The Amazing Johnny Eck

screens eck tractor

One of the photos on display at “The Amazing Johnny Eck,” at the Maryland College Institute of Art.

Photo by: Fern Shen

Take a closer look at the photo above.

Sitting in the tractor seat – his smile jaunty, his body pretty much ending at the seat – is Baltimore’s Johnny Eck.

The sideshow performer (1911-1991) is being remembered and celebrated in a display at the Maryland College Institute of Art that includes more than 200 photos, artwork and personal objects.

The Amazing Johnny Eck,” curated by Jeffrey Pratt Gordon (curator also of the online Johnny Eck Museum) and running through March 16, asks people to look even closer still.

For such a small man, Eck lived a life that was truly large – he was an artist and sculptor, a race-car driver, an illusionist, ran a miniature railroad amusement, made Punch-and-Judy puppets and put on shows with them. He was featured in the 1932 cult classic “Freaks.”

Eck's exploits were celebrated in films, comic strips and around the world. (Photo by Fern Shen)

Eck’s exploits were celebrated in films, comic strips and around the world. (Photo by Fern Shen)

He was famed for his one-armed handstands. He performed for the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey circus.

He once climbed the Washington Monument, using only his arms, scaling the 898 steps in 48 minutes.

He was in Tarzan movies with Johnny Weismuller.

Clearly nothing but a vast and ambitious show like this would begin to do him justice. Here’s an also pretty-vast effort – a long piece by Stephanie Shapiro about Eck and fans working to tell his story.
The exhibit, which is free, runs through March 16. It’s in the Decker Gallery at MICA’s Fox Building, 1303 W. Mount Royal Avenue). Open Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays noon to 5 p.m.

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  • ushanellore

    Johnny Eck–partly apocryphal

    This Johnny Eck I didn’t know
    must have been a grand fellow,
    everything he did with hands–
    what others did with feet,
    he bounded up 890 steps
    on his hands he pushed
    his small body followed close behind
    until the top he reached,
    from up above
    looking down below,
    when crowds cheered him for his feat,
    he said, “Aw shucks!
    that wasn’t the Everest I conquered,
    just a monument called Washington,
    named after our first chief!”

    The wonder boy of Baltimore,
    they sing his praises to this day,
    they even have a show
    to showcase those crazy days,
    when he pulled the strings of marionettes,
    painted pictures and sculpted stones,
    being Jack and also master
    of the many trades he learned–

    So if you find yourself with a body
    missing parts from here or there,
    before you rush off
    to be fixed or bioengineered,
    remember Johnny Eck who functioned like a wiz,
    his lower portion missing
    ever since his birth–
    he used this major defect
    as an asset to his climb
    within the circus circles
    famed for his handstands–
    he raced cars and drove tractors–
    this one of a wonder kind–

    His small body an anti gravity machine,
    he knew that he could do with it
    what others only dreamed–
    so before you rush off to be fixed
    or bioengineered,
    before you decide you want to be normalized,
    remember normal is as normal is–
    it may not bring you bliss,
    and perfection often can be
    as boring as a kiss
    that never got placed
    on a pair of eager lips…..

    Usha Nellore

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