DISABILITIES

By Daniel J. Vance

 

  Mat Fraser of London, England, has a restless and combative spirit, and a creative streak a mile wide. He calls his fight for persons with disabilities "The Struggle" and chooses as his canvas the media of stage, screen and music.

  His latest foray into "screen" is a provocative documentary he co-produced with friend Paul Sapin. And "Born Freak" is attracting worldwide acclaim.

  "In Great Britain the freak show died out in the 1940s," he told me via telephone from his London-area residence. "But its death really started around 1900. The Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, was the beginning of the end. Because of him, British society was beginning to say that [freak shows] weren't right."

  Fraser was born with phocomelia, a birth defect in which the upper part of his arms are poorly developed, so that his hands are attached to his body by short, flipper-like stumps.

  His "Born Freak" is a film history of disabled performers in freak shows. And it has won at least four times "Best of Festival" awards at various international disability film festivals.

  "I see freak shows as the historical and culture heritage of the disabled performer," he said. "It was the last time disabled performers were welcome on stage by society. After that they were taken away from public view."

  Though socially taboo in Great Britain by 1940, freak shows only began losing steam in America in the '60s. Fraser said the last American freak show played Gibsonton, Florida, in 1979.

  "It's not right by any standards to be paid for being looked at," he said.

  Only a few of the old freak show performers are alive, such as "Priscilla the Monkey Girl" and Melvin Burquart, who hammered nails with his head. Forty-year freak-show veteran Stanley Berent, who was born with phocomelia, actually went to court in 1980 to defend his right to perform as Sealo the Seal Boy. He died in 1984.

  So why did freak shows die out in America?

  Fraser said it was a combination of factors: the birth of the disability rights movement, a huge number of disabled Vietnam veterans, and a growing societal disgust for taking advantage of persons with disabilities.

  He said one incident that fueled the disgust was when a "girl with arms like mine went to a freak show and was literally freaked out. Her parents had the show shut down."

  Learn more at www.matfraser.com or www.danieljvance.com.