How the Sideshow Arts Saved Bar Harbor, Maine

by Paul Szauter

 

Bar Harbor, Maine, is not known as a great venue for the art of sideshow. The town dozes through a long winter with most of the businesses in town literally boarded up. Sheets of plywood are nailed to the windows of tourist trap shops and even restaurants sometime in November. The whale watch boats and the four-masted schooner sail off for warmer water for six months. The highlights of the winter include freak snowstorms, and occasional long cold snaps where the temperature refuses to rise above zero even as a daytime high. If there is not much wind, sea ice forms in the harbor. As the weather warms up a bit in March, it is warm enough for nor'easters, featuring heavy snowfalls, high winds, ice storms and other weather events that evoke disaster movies.


The stalwart locals that stay through the winter develop a rich inner life featuring fantasies of what they will do when they emerge from Purgatory in May or June. The Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce tries to extend the tourist season by promoting events in the "shoulder" season, like Legacy of the Arts in June.


 

Around the end of December, I evaluated the local mood and found pessimism about the tourist economy and gloom over the daily news, so something new for the summer was called for; I settled on a Flea Circus. I began collecting materials to build the thing in January. As snow changed to torrential rain, I was spending Saturdays at the home of a friend with much better workshop skills (and tools) than mine.


 

By the end of April the act was (barely) ready for a low-key trial in front of a live audience at a library. The small crowd went wild! It is easy to say that no one there had ever seen a Flea Circus, and many had never heard of one.


 

Confident in the appeal of this weird little show, I talked the owner of one of the local art galleries into an event during the Legacy of the Arts festival. Leapin Lizard Gallery is full of wacky, colorful art, offbeat crafts, and jewelry. It is a very lighthearted and approachable gallery that made a perfect venue.     


 

To round out the show we added our Gypsy Fortune Teller booth, which is built to break down and fit in my car. The booth looks like an oversized fortune telling machine with a live person, instead of one of those great old mechanical grandmas, inside. The Gypsy sells cartomancy fortunes containing a miniature playing card with a fortune keyed to that card, all nicely wrapped in handmade paper. She also sells Magic Dreamstones: "Inside every stone are three good dreams. When the dreams are used up, the power of the stone keeps away bad dreams. Keep one under your pillow." This booth always makes a surprising amount of money.


 

As the event grew closer, a gap in Ses Carny's performing schedule and his fond memories of Bar Harbor allowed him to come up for the event and perform outside the gallery for tips. The advance publicity was very good, and the turnout for this event was greater than for any other event in the five-year history of the gallery.


 

I have worked small fairs and carnivals with games, magic, and a Feejee Mermaid, but Ses Carny is the real deal. His traditional sideshow material - blockhead, sword swallowing, animal traps, eyehooks and more - thrilled the art crowd. None of these people had ever seen a sideshow performer before. It is wonderful to watch the crowd reactions. They stare, turn away in shock, turn back to look again, some with hands over their eyes, peering through the spaces between their fingers. Some of the women kind of undulate as they squeal, looking and turning away and looking again.


Ses Carny also added a bit of what every showman looks for in publicity - controversy! Before the show, some people said that they were going to bring their kids to see the Flea Circus, but when they saw the picture in the paper of the guy with a nail up his nose, they decided that they didn't want their five-year-old to see that!

 

Ladies and Gentleman, that five year old is going to grow up to learn that something precious was kept away from him when he was young. He will inevitably hear the story of the strange little three-ring circus that came to town. When he is old enough to make his own decisions, he won't miss the chance to see a real sideshow, flea circus, or gypsy fortune teller.

 

Ses Carny so delighted the gallery owner that she invited him back for the Fourth of July, the biggest day of the year in Bar Harbor. The Chamber of Commerce organizes a Fourth of July parade that is open to all entries. The parade contains the traditional elements common to many small-town parades: a military color guard, fire trucks, bagpipes, and Shriners in go-carts and clown gear. It also has entries like giant lobsters, puppets driving cars, dragons and similar feats of grandiose whimsy.


 

For their entry this year, Leapin Lizard Gallery decided upon an art car with a beach theme. One of the artists associated with the gallery, Jeff Freeman, had recently begun making furniture and art objects out of aluminum. He and gallery owner and fellow artist Lizz Godfroy designed an aluminum roof ornament of a palm tree being blown back by the wind, with a monkey clinging to it. They bolted this huge thing to the roof of the car, then painted it and the car in bright colors before using a glue gun to attach hundreds of plastic beach toys to the car. Lizz made two mermaid costumes and somehow acquired a gorilla costume which she accessorized with an inflatable beach ducky. The gorilla and mermaids rode on the hood, while an assortment of grass-skirted celebrants with oversized sunglasses and beach toys surrounded the car.


Ses Carny rode in the back seat beneath a hole cut in the roof, equipped with torches and fuel.


 

From time to time they would stop the car, and Ses would pop up through the roof or jump out to blow a blast of fire into the clear blue sky of a perfect summer day. This absolutely stunned the crowd, who usually experience Fourth of July fireworks out over the harbor after dinner. It is a traditional reminder that securing our liberty has required armed conflict. But Fourth of July fireworks are experienced as a distant, long-range experience, not unlike watching the video from a smart bomb. Ses Carny's performance reminded all of us that the love of freedom requires courage, and as a group of visual artists embraced him, we were reminded that a free people embrace diversity while engaged in the grand enterprise of expanding humanity's vision of what is possible.


And that's the story of how the sideshow arts saved Bar Harbor.

 

All Photograph by Paul Szauter.

 Leapin Lizard Gallery parade car entry.

 The Gorilla suit with accessorized ducky preserver.

 Two Mermaids, "I prefer the red head".

 Car surfing Gorilla.

 Ses Carny breathing fire from the Leapin Lizard Gallery car in Bar Harbor's Fourth of July Parade.

 

 

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