Just under two years ago, Orlando Weekly reported that the colorful banners of sideshow artist Johnny Meah were being sold in bootleg form at Amazon.com, without their creator's knowledge or permission. It was a kick-in-the-pants reward for Meah's 40-odd years of service as a painter and performer in the traveling-entertainment field, and his emergence as an unsurpassed visual biographer of the vanishing subculture's fabulous freaks.
The story got the attention of Haxan Films' Mike Monello, who weighed in with a sympathetic letter to the editor.
"Maybe I'll start a 'boycott Amazon' web page," Monello wrote. "That's the beauty of the Internet, I guess."
He never had to make good on his threat: Amazon.com removed the merchandise before Monello could spring into HTML action. But his enthusiasm for propagating Meah's work online never dimmed. The result is www.czarofbizarre.com, a newly launched site that captures its namesake's art and stories for posterity. (And with copyright notices attached, of course.)
"That article just kind of got us talking," Monello says. "'You really should be on the Internet,'" he recalls telling Meah, whom he had befriended when they worked together on the 1998 edition of the Florida Film Festival at Maitland's Enzian Theater. "'You really should sell your work.'"
The site, however, is more than a simple cyberstore. Designed by Winter Park's GMD Studios ("I guess you could say I 'directed' it," Monello clarifies), it's an appropriately animated affair that takes visitors through a literal circus of sight and sound. That's Meah's real voice you hear, reciting a barker's spiel as you click on the image of a daredevil named Captain Capastrano -- he swallows things, get it? -- and proceed to a downloadable gallery of past artistic triumphs. Or click on the reptile queen Slitherina and be rewarded with a collection of Meah's autobiographical and/or historical tales, including the story of one Otis the Frog Boy.
Signed and numbered lithographs are available for purchase, and those with more scratch to spare can commission an original Meah work. (Stumped for an idea? Follow the example of one engaged couple whose wedding announcement depicted them as Siamese twins with "2 heads, 1 heart.")
Though Monello says that the site is in an early stage of development, it's already a watershed for the previously computer-phobic Meah, who now has "a place to go and work and kind of create" from his home in Riverview, Fla. (After nearly half a century in the business, he still paints every day, Monello reports.) And it's a repository for visualizations and observations that, as Monello sees it, can only come from one source.
"There are a lot of people now who are painting banners," he says. "But of the ones who were there when sideshows were still an important part of carnivals, Johnny is the last one alive. He's the last banner artist."
The Canadian shoot of Haxan's next feature, "Heart of Love" -- which Monello estimates will keep him away from home for six months -- has been moved back to spring 2002. The bare trees of autumn, he says, won't work as a backdrop for the film's story. Greenery of another kind is important to "HOL," with the Haxan boys securing their own financing for the film to ensure final cut.
Partner Gregg Hale, who did not intend to have daily, hands-on involvement in "HOL" anyway, is instead writing another pilot for Fox TV, hoping to end the losing streak of his "Fearsum/ Freakylinks" and "In Search Of" projects. Who knew network TV was such a patient mistress?
Leaf of absence
Canada was a cherished rest stop for Joanne Haydock, the British actress who has visited the last few editions of the Orlando International Fringe Festival as a member of the Eyewitness Theatre/Manchester Central Theatre Company collective. A recent e-mail from Haydock found her on holiday in the land of hockey masks and bilingual menus, getting in some needed R&R after completing an international theater tour that had taken her to the Cannes Film Festival and the Grahamstown arts festival in South Africa. The selection she performed on the tour -- "Molly," a one-woman show based on the final chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses -- is the one Haydock intends to bring to the Orlando Fringe next year. Airlines willing, that is: The last I heard from her, she was holed up in Canada, waiting for the ban on international travel to be lifted. (Hope she went easy on the maple candy. It's a good way to make yourself sick.)
Set in their ways:
Come 2002, a Best Set Design trophy will be added to the Lillie Stoates Awards, the annual tribute to local theater. It's a great idea, given how much outstanding scenery has graced area stages in the last year alone. And, if we're lucky, the Stoates judges also will find enough worthy nominees to bring back the Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress categories, which won't be featured when this year's awards are handed out Oct. 7 at the Winter Park Playhouse [The Green Room, Aug. 30]. Being a secondary player has built-in indignity to begin with, but imagine the shame of going home empty-handed while a hunk of plywood gets all the praise. It would be like losing to Julia Roberts!
Author Gregory Patrick has a new website for his forthcoming horror novel and soundtrack CD, both titled "The Phantom Ghores." Go to www.thephantomghores.com for updates on the project, now set to unfold as a "serial novel" of seven or eight installments. (A second CD will be released with the final chapter.)
To sustain readers' interest, each episode will end virtually in mid-sentence. If you're tempted to write the idea off as crass gimmickry, know this: Patrick has delayed the launch of the series (to mid-October, at the latest) in order to adjust his marketing campaign for the current, terrorism-ravaged climate. Job one: removing "The Phantom Ghores'" now-inappropriate tag line, "The dead are beautiful."
"I will not, even in the slightest, suggest that the death of any man, woman or child is by any means beautiful," Patrick says. That's not crass; that's class.