Photo by Joe Nickell author of Sideshow!
Bobby Reynolds’s spiel outside the Giant Rat tent set up at Coney Island was pure hype.
“Gigantic rat! Humongous rat! One hundred pound rat! Straight from the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia! More feared than a sniper’s bullet!”
After paying the dollar admission and entering the tent, instead of confronting the fearful beast described in Bobby’s shtick, the audience was presented with a very non-rat-like creature, peacefully munching on a bale of hay. So although by no stretch of the imagination could the mammal on display be considered a rat, it was indeed the world’s largest living rodent. The capybara is native of South America and when full-grown weigh up to 140 pounds and are over four feet long. This amphibious rodent with partly webbed feet resembles more than anything else a giant guinea pig.
Boston is not Coney Island and Mike Daisey is not Bobby Reynolds but the recent fracas much opined about in the blogosphere set me to thinking about certain similarities. (Garrett and David and Nikki and Don and YS and Jason and Isaac and James and Matt and Malachy and Laura all weigh in on the incident, many in reaction to Garrett’s post. But James U plays Hardball the best of all.)
Although not in the same league as the legendary carnie talker and showman Bobby Reynolds, Mike Daisey definitely has some savvy as a marketer and self-promoter.
First with the help of his agent American Repertory Theatre, he was able to sell tickets to 100 high school students and their chaperones on a bus tour from California. The chaperones were leery of the appropriateness of the material, so this was no mean feat in itself. But it was in documenting the walkout of this same group from the theatre, then spinning it into an incident of censorship and religious fanaticism that Mike displayed his real skills as hype-master.
With 80% of Americans choosing Christian as their “self-described religious identification”, most busloads of tourists in this country are Christians. How Mike Daisey was able to turn this particular bus of public high school students into a Nazi-like emblem of the Christian Right rivals anything Bobby Reynolds achieved with his Giant Rat grind show. As Gideon Lester, the artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre boasts about the PR blitz:
The Coney Island day-trippers and tourists entering the tent never got to see the advertised giant rat, but they did see an intriguingly unique rodent. So the show was more than worth the dollar price of admission. (No, you’re not getting your dollar back.)
YouTube viewings this morning have climbed to nearly 90,000. Soon Mike Daisey might be famous enough to actually have sex with Paris Hilton, not just imagine the act on stage with an audience.