The last sideshow

Artificial light delays the progress of night along the midway of the Florida State Fair. At the far end, beyond the clamorous rides, games and funnel cake vendors, a line is forming across from a large sideshow. As you make your way toward it, you see a dozen or so people taking in the breadth of the show's large and colorful facade. "World Wonders, The Strangest Show on Earth," it all but screams. Panels detail the oddities inside: mutant animals, hairy and reptilian humans, as well as more common aberrations such as a fat man and giant woman. A dwarf smiles and eats fire on the platform as the practiced voice of a caller -- nowhere to be seen -- summons you inside.

What the hell, you figure. It's only two bucks. Before you know what's come over you, you've left behind the bleating cacophony of the fair and entered the dim, almost somber, sanctuary of one of North America's last freak shows.

What's in there? A grass-and-straw floor coming to dirt. Cobwebby glass cases, at least one cracked, with yellowed newspaper clippings taped to them. In one case a live python is pretzeled around a smattering of change. The only other living thing is the Fat Man, whose post near the exit ensures you can't leave without walking past him.

As for the voice that lured you in (and give Little Pete, the fire-eating dwarf, some credit for your decision), it belongs to 69-year-old "caller" Ward Hall, who co-owns this sideshow and has been running one or another for 48 years.

There are more names for it than there are existing sideshows. Robert Bogdan's 1988 book "Freak Show" offers several: the 10-in-one (10 displays in a tent), freak show, pitshow, kid show. Bogdan's is one of several academic books on the subject. Ward Hall's name turns up in most of them. Judging from the size of these tomes and their dense and dusty vernacular, one could easily get mired in a lengthy discussion as to the historical, sociological and psychosexual ramifications of not just the sideshow performers, many of whom happily endure "exploitation," but also the people who love or loathe them. Suffice to say side-shows and their performers, be they genetic anomalies or self-made freaks, have long fascinated, shocked and amused people from the unwashed masses to gilded royalty.

Hall bought his first sideshow in 1951. He estimates that in their heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, 10-in-ones touring North America peaked at more than 100. Besides Hall's show -- which generally travels around Appalachia, Florida and Georgia -- and Bobby Reynolds' California-based outfit, there is only one other traditional freak show they know of, a permanent one at Coney Island.

Talk to anyone left in the industry today, and they'll tell you: The sideshow is barely breathing. Ask the reasons and you're bound to get more opinions than definitive answers:

Modern medicine. Political correctness. The frequent appearances of freaks on TV talk shows. And those million-dollar rides dominating the fairgrounds.

Dr. Boris Kousseff, director of medical genetics at the University of South Florida in Tampa, says most of the conditions that result in pinheads, coneheads, dwarves, alligator people and werewolves are indeed genetic. But he dismisses the notion that advances in the field have rendered the conditions rarer. The gene responsible for dwarfism has been mapped, for instance, but it doesn't translate into fewer dwarves -- yet.

"Gene therapy is miles away," he says.

That's fine with Bobby Reynolds, Hall's West Coast equivalent. "We is the dinosaurs," Reynolds says of himself and Hall. "He's the greatest showman in the East, and I'm the greatest showman in the West." Not only has Reynolds been able to find modern-day freaks, he's adopting one: a 12-year-old South American boy with feet as big and round as turkey platters. He currently lives on the street, begging with his family.

"I'm going to call him The Modern Bigfoot," Reynolds says by phone from his home in California, to which he's returned for a few days to borrow some money. Then it's back to Arizona to rejoin his International Circus Sideshow. "Here's a kid who probably would have ended up nowhere. So I'll take him here -- I've got a nine-acre ranch -- he'll live like a person, and he'll be able to do whatever he wants to do."

He didn't have as much luck with the two-headed girl. "Two heads, two arms, two legs and one body," he says, entering caller mode. The girls, whose bodies are fused together, actually have two distinct personalities, but Reynolds refers to them singularly. They've made appearances on Oprah and Good Morning America, but their mother turned down Reynolds' offer of $7,000 a week to appear in a Vegas-style revue.

"The mother didn't want her to be 'exploited,'" he says. "They walk down the street, they're exploited. The curiosity of seeing a live human being with two heads ... the mother doesn't want to call them a two-headed girl; she wants to call them 'two souls, one body.' I could get by that. The thing is, I could sell that.

"I couldn't see them being anything but entertainers."

When anomalies decide to forgo the usual avenue -- displaying themselves -- it's another nail in the sideshow's coffin. As for those who display themselves on TV, Reynolds says, "They're only getting one shot. Say, hypothetically, they make $5,000. That's one time. Period. And what in the hell are they gonna do the rest of their life?"

"The mountain of living human flesh," Hall's booming voice playfully describes Bruce Snowden, the Fat Man. "And when he dances, you'll agree he must be full of jelly 'cause jam don't shake that way. The Fat Man will make you smile."

The Fat Man doesn't dance. He'll be 53 soon and his legs are starting to go, making walking the hardest thing about weighing 712 pounds. He wears a small handlebar mustache and drops trousers at the request of a photographer. His stomach lops to the floor before you hear firsthand what he says drunk 17-year-olds ask him all the time.

"They'll ask certain stupid stock questions," he says, then scornfully adds, "'How big is your cock?'

"I just look at them, and I'll ask them, 'Do you normally go around asking strange men how big their pricks are?' You'll see the kid turn a shade of red as red as that curtain there. They start it and I finish it."

But generally people are nice to him. He could be any obese man sitting in a comfortable chair -- though instead of clutching a remote control in his fleshy hands, he holds a book. He also holds a bachelor's degree in psychology.

In 1976, Snowden, who then weighed about 400 pounds, was in need of a job. He was killing time one day in a Portsmouth, N.H., library when he came across a photo of a sideshow in an old circus book.

"It had a picture of, whattaya call it, one of these rather trite sideshow groupings," he says. "You probably see a more unusual group of people waiting in the checkout line in Winn-Dixie."

The so-called fat man, he estimated, weighed 300 pounds, while the fat lady went at about 200. "I go, 'I can get a job as a sideshow fat man.'" He figured there were probably hundreds of sideshows still touring and requested a list of trade publications from the librarian. He then wrote to the editor of the industry paper, Amusement Business, asking if he knew how he could get the job he wanted.

Turns out there were only four sideshows left. But the editor was friends with the right person.

"He referred me to Ward Hall," Snowden says, "and I received a letter from Ward Hall in about two weeks. The rest, you might say, is history."

With all the free time he has to read, Snowden has become something of a carnival historian. He interrupts his lesson to put on his glasses for a better look at a family -- father, mother and child -- standing before him. "Hiya," Snowden says, waggling his fingers toward the boy, who is sleepy, awestruck or both. Unlike so many others venturing through the tent, his parents aren't shy about gawking. The man of the family makes small-talk, asking Snowden how he gets around. (Step van.)

"I try to gain weight, but I don't gain," the man complains. Snowden counters by telling the man he had tried to lose weight once. Dropped 75 pounds only to put on 125.

After they've left, he says, "One of the things I get asked is, 'Doesn't being stared at upset you?' The answer to that is, I'm going to be stared at anyway. But, this way, I get paid for it."

Snowden doesn't get specific about his income. "There was a time when you could make a lot of money in this business," he says. A P.T. Barnum sideshow at the turn of the century, he says, paid its fat lady $1,000 a week. "Those were basketball star wages -- in 1890," he says. "It's strange that in 1890 professional athletes probably had to get a second job."

He blames the sideshow's demise on television, "the one-eyed monster," which he believes has desensitized viewers who might have been potential sideshow customers.

"That killed some of it," he says. "You wanna see strange animals, you don't have to go to some exhibit at the local carnival. Turn on the Discovery Channel.

"A lot of shows on the midway were traveling shows," he says. "'See the Wild Woman of Borneo'; I've seen live TV from Timbuktu."

"Everything exotic has been done to death on television."

He is concerned about his circulation. So he takes a gram of Vitamin C each day. "One thing I live in terror of is breaking a leg. Healing would be very difficult. If I broke a leg I'd probably never walk again."

Retirement isn't really an answer but a new problem. "Retire to what?" he wonders. "That's the question. The only real money I'd have would be Social Security. Probably like a lot of other people in this business -- I suspect it's gonna happen to Ward Hall anyway -- I'll just do what they call 'go out horizontally.' I'll probably be sittin' here one time and go, 'Blehhhhh.' Some- body'll come out and they'll say, 'The Fat Man ain't alive.' I'll just be laying there."

"The sideshow of yesterday is alive and well -- in the malls," quips ringmaster Jim Rose. "It survives in the tattooed and pierced teenagers. Ten years ago, people would have paid money to see them." Rose's popular troupe, the Jim Rose Circus, is a clever marriage of theater and freak show staged before younger crowds. The circus got major notice after its inclusion in the second Lollapalooza tour.

His point is well taken, but if the sideshow of yesterday is going to survive, it's in the mutated form of shows such as his, which has already spawned many imitators.

"I would guess that my biggest influence would be Ward Hall," Rose says, sharing the sentiments of many in the industry. "I think Ward's the greatest showman of the 20th century. And what I'm just trying to do is give the best show I can, so the art form can make it to the 21st century."

He must be doing something right. Jim Rose and company starred in what fans of the TV show "The X-Files" cite as the best episode, which was filmed in 1995 and set in Gibsonton, Fla. More recently, the Jim Rose Circus toured Australia, New Zealand and South America. Rose, like Bruce Snowden, believes that television did in the sideshow. But he also blames Hall's imitators -- the less ethical ones -- who betrayed the fair-going public's trust.

"It gets real easy to throw up a tent and not deliver on your promises," says Rose. "Ward, bless his heart, always tried his best to deliver. But everyone else was using his marketing formula.

"Now, I think what's really interesting," Rose continues, "if you want to know whether or not this whole genre is really disappearing or has it just left the familiar fairgrounds -- the Ward Hall comfort zone, if you will -- you know, I'm going to be at the Westbeth Theatre, starting June 20, in New York for three months. So if William Morris, the biggest agency in the world, has decided to book me into one of the most prestigious theaters in New York, that must mean something. That must mean it hasn't really disappeared. It's just changed."

Tell that to Reynolds, who believes Rose wouldn't be able to make a living were it not for America's bad taste.

"Jim Rose has his own audience," Reynolds says. "He's got the rock & roll audience. I couldn't do that. It's what they want. Feed 'em cake if that's what they want. A guy swinging an anvil with his penis? That's OK with me. You can't scare me."

There's a little more to Rose's show than the 68-year-old Reynolds lets on. The original emphasis on a rock show is gone, but the cast remains largely the same. There are the Mexican transvestite wrestlers; Rose's wife, Bebe, the Queen of the Circus, who blows fire out of her vagina; and Enigma, whose puzzle-pattern tattoos and taste for glass have made him a celebrity in his own right. The Jim Rose Circus is the sideshow of the future, like it or not.

Enigma's autographed publicity picture is one of hundreds of such photos stuck to the walls and office ceiling of Rock's Monuments, a tombstone company in Gibsonton. There are also photos of Morey Amsterdam, Michael Jackson and Jack Nicholson. Next to the bathroom hang Roseanne and Dr. Ruth. The owner, Judy Rock, acquired them as a result of a yearlong letter campaign. Among the office clutter is a red bumper sticker that reads, "If you think I'm strange you should meet my parents."

Her parents are Al and Jeanie Tomaini, respectively known in their day as Al The Giant and The Half-Woman. Rock operates her shop out of the Giant's Camp, a small trailer park and restaurant along U.S. 41 that her parents built when they moved to Gibsonton in 1944. The World's Strangest Married Couple, as they were known when performing together, also ran a bait shop, now torn down, on the bank of the Alafia River. He died in 1962, and the 82-year-old Jeanie, who accepted visitors as recently as two years ago, is in poor health.

It's an odd coincidence that Judy Rock carves tombstones for a living, given the current state of the sideshow world she grew up immersed in. But fate has lent a neat twist to things. Rock's 9-year-old grandson, Alex, is a red-haired sideshow prodigy. At the moment, he's brooding about a bully at school whose simian behavior garnered only laughs when Alex reported it to his teacher. Bet that bully can't climb a sword ladder or lie down on a bed of nails. Alex can.

In this oft-written-about town in southern Hillsborough County, the carny culture still exists, albeit with fewer of its leading characters -- the freaks who made the town famous. A French magazine Rock likens to People had visited a few weeks earlier. The town is still buzzing from the attention, since the magazine paid the people they interviewed and photographed, and well at that. Getting paid, after all, is what the sideshow business is all about.

Alex was among those photographed, as were the events at the recent trade fair that the International Independent Showmen's Association holds every February. Thousands come from all over the globe to purchase rides and booths and hobnob with their peers. The association is also home to a small museum. Its contents are stored in a trailer and small building on the property, but ground was recently broken for a $3.6 million facility across the street.

Otherwise, from the looks of it, Gibsonton -- the famous Gibsonton, the one everyone who visits hopes to find -- will come limping into the 21st century.

"One reporter called me," says Ward Hall. "Wanted to come down to Gibsonton and interview all the freaks. I said, 'You're 40 years too late.' And he said, 'Well, if I come down there, won't you at least show me where they're at?'

"I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'How long will that take?' I said, 'Ten minutes ... I'll take you to the cemetery and point out the grave stones.'"

Still, reporters make the trip in great numbers. Gibsonton was also the subject of a 1997 documentary, Gibtown, which was several years in the making. But after the incursion of TV crews following the murder of Grady Stiles, better known as Lobster Boy, many here feel gun shy toward members of the media.

Bobby Hepburn -- the 43-year-old son of Don Hepburn, who sold his own sideshow to Hall -- is manager of the International Independent Showmen's Association. He laments that "All `the media` want to hear about is the drunk carny that did this, or the freak that did this or that, and they don't want to know that 99.9 percent of the membership here is all veterans.

"We are part of the three lowest forms of people on earth: bikers, carnies and truckers," he says, counting off on his fingers. "And nobody thinks good things about us."

C. Melvin Burkhart is still kicking at 92. "But I'm 92 years young," he says. He'll talk to a reporter, although in his usual playful fashion: "The French magazine paid pretty good. How much do you pay?"

Aside from being a magician, he was a contortionist who could suck his stomach into his spine and make a barrel out of his chest. He did a knife-throwing act, too. But his bread and butter character was the Human Blockhead, in which he turned his face into a flesh-and-no-blood pincushion. He discovered his penchant for it after stepping down from the boxing ring, where he had six professional bouts and three broken noses in his younger years. The nose breaks were to blame for a later infection. Doctors wound up having to fish bone fragments from his nose.

"Now, during the operation," he says, "they can't put you to sleep. They give you a local anesthetic. I watched them go into my nose and pull out little fragments. ... We needed an act one time, and I remembered the doctors going way back in my nose."

Burkhart began doing the same with spikes and toured with sideshows, including a 30-year stint during which he never missed a performance. He never drank or smoked, he says. He chose to live in Riverview, a few miles from the carnival atmosphere of Gibsonton. It wasn't freaks he was trying to avoid, but the hard-partying atmosphere when the circus workers rolled back into town.

The freaks were his favorites, he says. "I never saw anybody I didn't like. In the old days we called them freaks because they were freaks. I called myself a freak because I worked with freaks and I worked in a freak show -- that's what I told Jerry Springer on his show one time.

"Down through the years, I didn't drink or cuss. I didn't know what I was living for," he laughs. "Just hanging around to see what happens next." When he suffered a pulmonary embolism in 1989, doctors once again urged Burkhart away from his livelihood.

"So now I've been, not retired," he says, "but very tired." Despite his arthritis, he can still do most of the things that earned him the stage name Anatomical Wonder.

Back inside the fairgrounds trailer, Ward Hall is speaking over the sound of the Skyscraper, the tallest ride at the fair. For $20 a pop, its hydraulic arms send riders skyward and down again at a frightening velocity, judging from the screams coming through the open window. After a spring respite at his Gibsonton home it would be off to Long Island, where the season opened last month at the Suffolk County Fair. They won't come home until the first of November.

"We have an advantage that we didn't have years ago," Hall says, "inasmuch as there is only this one show on the entire East Coast."

Years ago, Hall bought out all the sideshows he could when their owners were ready to retire. Rather than send several out on the road at a time, as many operators once had, he simply shut them down, using only the performers or equipment he needed.

"One guy asked me one time, 'What, do you want to have all the sideshows in the business?'" Hall says.

"'No,' I said, 'I want to have the only one.'"

He may get his wish yet.


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