Sunday, September 16, 2012

Turkeys in the Straw

Although he earned his greatest fame as the exhibitor of the Learned Pig, Mr. Silas Bisset had a whole menagerie of trained animals, including a Cat Orchestra, dancing dogs, a hare who beat upon a drum, and a group of turkeys who executed a "country dance" on command.  This last act, as Toby himself notes, did Mr. Bisset the least credit:
The only group of Animals that had no training as such was the Turkeys, and here I must confess that Mr Bisset hit upon an expedient that did him little Justice, and would have greatly dimmed the applause had anyone Known of it: he simply placed them in a small wire enclosure, the floor of which was heated to the point where it became uncomfortable to Stand, and the efforts of these poor Birds to avoid scalding their Feet produced the ‘Country dance’ advertised.
 Mr Bisset was apparently not the first to resort to this cruel trick; 18th-century sources gave credit to an "Eastern" method by which camels were similarly made to dance. All the same, Bisset popularized the act considerably, and a very similar one has persisted well into the twentieth century as a sideshow at country fairs, often accompanied by a recording of "Turkey in the Straw" -- Elvis Presley's later manager "Colonel" Tom Parker once ran such a show -- and also in the form of an arcade amusement, where a bird is placed in a tiny chamber, decorated with a miniature jukebox, with a hot plate concealed under a metal disc on the floor. Inserting a quarter into the slot heated the disc, causing the bird -- usually a chicken -- to perform the same unhappy involuntary routine.

Booths with such an exhibit are mentioned in a number of personal reminiscences online, but there was one of these attractions which, perhaps inadvertently, earned an immortal place in the history of cinema, when footage of the bird was chosen by Werner Herzog for the final scene of his film Stroszek (1977). Without going into the grim backstory, it's worth noting that, according to some accounts, the crew felt uncomfortable with the scene, so Herzog shot it himself.  The location was an amusement parlor in Cherokee, North Carolina; the machine is long gone, although a similar one -- in which a chicken in a cage plays tic-tac-toe against its human opponents -- was a fixture at New York's Chinatown fair until about ten years ago; according to this article in the New York Times, those nostalgic for the experience can still find one at a casino in Monticello, New York. 

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