitching it around at networks. I’m not sure if anyone will touch it, but we’ll see.

The idea is that it is a sexy game show — part Gong Show, part Let’s Make a Deal, but hotter. We make the contestants reveal their inner exhibitionistic selves. It’s really just good clean fun (with some skin showing). Along the way there’s some wild variety acts in the show, but it’s really about making the contestants — these “normal” people come out of their shells, and believe me they do! You can’t believe the things people will do to win a vibrator (see what I mean at thisorthat.tv).

THE LIZARDMAN:
What was the impetus to do a burlesque show? Was it the historical connection or simply a matter of saying “Hey, you know what people like? Stripping!

FREDINI:
Burlesque is an old American artform like the sideshow, so the historical connection was a draw, but face it — sexy girls are a lot more exciting than looking at Eak! (Unless you’re into that!).

At Coney Island USA, we had always done an annual Go Go Rama night, and Dick Zigun had written about Minsky’s in the 70’s, so it was something that was in the air out there. The charter of CIUSA is to uphold American popular artforms like the sideshow and tattooing, so burlesque was a natural extension. Plus, it made good money, so in the age of struggling non-profits, it made good sense. When I left the sideshow I
knew I wanted to stay involved out there and Burlesque at the Beach and Tirza’s Wine Baths was born out of it!

THE LIZARDMAN:
Is it different doing acts like the blockhead and sword swallowing for a burlesque crowd?

FREDINI:
Not really — the crowd at the burlesque shows is usually all revved up, so in that sense it’s good. At a sideshow you get audiences that span anywhere from super revved up to dead as a doornail, but really, my blockhead and swords routine is pretty much never fail… so there you have it!

Be sure to visit Fredini online at Coney Island and at This or That.





Erik Sprague

because the world NEEDS freaks…

Former doctoral candidate and philosophy degree holder Erik Sprague, the Lizardman (iam), is known around the world for his amazing transformation from man to lizard as well as his modern sideshow performance art. Need I say more?

Copyright © 2004 BMEzine.com LLC. Requests to republish must be confirmed in writing. For bibliographical purposes this article was first published February 10th, 2004 by BMEzine.com LLC in Tweed, Ontario, Canada.



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