Myers found the photograph at an ecletic, almost indescribable photography site called Luminous Lint. Taken at a Parisian photo studio around 1920, the portrait is at once humorous, arresting and puzzling. As Gary says, “In these all so politically correct times, it’s kind of refreshing to see this French kid with his cigarette dangling. That world-weary look on his face and the confidence of his stance as he sits with legs crossed say that he’s six years old and he’s seen it all.”
Entranced though I was by Henri Groulx and his rooster, the image brought to mind another chicken-loving child – Miss MaryFlannery O’Connor. Born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925, Flannery eventually gained fame as a writer. But at the age of five (or six, depending on the source you choose) she taught a chicken to walk backward and achieved a different sort of fame. Word spread, and it wasn’t long before the Pathé Newsreel Service was on her doorstep, eager to record the feat for the admiration of the world.
Characteristically droll, Flannery later said, “I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathé News. I was in it too, with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”
I knew the story of Pathé filming Flannery’s chicken, but never had seen the newsreel. When I mentioned the story to Gary, he became curious enough to go searching, and discovered the Pathé archives online. Miss Mary Flannery and her chicken finally are available to us all.
In her essay “The King of the Birds”, originally published in a 1961 issue of Holiday magazine and later reprinted in the book Mystery and Manners as “Living with a Peacock”, Flannery provided more detail about the chicken-filming episode.
When I was five, I had an experience that marked me for life. Pathé News sent a photographer from New York to Savannah to take a picture of a chicken of mine. This chicken, a buff Cochin Bantam, had the distinction of being able to walk either forward or backward.
Her fame has spread through the press and by the time she reached the attention of Pathé News, I suppose there was nowhere left for her to go—forward or backward. Shortly after that she died, as now seems fitting.
From that day with the Pathé man I began to collect chickens. What had been only a mild interest became a passion, a quest. I had to have more and more chickens. I favored those with one green eye and one orange, or with over-long necks and crooked combs. I wanted one with three legs or three wings but nothing in that line turned up.
I pondered over the picture in Robert Ripley’s book “Believe It Or Not” of a rooster that had survived for thirty days without his head; but I did not have a scientific temperament . I could sew in a fashion and I began to make clothes for chickens. A gray bantam named Colonel Eggbert wore a white piqué coat with a lace collar and two buttons in the back. Apparently Pathé News never heard of any of these other chickens of mine; it never sent another photographer.
Perhaps the film crew had moved on to Poplar Bluff, Zanesville or Elmira. During the 1920s and 1930s, performing chickens could be found across the country, playing small pianos, plucking at typewriters and dropping coins into cups. Some were lucky enough to tread the boards in vaudeville; others worked the edge of dusty country roads.
In Uptown Chicago, on the corner of Broadway and Wilson, there were reports of a fellow whose chicken would ride on his shoulder. It’s possible the man was Anderson Punch, sometimes known as Casey Jones but mostly known as The Chicken Man. Born in 1871, he still was performing around Chicago on his 101st birthday.
His act was simple. Sometimes the chicken would dance. Sometimes he’d have it walk across a tightrope. It would drink beer from a bottle cap, collect dimes and bring them to him, play dead for a while and then hop aboard for a ride, clambering up to nestle under his hat. The descriptions are marvelous.
The old black man with a beard and a cumulus of snow white hair walked along with the rooster atop his ancient, ruined fedora. He would draw a crowd by pulling out his old squeeze box from a battered tin case and playing, the chicken riding on his head the whole time. After the onlookers each put down a dime for the show, the old man took the bird off his head and laid it on the pavement. Covering it with a cloth, he told it to “Go to sleep. Go to sleep.”
The rooster would lie there silently while he played and kept up a steady patter in a high-pitched, toothless voice, telling how he had trained 37 roosters during his years as a show-man. Then he would remove the cloth. The chicken would wake up, scratch-dancing around the sidewalk to the music. The rapt crowd watched as if hypnotized.
It was, as they say, a living. His reputation became well enough established that, when he landed in court, he was back on the street in no time at all. And, as he once said “I’ve had some lean times, but I never had to eat one of my chickens.”
It could be tempting to assume that Henri, Mary Flannery and The Chicken Man are nothing more than historical curiosities. In fact, the tradition – and usefulness – of performing fowl only increased after B.F. Skinner introduced the world to operant conditioning and some enterprising souls took it to the next level.
As it turns out, chickens are quite the tic-tac-toe players, easily trained with nothing more than a Skinner box, some flip-flops, steppers, timers, switches and a little knowledge of basic game simulation. Don Burleson, who studied under Professor Emeritus Frank Logan, former chair of the Yale department of Psychology, says that Professor Logan taught him how to automate the Skinner box. As Burleson puts it, “once you know how to devise the learning tool, all you do is plop in the chicken, and it learns to play tic-tac-toe all by itself.”
Perhaps the most famous of the game-playing chickens is Henrietta “Ginger” McClucksky. An Arkansas native, she showed a natural inclination toward tic-tac-toe and an ability to win consistently. After years on the county and state fair circuits, she got her big break when the Atlantic City Tropicana Hotel and Casino called. With casino mogul Dennis Gomes her proudest supporter, “casino players lined up by the dozens to play tic-tac-toe against Ginger in the Tropicana’s $10,000 Chicken Challenge. Her contract was extended – six months, nine months, a year. She had scratched and clawed her way to the top…”
In the end, it may be film director Werner Herzog who should be given the last word on the oddity of performing chickens. In his peculiar film Stroszek (1977), he tells the story of an ex-prisoner named Bruno, a prostitute named Eva and an elderly man named Scheitz who set off together from Germany to begin a new life in Wisconsin. Eventually, they take possession of a magnificent new 40-foot Fleetwood mobile home and begin to learn the hard lessons of life in America.
In his review of the film, Roger Ebert notes Bruno’s certainty that the arrangement can’t last. He’s convinced the papers they signed at the bank will require them to make payments on the trailer, and he’s right. When the reposessed Fleetwood is towed off the land, Bruno is left bereft and hopeless, staring out into the forbidding winter landscape of Wisconsin.
Given his circumstances, a turn to crime isn’t surprising. But this is “Stroszek”, and other surprises await. Rifle in hand, Bruno and Mr. Scheitz set off to rob the bank. Unfortunately, the bank is closed, so they rob the barber shop next door of thirty-two dollars. With their getaway car still running, they walk across the street to a supermarket, where Bruno has time to pick up a frozen turkey before the cops arrest Mr. Scheitz.
Left with the turkey and some choices to make, Bruno drives to a nearby amusement arcade, where he feeds in quarters to make chickens dance and play the piano.
The last sequence with the chicken ended up being shot by Herzog, not for any high artistic purpose but simply because his crew members despised the dancing chicken so much they refused to take part in the filming. When it was over, Herzog declared the chicken “A Great Metaphor” – though for what, he wasn’t sure.
I’m not certain about Chicken As Metaphor, myself. On the other hand, from Henri Groulx’s portrait to Mary Flannery’s newsreel, from the Chicken Man’s street art to the casino owner’s gaming, there’s something compelling and Herzog-like about these stories.
It might be coincidence. Then again, it might not.