- Walter Novak
- Baby Dee strikes an accordion with the crowd.
"You gotta eat your spinach," sings the burlesque bumblebee, whose name is Baby Dee. "What it did for Popeye, it'll do for you."
The song fades into the thin crowd, and Baby Dee flutters her eyelashes demurely at a glowering onlooker, as demurely as she can from atop her 14-foot-high tricycle.
"How about another Shirley Temple tune?" she offers. "I'm gonna do one just for that man up there! Smile, smile, smile, you crabby little bastard." She launches into "Be Optimistic," wagging a precocious finger at him. "Don't you be a grumpy." It works reverse wonders on the old sourpuss, which means that now there are only four people in the audience.
Undaunted, Baby Dee performs tawdry and tarnished old gems like "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady" and "The Codfish Ball," as well as inappropriate originals like "Rudolph, the Disgruntled Reindeer" and "Frosty, the Manic-Depressive Snowman," which have yet to make a K-Tel compilation. She strums a harp, which is hitched on a trailer to the back of her trike, and levitates a virgin.
"When I'm up on that tricycle, I'm up high," she says later. "You need to be careful when you get down, but when you're up there, you can say anything."
Hard to miss on the sidewalks of New York, where adoring throngs showered her with pocket change, Baby Dee recently returned to Cleveland to care for her ailing father. Since then, it's been slow going on the three-wheeler circuit.
The bumblebee costume -- a spiffy ensemble that includes a bowler hat and bright yellow stinger -- is brand new. Ordinarily, she hits the pavement in a cat outfit. But here, the number of people in tune with her various incarnations is the same as those who can hum a Shirley Temple song other than "Good Ship Lollipop."
"Shall I tell you the history of my Shirley Temple obsession?" asks Baby Dee. "I had a friend who wanted to do a Shirley Temple show, and I was gonna play the accordion, but she backed out. I had already set a date for the nightclub and done a lot of work on it. So I said, 'Screw it, I'll do it myself.' It had some good moments. Because Shirley Temple turned out to be a really nasty bitch."
Entirely in bad taste, the show featured a napalm-singed Vietnamese waif singing "Be Optimistic," in honor of the adult Shirley's imperialistic inclinations. "We did a little tap dance together," Baby Dee recalls. "That was the big finale."
A classically trained harpist and circus sideshow veteran, Baby Dee, 47, grew up right up the hill from the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, which probably helped nurture her Cecil B. De Mille side.
"The turtles used to get out all the time," she remembers. "Once in a while, a monkey or something. I remember seeing a huge turtle sitting in the middle of the street. You wouldn't think turtles would be escape artists."
The transformative magic of the harp, which she uses sparingly in her show, was realized in a less than delicate fashion during her boyhood. Her neighbors, Bobby Slot and Freddy Weiss, "brought a piano out on their tree lawn, but the garbagemen wouldn't take it, so they were smashing it to bits," she says. "It fit into the term 'epic event.' Men from all over came out with sledgehammers, axes, and crowbars and bashed the hell out of the piano, until there wasn't anything left but the cast-iron harp inside. They couldn't bust that up, and it wouldn't fit into the garbage. It laid there a long time. That was my inspiration for becoming a harpist."
Her inspiration for telling tall tales -- which came in handy when she played the half-man, half-woman in the Coney Island sideshow -- came from a kid named Kent down the street. "He couldn't say a thing that was true. He fell off a third-floor fire escape at Denison School. Then he was even weirder."
After her 10 years as a church organist in the Bronx, things get sort of fuzzy, and she won't go there. She next surfaced as the bilateral hermaphrodite at Coney Island, a part she got when the fire-eater, Combustible Kiva, was called away when her son sucked down a bottle of her paraffin.
"I stood in for Kiva and made up this bullshit about being a hermaphrodite," Baby Dee says. "Which I'm not. They don't grow on trees, you know."
Her act included enticing the audience to take a peek at her 'organs,' which turned out to be of the toy-musical-instrument variety. This midway ticket to semi-stardom lasted one summer, followed by a gig as the bandleader for performance-art group the Bindlestiff Family Circus.
"Our first year on the road, half the trailer was taken up by her harp," reminisces Keith Nelson, Bindlestiff fire-eater. "That was our elephant."
She later joined the Kamikaze Freak Show in Europe and met her great love, Danny, the crabby dwarf.
"He was my sweetie," she sighs. "He's the embodiment of disgruntled. But I still love him. Being a dwarf is a tough thing. It's really the toughest thing of all."
An all-around talent, Danny would lift bricks with his penis, get crucified (with his aforementioned member nailed to the cross as an encore), and get hit with a sledgehammer onstage as he lay in a "sandwich" of broken glass and concrete slabs.
But their love was not to be. Embittered by the grueling carny scene, Danny quit the show, leaving Baby Dee to fill in as the crushee on the slab act.
"That's a good way to get rid of a boyfriend," she says in retrospect. "By the end of the month, I was over that relationship." Soon she would be on a plane ride back to obscurity and runaway turtles.