SEE! MARVEL! THRILL!
Submitted by Matt Hely
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
the Bearded Lady
To the inhuman feats of the
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
He looked up from his Game boy, "A what?"
"A sideshow," I repeated. "You know,
like circus performers."
He heaved a great sigh of
long-suffering martyrdom. "All right. 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
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
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
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
piercing. 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
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 blasť offspring. "Can we come back and see it again?"
All stories are the property of
Sideshow World & their respective authors. Any republication in
part or in whole is strictly prohibited. For more information
Back to the
Good Old Days
Back to Main