Betty White

           and the

              Alligator Girl




People who don’t know me well wonder why my art is dark. If they meet me socially they wonder why a “nice” fellow would paint such material. Once an African American woman, fresh from working with what they used to call “witch doctors” in Africa, walked through my studio and said, “I get this, this like African art, life and death shown all together.”


“Where did you get this?” she asked, perhaps playfully implying appropriation. I aw-shucks-ed like an idiot savant and said, “I don’t know, I was raised old-school catholic with plenty of bleeding saints and, of course, the human heart with thorns puncturing it and fire shooting out the top. Maybe that. It’s hard to say.”


My sister-in-law won’t go into my studio. She calls it satanic, which I take as a compliment. An electrician working on my house walked through and said, “Whose nightmares are those?” I held my tongue about young adult experiences with psychedelic substances. This was a good decision.


My strongest memories of circus-related experiences happened at the State Fair in Michigan around 1959.


My father was a dentist who struggled with alcoholism and eventually died from it. They say dentists have a high suicide rate, giving pain all day and having to smile though it, I imagine. My dad didn’t take that out, but he did go to alcohol like pretty much everyone else in the 50’s and 60’s. One thing my dad was very good at was telling scary stories around a campfire. He made faces and noises and wasn’t afraid to scare us. I still remember some of them, like the moaning man who had arisen from his grave and clumps up the stairs. Clump, clump, clump (you make the sound with your foot). He stops and moans on each step, “Who stole my golden arm?” In the story, you’re sleeping on it and in the climax he digs right through you to retrieve his golden arm and you die. 


Once he took us to a massive series of sand dunes on the east side of Lake Michigan (now Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore). No one else seemed to notice but what I saw at the rest area at the top was a field trip consisting of what we now call physically and/or mentally challenged kids. At that time we called them retards or worse. They were yelling and gesticulating and to my young mind they seemed to be chasing us down the hill like in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The two events got connected in my mind. My dad filmed in 16mm all ten of us running down the dune, deliberately falling as dramatically as possible. He knew how to film it in slow motion. Or maybe that was my memory.


He also took us to the State Fair before it had “incidents” and suburbanites got too scared to go. In Detroit the fairgrounds were “below 8 mile” and if you’ve seen Eminem’s movie 8 Mile you’d know this was the division between the urban largely black city and the white suburbs. Even in the 1950’s the trip the state fair was a thrilling and slightly dangerous experience for us. But not because of the racial mix, because of the freak show.


I still remember my first freak show vividly: the darkened room, the expectation of some human monstrosity that would challenge our understanding of God’s supposedly harmonious world. We did meet one memorable character I’ve since seen in books. The Elephant Woman talked to us and gave out pamphlets on her condition, ichthyosis, I believe. This took a bit of the fun out of oogling, but in a way made it more memorable. I’ve since learned her name was Charlotte Vogel. Some of our brood suffered from a milder form of this we called merely dry skin. Implications of contagion from the Elephant woman were not allowed. 


There were a few movie stars there, Dinah Shore singing for Chevrolet, and a young Betty White selling I don’t know what. A short line of people queued up to sit on her lap, so we got into it. I sat on her lap. That’s all I remember, that it happened and became my most intimate physical contact with a movie star (though I did sit next to Ellen Burstyn of The Exorcist once at a bar mitzvah in LA. I bumped into Martin Short coming out of the men’s room in a restaurant near Siena, Italy. I like to think the knowing glance we exchanged gave me status as someone who wouldn’t tell the locals a famous American comedian was eating there with his family.


As we were leaving the State Fair, they did some kind of prank over the loudspeaker (unacceptable today) that the Alligator Girl had escaped. I don’t know if we saw an Alligator Girl. In my mind she sort of merged with the Elephant Woman only she was scarier, more like an animal likely to crawl around in the parking lot under cars waiting to eat children trying to leave the fair. Maybe that made an impression.


C.B. Murphy


Click On The Photos Below To View Full Size

Mater Omnia

© 2007 C.B. Murphy


Willendorf Dances With Death
18" x 24" acrylic

© 2007 C.B. Murphy



© 2007 C.B. Murphy


Herm Aphrodite Live
16" x 18" acrylic

© 2007 C.B. Murphy


Lecture on Humans

© 2007 C.B. Murphy


Snake Chamer

© 2007 C.B. Murphy



Fear of Circus

© 2007 C.B. Murphy


 Mirror Cadavers One


© 2007 C.B. Murphy


Fish Heart

© 2007 C.B. Murphy



© 2007 C.B. Murphy


In Arcadia

© 2007 C.B. Murphy





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