By Danger Coolidge.
ohnny Eck had no legs, but the dude never crawled to anybody. He was literally half a man, yet in terms of achievement he stood taller than a giant. Sideshow performer, actor, artist, photographer, magician, puppeteer, model maker, racecar driver, swimmer, saxophonist and gymnast, Eck's most amazing skill was his ability to retain a bubbly and positive outlook in the face of such a horrific physical affliction. Friend and fan Anton LaVey once commented, “Johnny was extremely intelligent, always good-natured and one of the best people to be with I've ever known. There are very few normal people I have such a high regard for.” Johnny entered the world on August 27th, 1911 at 622 North Milton Avenue, Baltimore. He may have been screaming, but he certainly wasn't kicking. His parents, John and Amelia Eckhardt, a hard working couple already with an eightyear old daughter, were expecting a normal baby, which they duly received in the form of a healthy bouncing boy they named Robert. However, not long after Robert’s arrival, Amelia delivered an unexpected “half” twin. The midwife assisting the birth described the child as looking like a doll that had been snapped off at the waist. Alive against all reason, this mucus covered medical marvel was bestowed with his father's name, John Eckhardt. He was not expected to live very long, much less become the main breadwinner of the household, but the tenacity and optimism of this amazing half boy knew no bounds. “What can you do that I can't do, except tread water?” the quotable little freak of nature once asked. In late 1923, at twelve years of age, Johnny was “discovered” by a third-rate traveling magician called John McAslan, who shortened his surname to Eck and introduced him to the freak show life. Enduring shabby conditions under McAslan, Johnny nonetheless took a shine to traveling and performing. Not content to merely be gawked at for his sawn-off status, he developed his act from a miniature trained rat and cat circus to one involving magic, acrobatics, juggling, trapeze and the projection of “trick pictures”. Wresting himself free of the highly questionable McAslan in 1924, Johnny signed on with a carny named Captain John Sheesley and in the next few years would go on to work for Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey and many other carnivals. A talent scout from MGM Studios discovered Johnny in Canada in 1931 while casting for Tod Browning's classic 1932 film, Freaks. Though happy with the film and the time spent making it, Eck expressed little affection for his co-freaks. “All of the freaks started wearing sunglasses and acting funny… in other words, they went Hollywood,” he quipped. MGM also used him in costume as a hideous bird-like creature in Tarzan, The Ape Man (1932), with the footage used in several subsequent Tarzan flicks. But that was the end of Johnny's brief film career. With the coming of the Great Depression the Eckhardt's were faced with the foreclosure of their home, which prompted Johnny to accept a gig in the first Ripley's Believe it or Not Odditorium at the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago, where he was billed as “The Most Remarkable Man Alive”. In 1937 Johnny and Robert appeared together in Raboid Rasha's vaudeville show, Miracles of 1937, where the twins contributed to what has been described as the most amazing version of the sawing-inhalf illusion ever. “When the upper half walked down the stage, it created a panic,” Johnny later recalled. “The men were more frightened than the women - the women
couldn't move because the men were walking across their laps, headed for the exit. Two ambulances were parked outside for those who passed out.” The Great Johnny Eck retired from the freak business in 1940 and he and Robert moved back into 622 North Milton and opened a penny arcade. After that went broke they bought a miniature train ride, which they operated at parks and picnics for children. The resuscitation of Freaks as an underground classic in the sixties led to renewed interest in Johnny, who by then had become a respected local artist for his window screen paintings and would spend his days on the stoop of his house with his dog, Major, happily entertaining visitors with stories of his past exploits. However, by the time Freaks was issued on video to yet another generation in the eighties, Johnny had grown to bitterly despise the attention. Worse than autograph hounds and prying fans, though, were the neighbours. Urban decay, violent crime, drug-addiction and poverty had spread throughout the twins' once friendly working-class neighborhood, and many of Johnny's writings and correspondence from the time were focused on his repugnance for a black neighbour he referred to as “Gaffer”. In an interview conducted around that time Johnny was asked: What would you do if you could be a full human being for a day? “I'd get my brother's baseball bat and beat the hell out of that sonofabitch next door who makes our lives so miserable!” he replied. In 1988, Johnny and Robert were subjected to a violent and prolonged home invasion that destroyed their trust in the outside world forever. Adopting a life of seclusion, their remaining years were weighted with anger, bitterness, paranoia and depression. On January 5th, 1991, Johnny Eck died of a heart attack in his sleep, aged 79. Robert died four years later and the pair are buried together at the Greenmount Cemetery, Maryland. Several years back there was an announcement of a big screen biopic of Johnny's life, with ex-heart-throb Leonardo DiCaprio taking on the dual role of Johnny and Robert. A project from veteran producer Mark R. Gordon (Speed, Saving Private Ryan), the script was being developed by Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands), but with no new updates for several years you'd have to think the flick was on some distant Hollywood backburner. The Brothers Eck: Johnny and Robert