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Profile of Stucky
Last night a fellow performer and myself were having a conversation about the ethics of doing other people's acts. The subject of blockhead came up and it got me wondering...

Melvin Burkhart created the blockhead act right? People like Todd Robbins and others teach it in their sideshow schools. Was permission given to do that? What is the stance on such things of the rest of the community?

Beg, borrow, or steal?
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Arlington, Virginia
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Profile of rossmacrae
Melvin Burkhart created the blockhead act, right.

I do not have any information on how he "discovered" the principle, or at least took a lesser-known anatomical fact and reasoned that it could be used as a sideshow stunt. I know my (certainly pre-Burkhart) childhood allergist didn't ask whether he could take long medicated wire pipecleaners and pass them an impossible distance up my nose and on into my throat.

Most performers I've seen use the principle (which I submit is free for anyone with a standard human body to use) and perform using Burkhart's lines and presentation in whole or part (which I believe are not nearly as ethical to use). A few performers have noted this and worked their own presentations, and I wish more of them would.

Burkhard being dead and all, the issue of 'beg' is moot. 'Borrow' or 'steal'? I'd say there were a number of ways to look at it. First, everybody's always done it. Seems to not to have bothered Milton Berle and the like. Does a juggler ask the first jugglers he saw whether he can get the same number of friends and throw the same patterns? Heck, no ... but I think performers would be rightfully angry if other performers started doing their jokes and patter and appropriating their character. Does any sideshow performer need to ask an Indian fakir if he can lie on a bed of nails? Does he need to research who first had a cinderblock smashed on his chest with a hammer while lying on a bed of nails? Surely someone was the first ... would anybody say there was an obligation not to steal that? Someone got the idea of a ding using the blade box ... would anybody get in high dudgeon at the hundreds of sideshows who did that?

I'd like to see more discussion.
Harley Newman
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Profile of Harley Newman
Sticking things in various bodily orifices has been around as long as there have been people. Making an act of it, has been around almost as long, usually under religious pretense.

Melvin wasn't the first to pound a nail into his nose, but he was certainly a focal point in developing it. Melvin codified it. Most performers I've seen, do a bad version of his act. Few give him credit. As far as I know, only one person ever paid him royalties, Todd Robbins.

In this business, you can copyright scripts and patent equipment. Unfortunately there's no protection for figuring out a stunt. The entertainment industries that record their work, are all covered by copyright laws. But we have an industrial standard that not only tolerates theft, but encourages behavior that in any other business, would be called "industrial espionage".

That's pretty much where it stands.
“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus” -Mark Twain
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Profile of Stephon
Just as a footnote, there is a big difference between doing a stunt that someone else does and doing their act.

I fully agree that if you want to do a stunt that you know someone else created/discovered, you should ask permission before doing it.

On the other hand, there are stunts that have been around for centuries, and there is no creator to ask for permission; if you are doing your own version of that stunt, fine. If you are doing someone else's version (their "act"), that is never ok, unless they have a)retired the act and given you permission to do it, or b)sold you the act, and the two of you have reached an agreement on who has the rights to perform it.
~Les S. Moore, The Dapper Dipper
Swami Yomahmi and Cheeky Monkey Sideshow

"Comedy is a man in trouble." ~Bill Irwin
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Profile of Kondini
My first experience of blockhead was Coronation year 1953. Barry walls was working with Sword swallow, screwer in head (Blockhead)Chinese fire eating, bed and ladder of swords, Snake swallow (Nasal Floss with a slow worm,pins through the flesh and fire blowouts, that was his basic act at the time.

He credited several people who taught him dureing his time with the RAF, I have their names on file,,,somewhere!

Barry taught me via an introduction by Betty Allans mother who ran a large paradeing show right up to the 70`s. Her Father known as Prince Analoogu did a similar act but based more on the fire eating side also did the snake swallow so it pre dated Barry by at least fifty years.

From the snake swallow he started useing the old thick Durex Condoms then the balloons.

I know for fact that Barry had never heard of Melvin !!!

I paid Barry Two guinees £2.2shillings as it was then to teach me each of his stunts, so as far as I was concerned I had paid for the privealage of passage.

At that time I only came across four performers useing the blockhead in their performances.

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Profile of thegreatnippulini
I started my act based on seeing a performer doing the stunt (gaffed, and IMHO badly at that) on a video tape in the nineties. This guy did not invent this style of stuntwork, and based on my observations I realized I could do it not only FOR REAL, but better.

After a few years I was in the business I did a lot of research and found that guys were doing my act since the late nineteenth century! Copyright? Heck no. But if I billed myself as Tough T!tty or Capt. Ringman it would just look bad on my part.
The Great Nippulini: body piercer, Guinness World Record holder, blacksmith and man with The World's Strongest Nipples! Does the WORLD care? We shall see...
Todd Robbins
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New York
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Profile of Todd Robbins
The act of hammering a nail into the nose is very old. Walter Deland wrote it up and sold the manuscript back in 1906. For the most part, the stunt was done as part of the human pincushion act. Melvin's contribution was to make it a stand alone act. He started doing it in 1929, but didn't do it that often until because it was to hardcore for many of the shows he worked during the 1930s. Once of the venues it did play in was the Ripley's Odditorium in NYC. He worked there in the late 1930s, and it was there that Robert Ripley called Melvin the Human Blockhead. Shortly thereafter Melvin started working for Harry Lewiston, and the Blockhead act was in every performance. And he continued doing the act when he started working for Slim Kelly and Whitey Sutton in the early 1950s and he did it in their sideshow for thirty years.

Throughout the years, many learned the act from Melvin. He was always generous with what he did and gave permission to use his routine to any that asked. Many took it without asking.

I have some more to say on this but it will have to wait until later.
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Profile of thegreatnippulini
I think it would be a good idea to enlighten the poster of Melvins many other talents. He did a lot more than just put hardware in his snot locker.
The Great Nippulini: body piercer, Guinness World Record holder, blacksmith and man with The World's Strongest Nipples! Does the WORLD care? We shall see...
Danny Borneo
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I loved his Sachs Dice Routine
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