I remember going to rural county fairs when I was a child and staring in fascination at the lurid pictures of sideshow freaks painted on canvas banners. Outside the tent, a barker delivered his spiel, megaphone in hand:
SEE! The Petrified Man!
MARVEL! At the Bearded LadyTHRILL! To the inhuman feats of the Human Blockhead!
The days of the sideshow freak have vanished. Modern sensibilities rightly find the idea of putting human deformity on display distasteful. However, there’s still a market for outrageous displays of virtuoso insanity, as the success of acts such as The Jim Rose Circus and Penn and Teller attest. Many of these hip performers owe a considerable debt to the tradition of sideshow performers, however--the fire-eaters, knife-throwers, escape artists, contortionists, snake charmers, mesmerists, and magicians who perfected the art of showmanship.
"How would you like to go to a sideshow?" I asked my twelve-year-old son as we drive to Baltimore one weekend. He looked up from his Gameboy, "A what?"
"A sideshow," I repeated. "You know, like circus performers."
He heaved a great sigh of long-suffering martyrdom. "Alll riigght. If there’s nothing else that’s better to do. But I want to go to the Science Museum first, like you promised."
It was nearly sunset when, after a long day at the Inner Harbor, we drove to the campus of the Maryland Institute College of Art. I’d seen flyers for "The World-Famous Insanitarium!" earlier in the month at the American Dime Museum, which was co-sponsoring the event with the college. The Insanitarium was to run for an entire week, with shows held from the late afternoon until midnight, roughly every other hour.
We had no difficulty finding the large tent that had been set up on campus to house the Insantitarium. It was, miraculously, the sideshow tent of my childhood memories, complete with enormous banners depicting the wonders within. The sideshow spiel was, alas, a taped recording, but even so it featured all the hallmark patter of old.
In a reversal of sideshow tradition, the friendly carny-selling tickets ($2) out front seemed reluctant to take my money. "Kids are free," he declared, waving us onward into the tent. "But he’s twelve," I protested. "Never mind that; kids are free." And so, unexpectedly, I found the only place in town not trying to buck off me was, of all places, a sideshow.
The show hadn’t yet started, so we spent time looking over the exhibits on loan from the American Dime Museum, most of which we’d seen on our visit there earlier in the month: an enormous mummy, a collection of two-headed animals, the Devil Man, and other now-familiar wonders were ranged along the side of the tent. Facing the entrance was a particularly fine specimen: a buck with a machine-gun nozzle grafted onto his nose. Yes, it was a hunter’s worst nightmare: a deer that could shoot back.
The crowd was sparse on a Sunday evening, but soon a handful of local kids and art students from the college filtered into the tent. Several people emerged from the back of the tent; I recognized James Taylor, one of the curators of the Dime Museum, and guessed that the older man he was deep in conversation with was King Bobby Reynolds, "The Greatest Showman in the World." However, it wasn’t Reynolds or Taylor that announced the show, but a genial fellow who promised to show us secrets of card swindlers. Standing not on stage, but gathering the audience around him in a tight circle, he performed trick after trick: three card monte, for instance, and other sleight-of-hand passes that went by too quickly for me to fully grasp. While I am always somewhat stupefied by card tricks, this guy made me feel particularly dull-witted.
The next performer was Matt Hely, an astonishing fellow who, as near as I could tell, had mastered the full gamut of sideshow acts. Now, the thing that always surprises me, but shouldn’t, is how normal sideshow artists appear. Hely, for example, looked like he could be a minister, or perhaps a junior high school science teacher. He had the open, guileless look of a person with nothing up his sleeve. That look, I suppose, is either a natural-born talent or takes years to perfect; either way, it is an undeniable asset for a sideshow performer.
He opened with a demonstration of fire eating. After soaking several torches in lighter fluid and igniting them with an impressive POOF!, Hely placed them in his mouth, passing them back and forth over his tongue, all the while keeping a pleasant, "How about this, boys and girls?" expression on his face. His demonstration was casual, almost off-the-cuff, and as he put the fiery ends out with a flourish (and audible sizzle) on his tongue, he barely acknowledged the gasps from the audience.
Then, in rapid succession, he ran through an astonishing repertoire. He lay shirtless on a bed of nails, for example, and invited an attractive young lady from the audience to come up and stand on his chest. Next, a scruffy-looking student wearing long johns and a skirt (this was a guy, mind you), enthusiastically volunteered to lace him into a straight jacket and secure him with padlocks and chains. Sheepishly, I raised my hand when Hely asked for a volunteer to time him while he escaped. To make the escape a little more interesting, as he put it, he stood on shards of broken glass as he heaved, shrugged, and wriggled his way free. "A minute and forty-five seconds!" I called as the straight jacket fell to the floor.
Next came an eye-watering series of apparent body mutilations, which seemed to arouse the particular admiration of the members of the audience with multi-body piercings. However, instead of anything as mundane as rings or studs, Hely proceeded to sew a button onto his bare forearm. Then he inserted a ten-inch nail up his nose, but not before beaming at my son avuncularly and proclaiming, "Kids, don’t try this at home!"
The finale was an electrical feast. Running an electrical current through his body, Hely lit up a long fluorescent light tube he held in his hand. Then, obviously feeling that the audience had not squirmed sufficiently, he volunteered, in much the same tone of voice as someone might offer to get you a beer from the fridge, to eat a light bulb. He held the bulb aloft, regarding it with apparent relish. Crunch, crunch, crunch . . .
"Mom! Is that real?" whispered my son, aghast. "Well, it sure looks like it is," I answered. "But even if it isn’t, I think it’s great."
The third and final performer was Johnny Fox, billed the "World’s Greatest Sword Swallower." Fox was a more somber character. Rather than humoring the audience, he seemed to relish baiting them a bit. "Why are you laughing?" he asked when several members of the audience tittered nervously as he brandished an enormous sword. "I’ve got your money!" He then proceeded to give the audience its money's worth, swallowing that sword, an even longer sword, and several swords simultaneously. By the end of his act, I’d little doubt that Fox was indeed possessed of a rare gift.
"So, what did you think of the sideshow?" I asked my son as we left the tent.
"That was AWESOME!" replied my formerly blasé offspring. "Can we come back and see it again?"