Crossroads in Columbia – The Hardys in South Carolina

Image of Clinging Psychopath Melanie Hardy from Waist DownFrom the upcoming 16-Part PBS Series, The Hardys in America. Teachers may request the classroom guide to help students better understand the series.

Introduction to The Hardys in South Carolina

South Carolina has a special place in the Hardy Family’s history. It was nice  to be back in the state responsible for many of the more important incidents and eras in America’s First Family of Psychic Entertainment. We were in Columbia, the state’s capitol for the South Carolina Association of Magicians convention and had a great time.

But our experience could not compare to those of our three relatives in the same town. Uncle Tubby, Aunt Melanie, and Aunt Sixtus came to Columbia for different reasons but all left profoundly affected by their stay.

Tubby Hardy – Little Big Man

Tubby was actually the ironic and hurtful nickname for our uncle Todd Hardy given to him by Tom Hardy Sr. to ridicule his unfortunate life-experience. He entered the Hardy business of magic after a career riding and then handicapping horses.

Jockeys, in his era, were expected to “make weight” for each race by being at least ten pounds lighter than the lowest weight allowance on the circuit. In 1959, the Chicago – Louisville – Lexington circuit required the riders to be no more than 93 pounds so that with their tack and fancy silks, riders added no more than 103 pounds to the back of the horses.

Tubby was able to make weight for his first two seasons. He was a gifted rider. He broke his maiden and lost his bug status at the end of his first year. Those are good things. Breaking one’s maiden means he won his first race. Losing his bug meant he was no longer considered an apprentice jock.

Coming off bug status made him less attractive to owners and trainers who were willing to hire the apprentice designated in racing forms with an asterisk (or a “bug”) by their name.

Bug riders were allowed extra weight allowances and could often enter a race with ten to fifteen pounds less than any horse in the field. This weight benefit was often crucial in the non-sprint events.

Once a rider lost his bug, he was forced to compete against the other jocks directly.

Tubby entered the 1959 season at Arlington Race Course outside of Chicago weighing exactly 93 pounds. He was able to pick up some mounts from kindly trainers but had little success with the less-than-promising horses. In 1958, his winnings topped $22,000 and made him the highest-earning bug rider on the circuit. In the first three months of 1959’s season, he struggled to make ends meet with just two rides in the money — and one coming because of a disqualification of the two horses well ahead of him.

He began to gain weight half-way through the season and by the time the circuit moved south to Louisville, he was just less than 140 pounds.

Some rail-birds claimed the weight-gain was due to his depression. Others suggested he decided to no longer binge and purge to keep his weight down.

A track physician examined Tubby and found that despite the jockey’s incessant smoking and self-inflicted blows to the head, almost instantaneous and automatic bulimia, his growth continued.

Within one year, Tubby went from 4’11” to just under six feet. Ironically, no one in the track community attributed his growth to puberty — an expected event for a 14 year-old man.

Tubby spent several years wandering America and Canada looking for meaning, a job, or a cure for his now permanently bowed legs. “I couldn’t catch a pig between my legs if I was wearing a dress,” Tubby wrote. “It was like the bones just grew around the horse. I never fell off a mount but then again, I had a heck of a time getting off in the winner’s circle.”

Tubby found work as a hot walker or exercise jockey in the lesser known tracks. While he never again rode in a race, he found he was able to make decent money betting on the races. His knowledge of horses allowed him to bet one or two races a day with consistent success.

In the early 1960s, Miami was almost as exotic as the island nation of Cuba just 87 miles south. Tubby no longer exercised horses, he was now full-time into the handicapping business and to his new found paradise at the end of the United States.

His charts from the Hialeah meet of 1962 are a thing of beauty. Each pony is rated in a rudimentary speed index Tubby designed specifically for that track and for just that season. He charted each race in which he bet, evaluated the results, and wrote recommendations for further refinement of the system.

He wrote to his mother, Ma Hardy, “I have found my purpose in life. I am living among warm people in beautiful confines watching amazing animals. Best of all, I am paid handsomely for it all. I tell you Ma, it is absolutely heaven.”

Ma Hardy – Amish to Alcoholic

One of the conditions of Ma Hardy marrying into the Hardy family was that she had to become Roman Catholic. She was Amish by birth and so her Swiss-Germanic looks stood in stark contrast to the pale, pasty, nearly cadaverous pallor of her husband to be. In homage to her hard-working, honest Amish roots, Ma decided to go the full-distance in her conversion.

She not only became Roman Catholic, she became an Irish Catholic. She learned to drink to excess, bleached and then dyed her hair strawberry blond, began to develop the essential skills of procrastination and wild story telling. She learned to dance the jig, made her own beer, knew more recipes for potatoes than Betty Crocker, and of course had twelve children whilst carrying on as the matriarch of the Hardy Clan and chief assistant to her husband, Tom Hardy Sr.

Yet, not all of the attributes of Irish Catholicism were necessarily positive.

Yes, she could out drink any man in the bar, talk the coat off a tinker, spew drunken promises or threats with no intention of honoring them, and spend money easier than a sailor on first liberty call. But there were negatives associated with her conversion. She took up the idolatry and all-consuming worship of guilt.

In her former Amish life, guilt was a worthless emotion or distraction. It could not build a house, milk a cow, or help you pray. For Irish Catholic mothers in her era, guilt was a power as real and as irresistible as gravity.

She tried her nascent guilt-inducing talents first on strangers, then close friends, and finally her own family. Tom Hardy Sr. once commented, “You take all the fun out of everything I want to do. You’ve become a real mother in the Hardy tradition.”

When Ma Hardy read Tubby’s description of the heavenly life in Miami; she realized her guilt-imposition skills were sent from above for just this situation. Ma hardy wrote to her son and lamented his distance from the family. She told him how often she prayed for his surely condemned soul. She wondered if he knew how her worry kept her awake each night.

“Gambling, Tubbs, is the Devil’s trade. You’re taking the money of the poor and funding their trip to eternal hell and damnation.

I worry so much for your soul. I know I could sleep again, if I could only see you turn away from sin and join us on the road.”

Tubby Hardy was a soft-hearted man and easily controlled by guilt or praise.

The praise he received from associates at the track could not outweigh the guilt from his mother. Reluctantly, he stored his racing charts, sold his stop watches, slide-rules, and field glasses. He gave the proceeds to a small church in downtown Miami and took the train to meet his family’s tour in Columbia, South Carolina.

Columbia’s Town Theater – The Prodigal Son’s Return

The Hardy family was in the midst of a very successful run through the southern states and, in fact, had been held-over for six weeks at the recently-built Town Theatre in Columbia. Tom Hardy Sr. was delighted to be fully employed, and playing to packed houses but even more elated when he heard his son was coming home.

Tom Hardy, Sr. welcomed his son back like the prodigal son; giving him a ring for his finger, new shoes, a cloak, and ordering a fatted calf to be killed and cooked.

In a horrible turn of biblical misunderstanding, Ma Hardy slaughtered the nearest cow as her husband instructed. She found the cow backstage at the Town Theatre. Daisy was more than a loveable, clownish cow who could dance, sing, and play Dixie on a specially-rigged assembly of horns. She was actually just a costume brought to life by the husband-and-wife dance and song team “The Larsons.”

Ma Hardy was legendary for her inability to hear high-pitched screams. She was also either actually intoxicated or simply fully distracted when she slaughtered Dixie. She often commented that her hearing loss helped her to survive many a hotel and theater fire. She was never aware of the pleas of other victims and so could escape quickly. While all conceded Ma Hardy’s axe attack on Daisy was unfortunate, Tom Hardy, Sr. used to chuckle when he recalled the event. “I figure Ma must have surprised that couple in the cow. I bet they were saying, ‘Hey, we’re being cut from the show! No, I mean literally cut from the show!'”

Surprisingly, the theater management was not bothered by the senseless attack but did refuse to partake in the steak dinner at the welcome-home party.

Melanie Hardy – Attractive and Repulsive

Melanie Hardy, the youngest child of Tom Hardy, Sr., also entered show business in South Carolina.

Melanie was rumored to be either adopted or produced out-of-wedlock. Even Melanie’s physical appearance provided a stark contrast to the other Hardy girls. She was petite, had no facial hair, hands free of warts and premature liver spots, did not scare horses with her smile, and was missing the most telling characteristic of the first-generation Hardy girls, the stub of a vestigial  tail.

Absent the tail stub, Melanie could do things about which the other Hardy girls could only dream. She could sit back in chairs without pain, was not embarrassed to change in front of the other acts, and could be safely patted on or about the rear-end by theater managers, agents, actors, audience-members, salesmen, bus drivers, train conductors, small-town mayors, carny folk, boarding house mothers, lust-filled but guilt-ridden clergy, circus animals, and virtually any member of the armed services.

Melanie was known in the fullest sense of the verb throughout the South for her quick wit, fresh breath, and apparently supernatural powers of seduction and suction. As a teen, Melanie followed in the heavy footsteps of another famous southern belle, Annie Abbott,The Georgia Magnet.

In fact, until she was twenty-one, Melanie performed as “The Little Woman You Can’t Pick Up.”

After she reached the age of majority, her act evolved. She still performed her version of the Georgia Magnet but with a coquettish twist.

The tender beauty invited large men on stage and challenged them to lift her in the air. They failed night after night. But one evening Melanie gave into her unfortunate insecurities and lust. She challenged the large, strangers to first lift her and then to extract themselves from her clinging, needy grasp. They were unable to lift the wide-eyed animal in a size-zero dress and could not easily get away from her clutches as she wrapped her arms and legs around their torsos.

The routine was not widely noted by the theater critics of the time but she did receive a small citation in a publication from The University of South Carolina.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t from that school’s theater department or even the newspaper.

The University of South Carolina School Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Abnormal Human Behavior covered her peculiar talents in a ground-breaking case study. She was not referred to by name but, in keeping with Sigmund Freud’s practice of referring to patients by their particular affliction, she was called “The Clinging Psycho Suction Girl.” Journal, November 11, 1948, vol. 29, issue 11, pp. 3429 – 3440, 3442.

. . . a remarkable woman attractive both physically and emotionally. Miss CPSG often challenged her treating physician to “lift me up, up off the ground. See if you can do it.” Miss CPSG weighed slightly over 90 lbs upon admission and in her heels stood barely over five-feet tall. The challenge appeared to be nothing more than an attempt to receive physical contact from a well-paid, educated, and certainly virile doctor. Yet when the challenge was joined, the doctor was unable to perform. When he placed his hands on Miss CPSG as instructed, he could not lift her small frame even an inch off the floor.

This description matches Melanie’s Georgia Magnet routine perfectly.

The following section, however, demonstrated her new approach to entertainment.

[Miss CPSG] then challenged the manly doctor to remove himself from her touch. Again, the wealthy and well-intentioned doctor took up the challenge. He desired to demonstrate to Miss CPSG her psychosis was based on the false conclusion that she could some how control others both physically and emotionally. Yet when this challenge was taken-up, the doctor found he was unable to separate himself from her grasp. Miss CPSG did not seem to be of advanced physiological condition such that she could over-power the doctor who graduated first in his medical school class. Rather, she seemed slight and petite, not overly skinny such that the well-connected doctor feared for her nutritional needs. Rather, Miss CPSG was vexingly thin in the right places and yet not thin in other right places on her anatomy. Miss CPSG’s ability to cling” to her subject defied the physics of the situation. Despite the doctor’s brawny efforts, he could not remove her from his person. If not for the intervention of a less-attractive but nonetheless well-heeled medical resident, the doctor fears he would still be attached to Miss CPSG.

Interestingly, the study does not report the name of the “less attractive but nonetheless well-heeled colleague” who broke-up Melanie’s suction-augmented strangle-hold on the author. A society announcement in the local paper provides that gentleman’s name, Dr. Gerald Casey. Miss CPSG became Mrs. Casey in May of 1949.

Sixtus Hardy – Quite a Hand-full

A final connection to South Carolina involved Roberta “Sixtus” Hardy. Sixtus was just out of grade school when she began working with the Hardy traveling show. In fact, her first performance was in Columbia at the downtown library.Thanks to a genetic abnormality, Sixtus could manipulate marionette and hand puppets better than performers twenty-years her elder.

Sixtus originally used the hand puppets to hide her additional digits. It was considered acceptable, even “cute” for a little girl to walk around all day with a lion puppet on one hand and a fairy princess puppet on the other. She would make up dialog for the two characters and soon added additional friends to her puppet village. Tom Hardy, Sr. offered his niece prophetic advice, “your hands can be used to make people lose their lunch or lose their worries. Keep those mitts covered and give them something to enjoy.”

Sixtus hated the name “Sixtus.” She thought it unnecessarily called attention to her extra digits but in a bad way. She preferred “Bobbie” or “Bee.” From her start at the Columbia Public Library, Sixtus went onto bigger and better gigs throughout the South. She never let her audiences in on the secret to her easy manipulation of puppets. That secret caused her great pain but also brought her great financial success.

In 1962, Sixtus was at the prime of her career. She performed twice on the variety-intensive Bobby Jonte Good-Time Hour (on NBC-TV) in 1960, three times in 1961, and five times in 1962. By the end of 1962, however, she would resign from show business and go into virtual seclusion.

We’re often asked where she went and why she left show business. In her final year on the tour, she was pulling in close to $1,200 a week (in 1962 dollars). She had a wonderful home in New York, one near her magician grand-father’s winter quarters in Michigan, and a small villa on the beach in Los Angeles. Her name was synonymous with puppets and often favorably compared to Edgar Bergen, Shari Lewis, and Burr Tillstrom (the puppet master behind Kukla, Fran & Ollie (except Fran Allison was a real person so he really just controlled Kukla and Ollie)).

We recently saw a picture taken during a reunion function for some of the more famous variety acts. There are about fifteen people in the photo but only one is not smiling. Sixtus is seated in the front row with her uncovered hands flat on her lap. If you have a chance, take a look at the photo and count the fingers of each hand. (See Wikipedia under “Sixtus Hardy” – we think it is still there). The hands look smooth, and are not scarred or deformed in any way.

Ballet to Buffet

Contrary to a report in last month’s edition of the trade journal Variety, Sixtus did not have the extra digits amputated to end her secret life. We asked Sixtus why she left show business and who performed the surgery on her hands. Her answer surprised us in both form and substance. Sixtus’ response came on engraved stationery. The name was not “Bobbie Hardy” or even “Roberta Hardy.” Sixtus was no longer a Hardy but now has the last-name “Larson.” She was a widow and the story of her journey over the last forty years brings us right back to Columbia, South Carolina.

“I met a wonderful man backstage at the Stardust in Las Vegas, Nevada. Vincent Larson was a dancer by training and education. He performed ballet as a child, studied in Moscow on a scholarship, and even appeared in New York City. Times had been hard on this gifted man. He injured a leg muscle during a performance and it never properly healed. He was able to walk without a limp, to dance, even run and jump. But the ballet required perfect form and perfect movement. The injury knocked him from that world of beauty in to the relatively dank squalor of show business. “He was looking for a partner for his new act. He was such a positive, happy man. He never let things get him down. He had no problem with my hands, never required me to hide them, and even bought fifteen rings to adorn the non-thumb digits. One of those rings was our engagement ring. I joined him in matrimony and as his new partner in a comedy dance act. We danced, sang, loved, laughed, and enjoyed life. I grabbed all the pleasure I could get my newly bejeweled hands on.

“His violent passing left me with more than just emotional scars. I was there when the murder happened and was injured in the attack as well. Columbia, South Carolina now serves as the final resting place of those parts of him they could recover after the incident.In November of 1962, we were rehearsing backstage at the theater. Our routine included a dancing cow named Daisy and we were the secret to Daisy’s movement. I had the back end and Vincent had the head. We were dancing to our music when we heard a wild scream and in a flash, Vincent was dead and both my hands were severed. Mercifully, my brain spared me from the agony and I can’t remember much of that night. Vincent’s body was recovered from some cannibals who apparently mistakenly killed him thinking Daisy was a real cow.

“Vincent always told me he felt special, secure, and happy to have numerous fingers on his rear-end when we performed as Daisy. I have some solace knowing the attacker allowed those fingers to go with him to a better place. My puppet career was over. I used the insurance money to pay for new hands and physical therapy.

“The doctor who performed the surgery on my stumps was new to surgery but his knowledge of psychiatry allowed him to help me find peace with the turn of events.

“Dr. Casey and I shared the stories of our lives while I worked through physical therapy and training for my new prosthetics. His life was hard but he was able to endure. He told me about his clinically insane, nymphomaniac, suction-producing, petite wife. He said she would sometimes cling to him so tightly he could not breathe. He kept a night stick in his doctor’s bag to free himself from her grip.

“We laughed when he mused that if he and I had married, my grip would have been 32 percent more secure than his psychotic wife.

“Our affair lasted only a few years before we decided it was time to go our separate ways. His nut-job wife had now taken to strapping herself to his back like a papoose. He said he had to use his surgical skills and his psychiatric tools to get free of her.

“I heard, years later, his wife died in a tragic accident. They were at the zoo and the confused little harlot thought he was hugging another woman. She leapt from the railing and landed in her familiar roost on his upper back. In her jealous, crazed state she mistook my lover for a polar bear. I suppose I can understand the mistake. They were both wearing white furry coats and smelled of fish heads.

“After Miss Suction was thoroughly digested; we thought about getting together again and perhaps, one day we will. He has just five more years on his current prison sentence. It is funny how juries believe what they want to believe. Even if she didn’t jump into the polar bear cage voluntarily, it seemed just and right that she would be mauled to death by an animal that looks so cute, so harmless, but who is actually a ravenous carnivore. She had met her match.

“My dearest nephew, I am not bitter. There are wild people in this world. There are judgmental people. And there are people like Vincent. I used to think God gave me so many fingers so I could have a better grip on Vincent. I wonder if my fingers were still clutching his bottom when he died.”

Conclusion – All Roads Lead to Columbia

Aunt Sixtus wrote a moving letter but frankly, it still grossed us out. We thought about telling Aunt Sixtus it was Ma Hardy who axed her beau and chopped off her hands. Then we thought maybe we should write to Uncle Tubby to tell him the homecoming ring Ma gave him was freshly yanked from one of many freakish but fully-functional fingers of his sister, Sixtus.

It made no sense to write a letter to Melanie. She was dead.

Not only was she gone but her doctor-husband serving a sentence for her murder.

The jury returned a verdict of manslaughter against him. We understand he now uses his skills in surgery and psychiatry to help his fellow inmates in the prison showers. We don’t know the details of his assistance to these “patients” and frankly we have no desire to know. But it is interesting how the three separate Hardy family stories come together in Columbia, South Carolina. The tales of Aunt Sixtus, Aunt Melanie, and Uncle Tubby form a neat parcel. It’s like a 40-Gallon Hefty Trash Bag full of rotting, anomalous freak-show exhibit pieces poured hastily from their respective cloudy, formaldehyde glass jars.

But all families are like that, we suppose.

Uncle Tubby and Aunt Sixtus endured so much, we didn’t have the heart to break the horrible, coincidental truth to them.

Tom Hardy Sr. once said, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, write it down and sell it.”

Grandpa was a wise man.

There was no need to send a private letter to Tubby and Sixtus when we could fill-up otherwise empty space on our web sites to attract new advertisers.

We can’t wait to see what ads Google inserts based on this text.

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