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Carnival and Circus Sideshows

This page is dedicated to the American sideshow. I will be adding historical and personal stories about life in the ten-in-one. [editor's note: The House of Deception will add Todd Robbins' addenda as they are written, pending his permission.]

History

What follows is some information on what the sideshow was all about. Included is a thumbnail sketch of the history of the American sideshow. This is being written as a resource for people who want to know a bit about where the sideshow came from and where it has ended up.

If what is written here intrigues you then I recommend you search out copies of the various volumes of James Taylor's
Shocked and Amazed. You can also email me at coneyislandtodd@aol.com if you have questions and I will give you a list of some good books on the subject of the sideshow at the end of this history. [see also our Recommended Reading page.]

First off, let's define some terms. When the term sideshow is used, it refers to a display of people with physical abnormalities (often referred to as freaks), performers with exotic abilities (such as fire eating or sword swallowing and known as working acts), unusual objects (mummies and the preserved remains of a two headed baby are good examples) or combinations of any or all three. The people who ran the shows are called showmen or showwomen. At carnivals and circuses these displays were housed in tents that were on the side of the midway. On the carnival, these shows were also called backend shows because they were found at the back of the midway beyond the rides, games and food stands. Sideshows were also found at amusement parks and areas, like New York's Coney Island and Chicago's Riverview Park. At amusement parks, sideshows were often housed in buildings. Sometimes during the winter months, when the carnivals and circuses were not touring, showmen would put their sideshows into storefronts in the downtown sections of large cities. These were known as store shows.

There are two kinds of sideshows. When a single person or object is featured, it is known as a single-O. When there are ten acts in the show, it's called a ten-in-one. Another name for the ten-in-one is a string show, because the various acts are strung together to make a show. Throughout the years there have been a number of shows smaller than a ten-in-one, such as Ward Hall's Pygmy Village six-in-one that he presented in the early 1960s, and there a have been shows with more than ten acts, such as the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus sideshow of the 1950s which had 16 acts and a cast of 33 performers.

The shows used many traditional elements. To entice people to buy a ticket, large colorful canvas banners were hung on the front of the tent or building. Exaggerated depictions of the acts featured in the show were painted on these banners.

Also, many shows featured an outside talker doing ballys. The outside talker was the person who stood on a small stage in front of the show and did a sales pitch for the show. This person is often erroneously called a barker. That sales pitch, which also often included a short performance by some of the show's performers, is known as a bally.

Inside the show, the crowd would stand and watch the performance. The acts would be presented on a long, high catwalk stage or on multiple stages in a roped off area on the ground (known as a pit) or some combination of these performance spots. The shows were often done continuously, with no beginning or end, just one act after another. This is known as a grind show. When people would see an act come to the stage a second time, they would know they had seen a complete show and would exit.

The preceding description was written in the past tense, because the American ten-in-one sideshow has all but vanished. There are, however, a few traditional shows left. The only permanent company left is Sideshow by the Seashore in Coney Island. For many years legendary carnival showman Ward Hall has taken out his "World of Wonders" show. Some folks like Ken Harck, Tim Deremer, Rick Cale and a few others occasionally put together a show to play various dates. If you run into a show on a midway, chances are it will be a single-O.

As for the origins of the sideshow, they go back to before recorded history. It seems that people have always been interested in the unusual. England's St. Bartholomew Fair started in 1102, and from the beginning showmen presented their oddities that were beyond what people saw in their everyday lives.

Proof of how far back the public's fascination with the strange goes can be found in the plays of William Shakespeare. In
The Tempest, Trinculo meets the mutant man/lizard Caliban and schemes to take him back to civilization. Commenting on the public's desires, he says, "When they will not give a doit (a cheap coin) to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian."

Through the years leading up to the 19th century, showmen would rent out back rooms of taverns, meeting halls or theaters to present their exhibits. For the most part this was happening all over Europe, and to a limited degree, in colonial America. All sorts of strangeness was being presented, from people with too few or too many limbs to people with unusual abilities such as sword swallowing and fire eating. Read Ricky Jay's
Learned Pigs and Fire Proof Women to get an idea of the wonders people have paid to see throughout history.

When dime museums came into being towards the end of the 18th century, and began to flourish in America, they provided the perfect venue for oddities. The dime museum got its name from its admission price and they were not unlike the Ripley's and Guinness museums of today. They also featured the display of human oddities, live performance of variety acts, and plays such as
Uncle Tom's Cabin. The most famous dime museum was P. T. Barnum's American Museum, located at Ann St. and Broadway in lower Manhattan. Between the early 1840s to the late 1860s, it was THE New York tourist attraction. In addition to Barnum's museum, there were many smaller ones in NY. Many of these were found on the Bowery. Most cities of decent size had at least one dime museum. The last of the dime museums was Hubert's Museum on 42nd St. in New York. It closed down in the early 1970s.

During this same period when dime museums were getting their start, agricultural fairs were springing up around the United States. Showmen made the most of this development by taking their shows and putting them on display in tents at these fairs.

Circuses were also getting into the act. The earliest account of a sideshow with a circus goes back to the 1850s and tells of a wax museum show trouping with a circus.

Though these were sideshows, they were not the ten-in-ones. For the most part during this time, the shows you would find at fairs and circuses were single-Os. The irony is that this is how the traveling sideshow got its start and this is how it has ended up today. For a good overview of this kind of show, read A. W. Stencell's book,
Seeing Is Believing.

The circus sideshow really hit its stride when P. T. Barnum devoted his attention to creating a touring show. When his American Museum was destroyed by fire for a second time in the late 1860s, Barnum decided to take his show on the road. He went on tour with his circus. The problem was that the circus at this time was considered a low form of entertainment. They were often filled with ticket sellers that short changed the customers, three card monte and three shell game mobs, and showmen that would slip out of town without paying their bills. In order to distance himself from being associated with all this, Barnum featured not only a circus, but also large tents that housed many other kinds of "enlightening" entertainment. These included a menagerie, a hall of freaks, and even a collection of ancient statues! As time went on, the concept was streamlined down to just the freak show and menagerie touring with the circus. Barnum's show set a high water mark that other showmen worked to emulate.

Another important turning point was the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. At this world's fair, America was introduced to the Ferris Wheel, what we now refer to as "belly dancing" was brought into the mainstream, and the term "ballyhoo" was coined. W. O. Taylor was the manager of the Streets of Cairo pavilion at the fair. In order to drum up business, he would have some of the Middle Eastern performers come out onto the midway and give a small show. This gave the fair patrons a taste of the sights and sounds to be found inside the pavilion. When the performers came out they would shout, "D'Allah hoon!" which loosely translated means, "For the love of Allah." Taylor did not speak their language, so when he wanted one of these traffic generating performances done he would call out, "Come out and do one of those ballyhoos." The word was picked up by the other showmen at the fair and has come to mean an attention-getting spectacle.

The greatest significance of the Chicago fair was that it proved when rides, shows and attractions were brought together, it was a profitable combination. Some of the showmen banned together after the fair closed and formed the first carnival companies. Walter Sibley is credited with creating the first carnival ten-in-one in 1904, though it is not clear how this show's form differed from the sideshows that had been playing with circuses for several decades.

The creation of the carnival at the turn of the twentieth century coincided with social changes in America. The workweek was shortened and the labor movement pushed for a rise in wages. This meant that people had not only some leisure time, but also extra money to spend. And the sideshow showmen were there to give them something to spend it on.

In the 1890s, the area of the South end of Brooklyn, NY, known as Coney Island, began to blossom. First, there was Capt. Boyton's Sea Lion Park. This was soon followed by George Tilyou's Steeplechase Park. Not long after the dawn of the twentieth century, Sea Lion Park was rebuilt as Luna Park and then Dreamland was the last to complete the picture. In addition to these amusement parks, there were dozens and dozens of independent rides, shows and attractions. If there was not a sideshow within the confines of a park, there was one to be found nearby.

The grandest sideshow in Coney Island was built on the site of Dreamland when that glorious park burned down in 1911. While the ground was still smoldering, showman Samuel Gumpertz set up the Dreamland Sideshow. For more than twenty years it featured the finest in sideshow performance including being the home of Barnum's Zip-The What Is It? Many of the freaks that were featured in the Tod Browning film Freaks worked at the Dreamland Sideshow. In addition to this show, there were many others including those run by Dave Rosen, Fred Sindell and Sam Wagner. Photographer Edward Kelty took cast photos of many of these shows in the 1920s. A number of these wonderful pictures can be found in the book by Miles Barth,
Step Right This Way. [editor's note: Also look for Flash of Light, the 2006 Kelty documentary on DVD.]

From the beginning of the century up through the 1920s, the sideshow sailed along with the times. As the country dealt with the Great Depression of the 1930s, there were a number of changes that affected the sideshow. First off, there were a number of improvements in pre-natal care that decreased the number of babies born with physical abnormalities. Second, there was a change in public attitude. Many people started to look upon sideshow freaks as objects of pity. Instead of a sideshow stage, many felt that institutions were the best place for these "poor people" and putting them there was "for their own good". Fortunately, this movement fell short of legislation.

Another factor that had an impact on the sideshow was the advancements in the sophistication of the media. Sideshow claimed to bring to the stage wonders from the four corners of the earth. Starting in the late 1920s, people could see the actual people and places featured in newsreels at the local movie house. Radio also brought the world into their living rooms. It was getting harder for showmen to successfully pull off some of the hoaxes and humbugs they had been doing for decades, such as presenting people as the Wild Man of Borneo or the Last of the Aztecs.

However, all was not doom and gloom in the 1930's. Robert Ripley was riding high with his Ripley's Believe It or Not cartoons in hundreds of papers. There were also Ripley's Odditoriums featuring live performers at all the of the World's Fair and other major exhibitions, and in many large cities such as New York. Robert Ripley proved once again that people were fascinated by the unusual. If you want to see footage from the 1930s and 40s of some of the performers featured by Ripley, go to http://www.ripleys.com/odditorium.htm [editor's note: This link is currently inactive and The House of Deception has not been able to locate the footage].

On the midway and at circuses, sideshows were still very popular. Clyde Ingalls made sure that Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus Sideshow was an unforgettable presentation. Harry Lewiston, Ray Marsh Brydon and Slim Kelley were just three among many that took out shows and did well playing fairs.

After World War II, there were more changes that started the decline of the American Sideshow. There were a number of advancements in ride design and construction that came out of Europe. Rides became larger and more elaborate. Carnival owners got into a race to see who would have the latest and greatest of rides. This meant that something on the midway had to go to make room for the new rides. What went were the shows. This did not happen overnight. It took thirty years for the sideshow to vanish from the midway.

During this time there were two people that were (and I am glad to report, still are) active in the sideshow business. One is Ward Hall and the other is Bobby Reynolds. Both got their starts working as magicians in the sideshow. Ward got his start in the mid 1940s in the Dailey Bros. Circus Sideshow and Bobby broke into the business a few years later out in Coney Island, NY. Soon they both became owners of their own traveling sideshows.

Both Ward and Bobby bought out the shows of the older generation of sideshow showman as these old timers began to retire or die off. These actions came from a desire to eliminate the competition. The problem was that when they bought these shows, they took them off the road. The shows were replaced with a ride. Once that space was used up by rides, there would no going back to a midway filled with shows.

One carnival owner boasted that he was happy with a midway that didn't eat (that is, one without live performers). His operating costs were less and because he had the grandest and most glorious rides (known in the trade a pig iron) he got many of the most lucrative contracts to play the big state fairs.

By the 1980s, a full ten-in-one carnival sideshow was hard to find. The economics of the carnival had become almost hostile to sideshows. If a showman could find a carnival willing to make room for his show on a midway, he had to pay as much as 60% of its gross to the carnival owner. From what was left, the show owner also had to pay for the electricity his show used and other operating expenses. Add to this that he was responsible for the payroll for his show and you see why it was next to impossible to make a sideshow profitable. And let's not forget that this is outdoor show business. Bad weather could bankrupt a show in no time at all.

The last circus to carry a sideshow was the Kelly-Miller Circus, and it stopped that tradition back in 1995. The L. E. Barnes Circus took out a sideshow in the summer of 2001, but that circus only lasted a single season.

Today, except for Ward Hall (and occasionally Bobby Reynolds and Tim Deremer) all that's left on the carnival midway are a few single-Os owned by people like Jack Constantine and Jeff Murray, and the freak animal shows of John Strong Jr.

In the mid 1980s, a graduate from the Yale School of Drama named Dick Zigun came to Coney Island. He hooked up with showman John Bradshaw, who was running what was left of the old Slim Kelley/Whitey Sutton Sideshow, and they opened Sideshows by the Seashore. Bradshaw left after several seasons and Zigun has carried on. This permanent sideshow company is still going strong today and is last of its kind anywhere.

Towards the end of the 1980s, a street performer named Jim Rose, known as Jimmy the Geek, got together a number of other performers up in the Seattle, WA area. They formed a troupe called Jim Rose Circus Sideshow and played rock and roll clubs in the area. They took traditional sideshow acts and retooled them for a rock sensibility. This hard core show received national publicity, including a full hour on the Sally Jesse Raphael show. They got an offer to play the Lollapalooza Tour and this led to several national and international tours. Though several of the original troupe, like Tim "the Torture King" Cridland, have left to form their own touring companies, Rose still tours today and is the subject of a Travel Channel reality series.

Inspired by the success of Jim Rose, a number of other troupes have sprung up in recent years, including the Blue Monkey Sideshow (Indianapolis, IN) and the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus (New York, NY).

Many performers, like myself, have found work performing a one-man sideshow. We do all the acts and perform in a wide variety of venues, such as colleges, Renaissance Faires, comedy clubs, corporate events, tradeshows, theaters and tattoo shows (like the European Wildstyle Show). A few of the notable performers working today are Harley Newman, Johnny Meah (the last of the sideshow banner painters and fine sword swallower), Sideshow Bennie, Johnny Fox, Ses Carny, Erik "The Lizardman" Spague and Doc Swan.

It is doubtful that the sideshow will ever return to the carnival and circus. What is encouraging is the fact that there are people like James Taylor with The American Dime Museum in Baltimore and Johnny Fox's Freakatorium in New York that are keeping the spirit of the Dime Museum alive. And a number of performers on the scene today are taking the ancient traditions of the sideshow, making them their own and introducing a new audience to the world of the sideshow. If you would like to get a sample of this, [begin exploring at www.toddrobbins.com]

Here is a list of some books about the sideshow and carnival life that you might enjoy [editor's note: See also our Recommended Reading page]:

Struggles and Triumphs of a Modern Day Showman and My Very Unusual Friends.
Ward Hall's two books. The first is Ward's autobiography and was published by Carnival Publisher of Sarasota. This was the late Joe McKennon's company. Both books come up on eBay from time to time.

A. W. Stencell's
Girl Show and Seeing is Believing.
These are both about carnival shows. The first chronicles the strip shows that played on the midway and the second is about grind shows. Al Stencell is currently working on a book about the history of the carnival ten-in-ones. Both are published by ECW Press.

Shocked & Amazed by James Taylor (Dolphin Moon Press)
There are nine volumes of these bookazines. There is also currently available a compilation of the early out of print and hard to find volumes. These are very worthy reads.

Freakshow by Robert Bogdan.
Published by the University of Chicago Press. This an overview of the way human oddities have been presented. This is a thorough but very biased book written by a college professor. It does not paint a favorable picture of the showmen of the past. If you can cut through Bogdan's point of view, it is a good historical resource.

Freaks, Geek & Strange Girls and Freak Show.
The first is published by Handy Marks Publications and the latter is put out by Chronicle Books. These two books deal with sideshow banner art. Both are wonderfully illustrated.

Memoirs of a Sword Swallower and Freaks: We Who Are Not As Others.
Both were written by Daniel P. Mannix. The first one is published by V/Search Publications and the second one Re/Search Publications. Though they have slightly different names, they seem to be the same company. Memoirs is just that and the other book chronicles human oddities. Memoirs has inspired many, including Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller, to pursue learning sideshow skills.

Freak Like Me by Jim Rose (Dell Trade Paperback) and Circus of the Scars by Jan Gregor (Dalsgard Publishers)
Two very different tellings of the story of the rise of the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow.

Weird & Wonderful by Andrea Stulman Dennett (NY University Press).
This is a historical overview of the precursor to the sideshow, the dime museum.

Freakery-Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body
This book is book was edited by Rosemarie Garland Thomson and published by New York University Press. It is a series of essays on freaks. Nothing within this book gives you a sense of why sideshows were entertaining.

Sideshow (Sun Dog Press) and Hurry, Hurry, Hurry (Dragon Fire & Magic).
These two books were written by sideshow magician and performer Howard Bone. The first book is his memoirs of life in the carnival and the second is a book explaining how to do some of the acts he performed.

Gahan Wilson's
The Big Book of Freaks (Paradox Press).
This is a very entertaining graphic novel/comic book telling of the history of various freaks. Great artwork in many different styles.

Step Right ThisWay (Friedman/Fairfax)
This is a book of the photos of Edward J. Kelty. He photographed many sideshows and circuses back in the 1920s and 30s. It is a beautiful book.

Grind Show (American-Independent Press)
Film maker Fred Olen Ray wrote this short book about Single-Os. It is a hard book to find, but worth the looking for.

Carnival (Pocket Books)
Arthur H. Lewis wrote this book about life with the carnival. It has a good deal of material about the showman Slim Kelley. This book is out of print.

Monster Midway by William Lindsay Gresham (Rinehart & Co.)
The author of the classic Nightmare Alley wrote this book. It is a series of articles about various aspects of the carnival. It's a great book and unfortunately out of print.


Journal

This will be my ongoing journal of the life and times of contemporary sideshow performer.

I grew up in southern California. That's enough of an explanation for some as to why I do the twisted things I do, but it goes further than that.

Youthful years were spent in a suburban community. The place was filled with a subtle and persistent insistence that this was not A way of life, it was THE way of life. What more could you want? No need to ask questions. Clean, safe, quiet and the liquor stores opened at 6:00 am.

We have all gone through moments when our private world shifts. Our outlook on life is changed forever. I was twelve years old. A carnival came to our community. On the midway between the crooked games and the rides approved by bribed safety inspectors, there was a large white tent. The front was festooned with colorful banners depicting unusual people doing remarkable things.

In front, on a small stage, there stood a man, not the barker, that's a term only used by marks. The correct term is outside talker. He was doing a bally. It's short for ballyhoo, a little performance that makes people want to see the show inside. He used a dollar to build a tip, that is, to gather a crowd. If his opening, his sales pitch worked, he would turn the tip, this means to get the people to buy a ticket.

I bought a ticket and went inside. I wanted to see that master of magic. The magic bug had bitten me a few years earlier. I had learned some sleight of hand. What I had learned was a bunch of tricks, but I had a desire for more. I would seek out all the magic I could with the hope of seeing the real thing, something extraordinary, not just deceptions.

Unfortunately, the magic act in the sideshow that day was the first act of the show, just a time killer until the crowd had all bought their tickets. The rest of the show, however, delivered in spades the very thing that I desired most. There, on that narrow, high catwalk stage were low life crusty carnies performing miracles. Fire eating, sword swallowing, feats of strength and endurance. And it was all real.

Not an ounce of trickery in any of it. They demonstrated abilities beyond the capability of the average person, and that my friends, is the definition of real magic.

With my amazement came a hunger to learn and perform these feats of wonder. As fortune would have it, one of our neighbors had a secret. He was a retired carnival performer. I pestered him until he finally said, "So you want to learn all the dangerous stuff, huh kid? Okay, I can teach you. Just don't tell your parents." And I thought, "Cool".

I learned it all. With each skill I acquired there came with it an understanding of the principles of physics and secrets of anatomy that make it all possible. It took hard work and persistence, to say nothing of burns and bleeding flesh.

It was all worth it. It also opened up a new part of our universe that I didn't know existed. The world of the carnival. Learning what that is all about has been quite an education in human psychology. I put all of this to good use first working at the last ten-in-one sideshow left out in Coney Island, Sideshows by the Seashore.

I've been associated with this show and the organization that runs it, Coney Island USA for over a decade. I am now the Chairman of the Board of Coney Island USA and the Dean of the Coney Island Sideshow School. I don't perform full seasons out in Coney Island any more, and now function as a relief pitcher for the show. I fill in if someone needs some time off.

There are a number of reasons why I don't work full time in Coney Island.

First off, they don't need me. [Readers, please remember that Todd wrote this part of the article several years ago. We are retaining it for its historical interest.] Tyler Fyre is the star of the current cast and does a GREAT job with magic, blockhead, sword swallowing and the rest of the duties of holding the show together. He is a solid performer and has worked hard to achieve what he has. I am proud that he was inspired to become part of Coney Island after hearing a talk I gave at NYU. There will come a time when he will move on and leave the show for something better. And that will be a sad day for Coney Island.

I know that some people come in and ask if I or Fredini are there performing, and it makes Tyler feel like our little brother. Though people may come in to see me, they walk out being impressed by Tyler's performance.

The other factor as to why I'm not out there is money. I've been fortunate to have gotten the call to do sideshow material in a number of high paying venues. Committing to a season out in Coney Island would preclude me from taking these gigs when they are offered. I love Coney Island, but the industry is called Show Business. And the business part of that term is about making what you can when you can.

Since that first season out in Coney Island, I have gone on to perform in every venue imaginable, from gritty rock and roll clubs like CBGBs to the stage of Carnegie Hall, and everything in between. I have purveyed amazement at events, tradeshows and presentations for major corporations like Fujifilm, Amtrak, Salomon Smith Barney, GE and others. I've also spent a goodly amount of time on the college and university circuit, and have performed on countless campuses from coast to coast. In addition to all of this, I have trouped with the Big Apple Circus, am one of the producers and featured performers of NY's longest running magic show,
Monday Night Magic; been the host of the Ripley's Live! show that has been presented around the country, and created an award winning theater off-Broadway show called Carnival Knowledge.

Some of these gigs have been very colorful and I will be writing them up soon. More later.

My [Todd Robbins'] website
Sideshows by the Seashore



[We at the House of Deception are looking forward to reading Todd's further adventures. Again, many thanks to Todd Robbins for his permission to print his article here.]
Todd Robbins' Sideshow Page
Todd Robbins wrote the best primer on sideshow history we have seen.

He published it for several years at AOL Hometown as
Todd Robbins' Sideshow Page. Unfortunately, that cite permanently closed on October 31, 2008. In December of 2008, The House of Deception was extremely fortunate to get Todd's permission to reprint the article here.








From Wikipedia: Todd Robbins is an American magician, lecturer and author. He has been featured on more than 100 television shows, which include multiple appearances on
David Letterman, Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien; Masters of Illusion; and the NBC special Extreme Variety. He was a featured guest on Criss Angel Mindfreak and is also the main subject of the 2005 documentary Carny: True Tales From The Circus Sideshow, directed by Nick Basile.

He is the author of
The Modern Con Man: How to Get Something for Nothing (Bloomsbury USA, 2008), available at Amazon and all leading booksellers

Thank you very much, Todd Robbins, for allowing The House of Deception to reprint your invaluable article.
Todd Robbins
April 1, 2007
April Fool's Day
Coney Island's opening of it's new and 'last' season
All Rights Reserved
Copyright Duff Johnson 2004-2017
No text or image may be copied or
reproduced without written permission.
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