Don't ask Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky to show you his "mystery spot."
"Because history is full of weirdoes…"—Tag Line
South Miami boasts one of the strangest monuments to unrequited love ever constructed. Latvian native Edward Leedskalnin came to Florida in 1918, bought a patch of land, and hid himself away from the world with plans to build a marvelous castle for a woman who broke his heart back in the old country. Using a complex system of pulleys (or magic and levitation, if you believe the tinfoil hat crowd), he moved tons of coral blocks in order to construct his outdoor fortress. The result, dubbed Coral Castle, is pretty amazing. The coral block seats were actually comfortable—or at least more comfortable than you would expect. There was a multi-ton coral gate which pivoted on an old auto part so smoothly that you could push it open with one hand. Now, I haven't been to Coral Castle in many years (so I don't know what shape it is in lately), but I recall being impressed with its almost pagan obsession with the power of nature. And I laughed when I caught it being used as a location in an old Mexican wrestling movie I came across a couple of years ago. I guess El Santo liked it too.
The reason I tell this story is to make a point: America is a weird place, and there is probably something very, very weird within a couple hours' drive of your house. This is the premise of Weird U.S., a History Channel series that celebrates the strange places and people that make this country a great place to live. The series is the brainchild of Mark Scuerman and Mark Moran, two guys from New Jersey who gained a cult following by chronicling the oddness of their home state. Since this was New Jersey, the job kept them busy for nearly a dozen years. Then, they decided to expand the idea to the rest of the country. For example, I have a copy of their Weird Florida volume, written by Charlie Carlson, on the shelf with my other books about curious places and bizarre historical tales. Some of the stories are interesting, although the book lacks the wit of Jack Barth's classic "Roadside America" books from a few years back.
Still, there is enough weirdness not just in Florida but nationwide for an entire television series. At least, that is the plan for Weird U.S. Sceurman and Moran try to play tour guide for each hour long episode (45 minutes without the commercials). Unfortunately, they have a fondness for weakly improvised jokes and obvious comments. For example, during a segment about New Orleans' above-ground tombs and the way microbes and insects consume the entombed bodies, Sceurman responds, "It's like nature's way of decomposing." Uh, yeah.
Each volume of Weird U.S. on DVD includes two episodes and no extras, grossly overpriced at twenty bucks a pop. Since only a few episodes of the series have aired to date, I suspect History Channel is trying to recoup their investment as quickly as possible. Let's take a brief tour of the first three discs.
Volume 1: The pilot episode, "Strange But True," features a general survey of historical curiosities, from the case of Antoine Le Blanc (hanged in 1833 and then skinned for wallets) to an obscure Appalachian bloodline that traces itself back to 17th century explorers to an abandoned New Jersey missile base to Gibsonton, Florida, home of retirees from the circus trade. The main problem with the series is evident in this first episode: segments run far too long (10 minutes or more) and often turn into shaggy dog stories. For example, the investigation of the Melungeon bloodline is portrayed as more of an anthropological curiosity, when it might have looked for more tangible evidence into whether Portuguese and Turkish explorers (the alleged source of the bloodline) beat the Puritans to American shores. And in the Gibsonton story, Sceurman and Moran make a big deal about the city being a "freak town" (for all the sideshow performers who retired there years ago, most of whom are dead by now), but everyone we meet can only tell us about weird stuff without having anything to show. Lots of build-up for very little pay-off.
The second episode on Volume 1 focuses on strange vacation destinations. We visit New Orleans for the cemetery tour mentioned above, then a visit to a milquetoast voodoo priest. We go to Clermont, Florida, to see a million-dollar miniature replica of the White House. We go to Coney Island, where we see lots of archival footage about its glory days. (Oddly, there is no mention of the weirdest fact I know about Coney Island, courtesy of Ric Burns's marvelous PBS documentary: after the famous steeplechase ride, midgets with cattle prods used to shock patrons in the butt!) Eventually, we end up in Las Vegas for a convention of ventriloquists. Again, there is a lot of padding, and often the hosts seem to arrive in a location that has put much of its weirdness behind it (even the depiction of voodoo in New Orleans has no teeth).
Volume 2: "Weird Worship" takes us to a folk art adobe shrine in California, a folk art gemstone shrine in Iowa, and the now-abandoned home of a utopian cult in a Florida swamp. The final segment is a visit to the Unarian UFO cult—ahem, Unarius Academy of Science. Even as cults go, these guys ride the short bus. In "Weirdly Departed," we visit the famous Winchester Mystery House, which you probably know about if you know anything about weird places. And if you don't, look it up. But surrounding that interesting segment, you'll have to wade through a visit to a Florida town where many spirit mediums live, a tale of a Key West graverobbing mad doctor who tried to resurrect his dead girlfriend and then—ew. Just ew. Modesty prevents me from describing what happened next. Just console yourself with a little ghost hunting in Pennsylvania to round out the episode.
Volume 3: You may have noticed a preponderance of segments on this show about the state of Florida. Hell, I've lived here my whole life, so I'm just used to it. Anyway, the requisite Florida stories in "Rebels and Traitors" both take place in Key West. In the first, we visit a pirate museum to learn about Blackbeard, then head to Virginia to look for his skull. Later, we examine Key West's attempt to secede from the union in the 1980s to form the Conch Republic. In between, we hear a shaggy dog story about a military officer who ratted out a fascist plot to topple Roosevelt in 1934. But the best story of the episode is easily the tale of one of my heroes, San Francisco legend Joshua Norton, self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States.
The second episode on Volume 3, "Crimes and Punishment," features no Florida story, although the trip to Gibsland, Louisiana, for a reenactment of the ambush and slaughter of Bonnie and Clyde could have easily mentioned that, while nobody can confirm the location of the actual death car, the Tragedy in the U.S. Museum in St. Augustine used to claim to have it (they actually only had the car used in Arthur Penn's 1968 movie, Bonnie and Clyde). I mean, you've got to squeeze Florida in there somewhere. Anyway, the rest of the episode features segments on the Texas Prison Museum, America's first penitentiary (built by Quakers in Philadelphia), and the Arizona prison facility known as "Tent City," where a penny-pinching sheriff forces inmates to camp outdoors in 137 degree weather.
Although the show suffers from a lot of meandering in order to fill up an hour per episode, there are some entertaining tales to be found in Weird U.S. from time to time. But unless there is something here that happened in your home town, you are unlikely to find much replay value in these DVDs. Neat trivia, but little depth—and the hosts are not memorable enough personalities to make the adventures more than just cursory side-trips. You are better off spending the same money as one of these discs for the Weird U.S. book about your home state at your local bookstore. Then gas up the car and find your own adventure.
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