Ken Bradbury said that this is the first time it’s taken him thirty years to write a play. “At least that’s when I started thinking about it,” said Bradbury. “Maybe forty years. I’ve been interested in the story of Robert Earl Hughes all my life.” Hughes was, during his lifetime, the heaviest human being recorded in the history of the world. He grew up near Fishhook, Illinois, and is buried in the Benville Cemetery near Mt. Sterling. His last confirmed weight was 1041 pounds.
Bradbury’s father knew Hughes who died in 1958 at the age of 32. “Robert Earl loved to read and Dad would take him magazines,” said Bradbury. In fact, many people in the Jacksonville and Pike/Brown County communities still have vivid memories of Hughes from the times he would visit various fairs and carnivals including the Morgan County Fair. The playwright said that he was once riding the London Tube underground railway and pictures of Hughes were featured in the British city’s Guinness Book of World Records Museum. “I thought, wow. . .he’s known all over the world but nothing’s really been done about him locally.” This was the beginning of Ken’s thirty-year quest to bring the story of Robert Earl Hughes to the stage. “My problem,” said Ken, “was how to portray him onstage. I didn’t want the audience to spend the evening looking at fake padding and wondering how it was done. I wanted them to get to know the man, not a freak.”
Hughes was the victim of a malfunctioning pituitary gland as a result of contracting whooping cough as a child. Were the problem diagnosed today the cure would be simple, but at the time of Hughes’ birth there was no remedy. “The real story of Robert Earl was his humanity,” said Bradbury. “I’ve interviewed dozens of people over the years and have collected everything I could find on his life, and over and over people kept talking about the wonderful attitude he had toward life.” Bradbury credits much of his research to local author Scott Maruna whom Ken credits as having done the best work on Hughes. “Scott’s book was invaluable,” said Ken. And as the fates would have it, the richest single source of original material on the world’s largest man was Bradbury’s cousin, Gerald Kurfman. “I met with Gerald twenty years ago,” said Ken. “He gave me every photo and clipping and letter he had with the promise to give it back some day.” Unfortunately, Kurfman died several years ago and won’t be able to see the fruits of his lifelong collecting.
Bradbury solved the problem of padding an actor out onstage by not doing it. “I think this will be even better,” said Ken, as seven actors playing 85 different characters will perform his production of “The Boy from Fishhook”. Willem Kline, an Illinois College student from the Chicago area, will play the character of Robert Earl Hughes. “Willem is a normal-sized young man and we’ll show pictures of the original Robert Earl throughout the production,” said Bradbury. Other actors include Sylvia Burke, Keith Bradbury, Rich McCoy, Melissa Mueller, Jim Yale and Brenda Yale.
The play will be produced in three different venues beginning at the Illinois College Sibert Theatre on July 13 and 14 at 7:30 each evening, then moving to Mt. Sterling on July 15, and ending its run with a final performance in Pittsfield on July 16. The Jacksonville production is being sponsored by the Heritage Cultural Society and sponsored by the Jacksonville Savings Bank and Farmers State Bank and Trust Company. The only existing pair of Robert Earl’s overalls will travel with the show and be on display each evening courtesy of the Pike Historical Society. Bradbury notes, “I thought it would be nice to do the show in Jacksonville then move it to the areas where he grew up and where he’s buried.”
Robert Earl Hughes was born into poverty with sharecropper parents who moved across the Mississippi River from Missouri when he was a baby, eventually ending up in a house with no electricity near Fishhook, Illinois. To make ends meet he traveled the nation with various carnivals and fairs, suffering the abuses often afforded sideshow freaks. “In Texas they used to burn him with cigarettes to see if his flesh was real,” said Bradbury. “And a crooked promoter once flew him to New York to be on the Ed Sullivan show only to find out the whole thing was a scam and Robert was left in a New York hotel with no money and no way home.” Yet through all this Hughes remained optimistic and happy. “He loved people,” said Ken. “Even when they mistreated him. His reaction to the New York scam was, ‘But I got to meet the mayor of New York!’”