always been adapting and evolving. In America it started in
the dime museums, in amusement halls and in the backroom of
taverns. It jumped to circuses and later found a home in
carnivals and amusement parks and areas.
Somewhere in the
early part of the 20th century the American sideshow became
iconic, and this lasts to this day. If you say the word
“sideshow” to people it conjures up images in their mind of
what it is, even though most people under the age of 40 have
never seen a sideshow live on a midway.
And the reason
they haven’t seen a live show is because the sideshow has
all but become extinct in its natural habitat. Circuses,
with a few short lived exceptions, stopped carrying a full
sideshow in the 1990s. Amusement parks no longer feature a
sideshow the way Riverview in Chicago and the Pike in
California did. And it’s hard for a sideshow to find space
on the carnival midway these days.
performers that have a repertoire of skills that were once
featured in the sideshows of long ago (or skills inspired by
this performance esthetic) have found new venues to play.
They play clubs or theaters and have often framed their
performance using design elements that either completely
embrace the iconic look and feel of the sideshows of the
past, or infuse this with elements inspired by various
styles of rock & roll, steampunk and the comic book/horror
And this leaves
us with a lot of bickering. There are some that will cling
to the specious argument that the only real sideshow is to
be found in a tent on a midway. The carnival sideshow is to
show business what Detroit is to American cities. It has
seen better days. The current state of the industry is that
showmen struggle to keep their shows out on the road, and
performers that work these shows have to endure conditions
and earn salaries that others wouldn’t consider.
find those out on the road to be fighting the good fight.
With one exception, they have my admiration. I will say
however, those statements that the only pure sideshows are
the ones under canvas is kindred to dick swinging.
There is too
much contention as to what is a “real” sideshow. Even those
that will stand firmly upon the notion that a sideshow is
only to be found in the world of outdoor show business don’t
always agree upon what exactly constitutes a sideshow. Some
will claim a sideshow is only a 10-in-1. Other will include
museum shows, freak animal shows, grind shows and single-0s.
So, where is
sideshow today? My personal take is that it is many things.
The carnival sideshow is a not dying, but it is a depressed
industry. The World of Wonders keeps going, but it will be
interesting to see what Chris and Tommy do after Ward is
gone. Jim Z has left us, and his show, like several others
are in mothballs. There are several showmen that take out a
show for less than full seasons, or in a reduced form from
what they have produced in the past. And there several
museum shows, animal shows, grinds and single-0s that keep
the traditions alive. Up in Canada is Scott with his show,
though he has other pursuits too beyond the world of the
carny. Out in Venice Beach and in Coney Island are two
operations that have more or less embrace old-style forms of
presentation, filtered through the sensibilities of the
people that run them. Also out on the road is the toxic
offender. And there are a ton of performers and troupes that
play a myriad of non-traditional venues.
With all of the
above, there are varying degrees of style and quality.
series seems to have come to an end, and this will probably
mean that we won’t see another series about the world of the
sideshow for some time to come. The upcoming season of
American Horror Story might breathe new interest in the
world of sideshow, but only time will tell. The same can be
said about the revival of the Broadway musical Sideshow.
There is currently a wide array of what can be considered
sideshow. Someone should create a Facebook group that
embraces the whole spectrum of it.
Oh wait a
minute…I already did.
A few more
thoughts.........from Todd Robbins
It's the same discussion. I'm being told that a sideshow is
only found under canvas on a midway when in the past this
was not always true. So how is it different today when there
are troupes working in a traditional form but not under
canvas and somehow they can't be considered sideshows?
It depends upon the context of that club show. If it's a
full troupe that is presenting a sideshow performance then
they are sideshow performers. If it is a single act then it
is a sideshow act.
There are some tented shows with one or two people working.
There are some troupes that have a dozen performers embraced
the form and function that have been traditional found in
sideshows in the midway but are working indoors. Both are
sideshows. It's like the armed services. You don't have to
be at war to be in the military.
And there are many performers out there that would fit in
with a tented show even though the have not had that
And are even
better than many that are working under canvas.
If I called Ward
tomorrow and offered him a winter engagement in a club for
the entire World of Wonders troupe, you better believe that
they would still call it a sideshow...and it would be.
I have stated time and time again the I have a great deal of
respect for those that are keeping the tradition alive on
the road. It's just that I refuse to accept that wonderful
performers NOT on the road show be considered second class
thing that is important to me is that we understand the
difference between all the different kinds of show such as
10 in 1, String Shows, Circus Sideshows , Freak Shows, Back
End Shows, Single - 0s, Grind Shows, Museum Shows , Girl
Shows, Posing Shows, AT Shows, Jig Shows, Illusions Shows,
Motor Drones, Animal Shows and whatever the @$(# it is that
JS III has under canvas.
Many, many years ago I had a choice to make. There were
basically two 10-in-1 on the scene. I could got out on the
road with World of Wonders, or work Sideshows by the
Seashore. John Bradshaw had just left the show out in Coney
Island and Dick Zigun
needed some help. I have no qualms about tell everyone that
the life on the road was too much for me. It was for a
better man than me. I chose doing ballys, eating glass and
pitching the blow off for 8 hours a day, and being able to
sleep in my own bed at home.