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Topic: Sideshow Memories
Message: Posted by: Todd Robbins (Mar 11, 2005 11:29AM)
Slim has some great stories over on the sideshow world site. I would like to start a thread on shows people have seen and acts that impressed them. So, what have you seen that you liked and why? These memories might start people thinking about new ideas for presentation.
Message: Posted by: Crossroads Mystic (Mar 11, 2005 12:36PM)
20 or so years ago, I was at the Colorado Renaissance Festive. I watched Johnny Fox. He did a nice cups & ball routine, some good coin manipulation and best of all, he did the blockhead. Wow, it was great. I knew it was real, I just didn’t how. Johnny’s magic was good, because the prop were so simple cups & balls, coins stuff that was as old as the hills. It was his performance that really kicked up my interest in magic (and sideshows). The block was the first step into the sideshow world. I took me a couple years but, it was the first sideshow stunt I learned.

Why did I like the blockhead so much? For one it was something I’d never seen. Two it was like sword swallowing, only on a much smaller scale. And sword swallowing to me is one of the greatest pieces in the sideshow. It’s something I’ve wanted to learn for years, but at 36 it seems a little late to start.

Gavin D.
Message: Posted by: Harley Newman (Mar 11, 2005 12:57PM)
It's not too late to start, you young puppy!
Message: Posted by: Todd Robbins (Mar 11, 2005 01:10PM)
I've had students at the Sideshow School start glomming steel in their 40s and 50s. Harley's right. There's nothing better than an old dog with a new trick.
Message: Posted by: Doug Higley (Mar 11, 2005 02:47PM)
"There's nothing better than an old dog with a new trick."

A real Aristocrat that dog!

One act I was always enamored with can be seen on occasion in the Chinese Circus performances. There used to be a Master of it at Marine World Africa USA in Valejo years ago, Duck Wing I think he called himself...but I've seen it numerous times when the Chinese troups perform.

Basically he balances heavy porcelene urns and pots on his head...no big deal...but then he begins to throw them up in the air, way up in the air...higher and higher...and they are HEAVY!!!! (as in H.E.A.V.Y.) The wonder of the act is he catches them on his head by matching with head movement exactly the speed of the fall and mass of the urn so that when it hits his head it is extremely gentle without any impact.
Mesmerizing to say the least. oooooh.

Message: Posted by: Harley Newman (Mar 11, 2005 04:50PM)
WHo you callin' an old dog? I'm what, about 15 years older than you, Todd? And I just started swallowing a few months ago.
Message: Posted by: Todd Robbins (Mar 11, 2005 05:32PM)
On 2005-03-11 17:50, Harley Newman wrote:
WHo you callin' an old dog? I'm what, about 15 years older than you, Todd? And I just started swallowing a few months ago.

Harley, the fun I could have with that post if I didn't fear being bounce off the Café! And Doug, there is a fellow named Gui Ming who does the act you described. He is currently on tour with the Big Apple Circus. It is a great act.
Message: Posted by: Crossroads Mystic (Mar 11, 2005 06:33PM)
Harley & Todd

Thanks, for the encouragement.

One day, Todd I hope to come see you at Coney Island (for a little schoolin’).

Gavin D.
Message: Posted by: drwilson (Mar 12, 2005 12:48PM)
When I was a kid in the 1960s, we used to go to the Canfield fair in Ohio. There were a lot of shows, but we almost never went into any of them. I got really hung up on the banners. I would stand there in the sun staring at them, Lobster Boy and his family, the jolly fat man, electric girl, the works. There was this one trailer show with lurid posters proclaiming the world's largest rodent. Rats the size of cars were gnawing on severed human limbs on the banners. From South America! The largest rodent in the world!

Finally I could not bear it any longer, and I talked my dad into taking me in, at I think 50 cents a ticket. We walked in and there was a pen that you could walk around with walls maybe three feet high. In the pen was a capybara (truly the world's largest rodent). The big guy had a water dish and another dish with what looked like dog kibble. He looked pretty harmless. They had our buck and they had delivered what they promised, but I had a deep sense of disappointment. I mean, where were the human remains to feed the slavering beast from the Amazon?

Years later I realized my great good fortune at having not gone into many other shows. Over the years my imagination created the wonders that must have been inside those tents based on the banner art. The splendors that I saw in my mind's eye could not possibly compare with what was actually inside those tents.

I do remember a great bally. A slow-talking gentleman with an incredible ability to paint pictures with words stood outside a sideshow tent with a bare-chested dwarf wearing a black hood over his head. He described the enlarged back of this person's head as being of a kind of spongy material. If we went inside the show, we could not only see this gentleman with his hood off, but we would also see him eat fire. We didn't go in, but the hypnotic voice of this talker resonated in my head for years. Finally I saw the documentary "Sideshow," and realized as many of you have by now that the hypnotic talker that I saw in my impressionable youth was no less a person than Ward Hall.

In my own extremely modest attempts at sideshow art, I have tried to deliver the grandeur and splendor of this art form, and if I have conveyed the smallest portions of the bright memories and imaginings that I carry in my heart, I have succeeded.


Message: Posted by: Todd Robbins (Mar 12, 2005 12:58PM)
Have you met Ward? He is a wonderful man.
Message: Posted by: drwilson (Mar 12, 2005 01:10PM)

I get to read his emails on the Sideshow list, and I have the golden memory from my youth, but we have not met face-to-face since I started wearing long pants. I'm sure that he is wonderful, because he has filled the hearts of others with wonder. Perhaps at the Sideshow Gathering?


Message: Posted by: Doug Higley (Mar 12, 2005 01:35PM)
Doc said: "Years later I realized my great good fortune at having not gone into many other shows. Over the years my imagination created the wonders that must have been inside those tents based on the banner art."

Doc we rarely dissagree but I have to on that one. You missed a lot and a lot of it good on many levels...all on the INSIDE.

I saw (and smelled) a huge Whale...I saw (and met) Francesco Lentini...I had a life changing discussion (brief but truely inspirational) with the Alligator Man.
I saw Bobby Reynolds in his prime and Ward Hall On The INSIDE...I was 'exposed' to the Blade Box which began my own career as an entertainer...I learned about life itself inside an amazing and beautifully framed show called LIFE...I bought a little Bible from the Bear Girl (and one from the Turtle Girl). I witnessed (many times) a REAL Flea Circus and sat on the lap of a Giant. I saw collections of artifacts no museum would know how to display and learned about respect, dignity and tolerance from the Monkey Girl (MB)...I learned how to pitch a 'blind' item and frame a show...I saw the Giant Rat and the Wild Girl and the Arabian Giantess...all wonderfully bogus.
I learned what it takes to make the public smile and what makes them groan and how I could not only do what Homer Tate did but do it better...I learned of History and most of all I met the most gritty, memorable and wonderful people on earth...all on the inside.

I also marveled at the fabulous banners on the outside...but what ever it was on the inside, I turned into an encounter. Was I ever disappointed? Never...though 'taken' a few times, I learned a lot even from that...they are all in the 'good files'. My 'smile lines' are still in place from all those great old shows...small or large, hokey or not. I wish you would have seen them.

Message: Posted by: Slim Price (Mar 12, 2005 03:57PM)
Take A Walk Around Coney Island

by Slim Price

Take a walk! C’mon, take a walk with me around Coney Island. It’s the slow time of the day, so we can eat and prowl around a bit.

Straight across Surf Avenue from us is the most impressive Merry-Go-Round I’ve ever seen! All day it provides a background counterpoint to our show, with all the bells, cymbals, drums, and traditional Carousel music anyone could ever want. It’s huge, with a beautiful menagerie of animals and seats, carved by masters who seem to have given some of their own life and soul to the work. The mechanism of the ride and the organ is complex and wonderful. It’s fun to watch riders try to catch the brass ring as they pass it, hanging out as far as they dare, kind of like watching an old time western without the shooting.

So many things at Coney Island are taken for granted, just because all the parts of it are melded into one whole experience, the sounds, the smells, the colors, and the attitude.

Turn around for a minute and look at our show. The lobby, open to the street, surrounds the bally, our “front porch.” On the right is the ticket box, which has inside it a half-a-dozen signs for “this show only,” ranging from fifty cents down to fifteen cents. The ticket taker will change them according to the talker’s whim, depending on the size of the tip, the time of day, and just the level of the crowd’s interest. It’s a fine art. The talker’s object is, of course, to make money for the show. On any good day, hundreds of people will pass into the show, and truly will get their money’s worth. I love it!

Right around the corner, there’s an Irish bar, with singing waiters. I’m too young to go in there yet, but I can look through the doors, and see them slinging huge, foamy mugs of beer. I hear stories about customers being given “Mickeys” and being rolled for their money. Maybe it’s just as well I can’t go in. Right across the street from here, I ate my first knish, an onion flavored potato cake fried in deep fat. Sounds like something good for an Irish kid, but it’s not! It tastes to me like something that ought to be called a knish!

Almost next door, I’ve been told, is one of the places “Little Egypt,” Fahrida Mahszar danced the “Hootchie-Kootchie” (belly dancing) about 1895. Anthony Comstock, the country's most powerful censor, tried to shut down the dancing shows and caused more publicity than she would have had otherwise.

Back up to Surf Ave. In the next block is Dave Rosen’s show, The Wonderland Circus Side Show. It has a different feeling from our show, the vibrations are different, it doesn’t seem happy. I’ve got a crush on one of the dancing girls who works on his bally. Her name is Beth, and maybe I’ll tell a story about her!

Meanwhile, if we cross Surf Ave. to the other side, and go up Stillwell Ave., we’ll come to the Stillwell Subway Station. It’s hard for me to comprehend the number of people who ride the thing. As many as half a million people a day, along with picnic baskets, blankets, umbrellas and all the other beach stuff they carry. Lord! The reason I mention Stillwell is because it’s where I had my first “Denver” omelet. I’ll never have another omelet as good. Even when I worked in Denver, where I discovered Mexican food. (Go figure!)

A little further along Surf, is Nathan’s. In front of Nathan’s, the crowd is almost always fifteen deep from the counter to the curb, but the service is so fast, and the food is so good that I don’t even notice the short wait. (I’m still growing, I guess, ‘cause I like to eat!) All along this walk, we’ve passed joints and games, food stands, and rides. I know a lot of the folk along here, but except for a “Hi, How are ya?” We don’t really socialize. When the Island is awake we all work hard to make a buck, and when it’s asleep we disappear.

A guy called Larry who will not paint if he’s sober painted many, if not most of the garish, lively signs and pictures along here. In no time at all he can paint an ear of corn or about anything else and make it live. His girlfriend is a snake handler named Princess Eunice. She’s the one who had her hand paralyzed by a bite from a boa. They are a mixed couple in a time when the rest of the country is enraged by race problems, but here, it doesn’t seem like any of us even notice. None of us are even aware of it, but our value system is different from “society.” We’re some sort of vagabonds, loyal to our own, honest in a strange way (you can’t cheat a person who is honest, it’s the ones who think they “have the edge” who provide our sustenance.)

Time to turn around. There’s more to see all over the Island, but there are special things I want you to share. Back, just past our show, and going the other way, there’s a roar and a racket married to screams! It’s the Cyclone, on the corner of Surf and Tenth Ave. Eighty-six feet high, built in 1927, sometimes it has lines of customers blocks long waiting to spend their quarters.

Diagonally across the street, there’s another freak show, also belonging to Rosen, starring Betty Lou Williams, with several more strange people. He also shows a “Freak Monster Animal, The Only One In The World!” Actually, it’s a Tapir and the only thing that makes it a freak is an extra toe. I guess what you don’t know doesn’t hurt.

Up a couple of blocks past several more shows and rides, if you look towards the Bowery, you can see the Wonder Wheel. You can’t miss it. It has sixteen cars on a wheel one hundred and thirty feet in diameter. It’s amazing that a thing that big can move at all. Each car holds four people and rides on an inner track, looping from the center to the outside rim, rocking outside the outer perimeter. It looks like it should be a romantic ride, but actually it ‘s a gut twister.

Time to head for the boardwalk. From Surf, we cross the Bowery, with lots more to see, and them come up onto the most wood a kid like me has ever seen in one place! It’s eighty feet wide, with the planks at an angle and it seems to go for miles along the beach. Along one side are more joints selling all the typical stuff. You can hire a “Rickshaw” to ride the entire length. There are often kids (and old men) who look up through the spaces between the planks from the beach level for purposes I won’t explain. If you come here at dawn, you can see many men on the beach with metal detectors, looking for lost valuables, money and whatever the typical daily horde of beach of beach-goers can lose.

It’s a long walk up to the end of the boardwalk through crowds of people, past other attractions, especially Steeplechase Park, all it’s rides and attractions, including the Parachute jump. Two hundred and sixty feet high with twelve parachutes! This is one hell of an experience! You are strapped into a canvas seat, hoisted up to the top, and dropped! Although cables guide the chutes, your first sixty or so feet are free fall until the parachutes start to slow you! From there it’s one hell of a way down to the bottom, and a blessed, if shaky terra firma. One day I actually rode it nine times, and I still don’t know why.

One of the perks of any amusement employee is our common code. Saying “I’m with it” identifies you, and usually brings free rides, discount food prices, and most important, camaraderie. It also makes you vulnerable to “in-jokes” among your own breed. For example, if you take a date on the parachute jump, they are likely to let you hang up there for what seems forever. Back up on the boardwalk, we come to the end, where rows of ancient seeming women work on their tans with folding reflectors held close under their chins. They look like a mummy factory.

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Message: Posted by: blindbo (Mar 12, 2005 04:29PM)
I was about nine years old and Mom had already conditioned the rules - you're not allowed into the sideshow. Needless to say, on that overcast day in the summer at the Jersey shore, I coughed up my dollar and entered the forbidden zone.

There weren't but 5 or six of us at the 10am show. I remember not believing I was on the inside. For many summers before, all I could do was fantasize over the posters on the outside. Now I was here...and breaking the rules.

We stood within inches of the first stage. The first act was elastic man. Wow. I could see the pores on his flesh we were so close. He contorted through all the standards and I was amazed at him crawling through a barrel after having bent himself in two. The stage light dimmed and we were directed to turn 90 degrees to the next stage platform where the lights had begun to rise. A beautiful woman, the enchantress, spoke seductively and mesmerized me and the huge serpent around her neck.

Into another room and its elasticman again, but as a sword swallower. I didn't expect him to be the same person. He cautioned on the danger of swallowing in a hoarse and gravelling voice. I recall tuning him out and focusing on the electric chair behind him. I imagined it was used to bring death to some before it was brought here to the show. Electro was nonother than the same fellow. His tall, lean frame was in a way frightening. He demontrated some electric effects on the enchantress who I suppose we weren't to believe was the same woman.

The last act I remember was on the way out. It was a narrow, dimlit aisle that had a few small closed and draped 'rooms', maybe just 8 square feet. The closed rooms I believe were acts that weren't in town. In one open and thinly lighted room there sat a figure. As we gathered within inches she began to speak. In a monotone, practiced speech she described herself as the bearded lady. Her whiskers were indeed a beard and I was thinking it was a man, pretending. Her voice was husky, but gentle. It really had me confused. And then it happened. She proved it. Her house dress blouse was slowly undraped to reveal her hairy chest - complete with the very first set of real breasts I had ever seen. My heart pounded and I remember thinking - this is why I wasn't allowed in here.

I hit the daylight and never told a soul. Since that day, I have been to many a show and many an act, but that was the most memorable. I never looked at breasts the same way again.
Message: Posted by: drwilson (Mar 12, 2005 06:35PM)
Hey Doug,

Naturally, I find it hard to disagree with the value of your experiences. I was just trying to salvage a benefit if possible from my overprotected childhood. I have been making up for lost time since, as you know!