How the Sideshow Arts Saved Bar
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
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
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
Gallery parade car entry.
suit with accessorized ducky preserver.
"I prefer the red head".
breathing fire from the Leapin Lizard Gallery
car in Bar Harbor's Fourth of July Parade.
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