Though we may think we are politically correct today, the ongoing success of reality television reveals otherwise. Reality shows continue to exploit people’s differences in humiliating and sometimes painful to watch episodes. People seem to be judged mostly by their looks rather than their talents or character. Although, I’m not a big fan of these shows, I have to admit if I’m passing through the family room and hear a once-hopeful American Idol finalist in tears, I stop to see what will happen next.
In an interview in Entertainment Weekly, Larry Wilmore said of Reality TV, “It's like watching a car wreck.... You just can't take your eyes off of it. It's the drama of it...because there's so much cruelty and tearing people apart. I feel like I need to take a shower when I watch that.”
But don’t think this sort of entertainment is anything new. It is primitive and upsetting and fascinating and it’s been around since the first caveman hit his head on a stalactite and the rest of his fur-wearing clan cracked up and fell over backwards laughing around the campfire.
In 1908, Rock Springs Park advertised a unique sporting feature called “The Champion Fat Men Race”. Scheduled for a Knights Templar outing, of all things, this bizarre event from the dawn of the 20th Century could easily be a reality program today. Imagine “The World’s Biggest Loser” meets “The Great Race.”
Pittsburgh Press - August 28, 1908
Champion Fat Men Will Race for Trophies
Unique Feature Arranged for Sporting Program at Outing of Knights Templar
There is going to be plenty of sport at the annual outing of Pittsburg [sic] Commandery, No. 1, Knights Templar, which will be held on Saturday, September 5, at Rock Springs Park, and the feature of the program will be a 50-yard dash for fat men, which is expected to be participated in by the fastest "big" men in the country.
One of the entrants will be A.L. McKenzie, of 808 Farmers Bank building who is a member of Allegheny Lodge No. 223, F.&A.M. who is being backed by his friends to beat anything on legs weighing over 200 pounds. Mr. McKenzie weighs 260 pounds, and on Wednesday won the 50-yard dash at the Heptasophs' picnic at Rock Springs in the fast time of 8 1/4 seconds, winning a handsome bronze clock.
Mr. McKenzie was formerly a captain in the fire department at Cleveland, and participated in a number of fat men's races, never having been beaten. He was the winner of a race of this kind at the World's Fair in Chicago, winning the world's champion medal. He ran at that time in 10 1/4 seconds and weighed 225 pounds when he started. He was formerly a well-known all-around athlete, being particularly efficient in the shot-put.
Mr. McKenzie's friends are willing to back him to the limit, but there are others who declare that he has won enogh races and that he must be beaten. To this end they have secured a physical mountain of flesh to run against him. They are keeping this man's name a secret, but claim that he is the fastest in the world for his weight, and that he will make McKenzie bite the dust.
The Knights will have a fine prize for the winner of the fat men's race, and McKenzie is confident of cropping it. A man of his weight deserves a "heavy" trophy for such valiant effort.
There are some experts who dismiss the criticism of Reality TV as cruel or voyeuristic. To them, it is the competition that draws millions of viewers week after week. Upon rereading the article, I began to wonder if I had misjudged the Fat Men Race. It sounds as if these men are willing participants. Perhaps Steven Reiss of Psychologist Today was correct when he noted, “Reality TV allows Americans to fantasize about gaining status through automatic fame. Ordinary people can watch the shows, see people like themselves and imagine that they too could become celebrities too.”
Maybe it does not matter as much that the contestants often are shown in an unfavorable light; the fact that people are paying attention means that the contestants are important. Steven Reiss surmised, “The message of reality television is that ordinary people can become so important that millions will watch them. And the secret thrill of many of those viewers is the thought that perhaps next time; the new celebrities might be them.”
Okay, now I want to know who won the race. Don’t you? Tune in next time and I'll try and uncover the answer. Meantime, Check out Antique's Road Show's appraisal of a 1910 collection of Fat Men's Amusement Co. memorabilia, and guess what, professional appraiser Leila Dunbar can't help but make a couple of fat jokes in the process.
Antiques Roadshow Appraisal: 1910 Fat Men's Amusement Co. Memorabilia » Video » Iowa Public Television