By all accounts Melvin was a show off. Shortly after his birth in 1907 in Kentucky he began entertain people any way he could. Melvin was able to contort his body in fantastic ways. He was ale to suck in his stomach to his spine, he could elongate his neck to an incredible degree and make his shoulder blades protrude grotesquely from the profile of his back. He was also able to control his facial muscles to a startling degree and contort his face into a harlequin mask – smiling on one side and frowning on the other.
He debuted his unusual skills to the public with an appearance in a visiting vaudeville act in the early 1920’s. He impressed the promoters so completely that he was asked to join. While traveling he continued to redefine his skills and add new sideshow feats to his repertoire. He was able to swallow swords, eat fire and throw knives with razor precision. At one point during the Great Depression, he performed as nine of the fourteen acts advertised at a one-ring circus. He became quite the talker and eventually he debuted an entirely new and unbelievable feat.
Due to the fact that much of his nasal cavity and cartilage was destroyed during his time as a boxer with a 0-6 record, Melvin was able to pound things into his nose – using a mighty large nail aided by a hammer. Thus was born ‘The Human Blockhead’ a feat that truly defines description. The term blockhead, by the way, was coined by Ripley
Burkhart spend thirty years in sideshow. He spent the bulk of that time with the James E. Strates sideshow but also did stints with Ringling Bros. and Ripley’s. Later in life, while in his eighties, he worked the Coney Island crowds. He became well know for his banter – cornball jokes between and during his stunts. He was also well known for his willingness to teach. He passed on his knowledge to perhaps hundreds.
While Burkhart officially retired to Gibsonton, Florida in 1989 with his wife Joyce, he continued to perform for tourists and journalists right up until his passing in November of 2001 at the age of ninety-four.
During his lifetime Melvin has a true professional and confidant to many fellow performers. He helped those less fortunate and entertained those who needed entertaining. Even in death, Melvin remains and inspiration to all who wander into the world of Sideshow.
Melvin was a true marvel among marvels.
Article based on an interview conducted by Shocked and Amazed and the book American Sideshow.
Thanks to www.coneyisland.com for use of the above image.