The Freakless Sideshow

 

Ballied live on stage …by Lee Kolozsy

 

THE SIDESHOW IS THE LAST EXTENSION OF VAUDEVILLE…

In the early 1970s, there were noticeably fewer sideshows on the road. World’s Fair Freaks and Attractions was the biggest outfit at the time. Fielding multiple units, which hopscotched around the country, they covered a lot of territory, and had the best people under contract. Ward and Chris were the masterminds behind the syndicate. Other outfits included the Walter Wanous family, the Kelly and Sutton Sideshow, Sam Alexander, Peter G. Hennen, and only a handful of others. Big Bertha[1] had eliminated the sideshow everywhere but the basement of the garden[2]. The only touring circus under canvas then with a full time sideshow was the Beatty Show, and there were no freaks, only working acts, all performers from the big top, doubling in the sideshow.

 

THE FREAKS WERE THE PROBLEM…

There weren’t enough of them. Changing social conditions, old age, and the deaths of many bona-fide sideshow feature acts had left promoters with no alternative but to close up shop for lack of attractions.

 

THIS LEFT A VOID WHICH CREATED A GREAT OPPORTUNITY…

My Dad saw an opening and jumped right in, dragging the rest of us with him. I have mentioned in previous articles that he was a great illusionist, a master prop builder, and an outstanding Showman. He was well aware of the money potential at the right fairs, not to mention that the conditions created perfect deal making opportunities.

 

THE FAMILY FREAKSHOW…

A decade before, my Dad had created a family circus with only three people performing ten acts. He had a knack for organization, and a penchant for tackling the apparently impossible. This time, he outdid himself. He created a trailerized sideshow with an eighty-foot aluminum panel folding showfront with painted on artwork reminiscent of a bannerline, with each banner surrounded by chasing lights. A folding bally stage under a theater style marquee complete with chasing lights, in the center of all this scenic art was another innovation. A larger folding stage on the backside of the trailer show was the performance area. There was no tent. The stage was under a canvas canopy and  surrounded by a canvas sidewalled enclosure reminiscent of the Wild West shows of a century before.

 

IT WAS BILLED AS  “THE GREATEST HOAX ON EARTH”…

Right on the faces of the twin pulpit style ticket boxes, complete with the globe logo symbol made famous by the Wait brothers[3], was the disclaimer that no one ever saw. The traditional freaks and working acts of the sideshow had been replaced with similar clever illusions that simulated freaks and were billed in a confusing manner so as to be easily mistaken for a freak show. We built an illusion to cover every banner.

 

ILLUSION MEANS HOAX, HUMBUG, AND CHICANERY…

Our kind friend, Jack Waller, jumped in and worked fire and ballied long enough to teach my brother fire eating, and taught me the arts of the bally and the inside pitches. My Mom and Dad performed the bulk of the show, and with a couple of bally beauties, the cast was complete. The acts performed were billed, bannered, and ballied as follows…

 

METAMORPHOSIS…

“HALF AND HALF, IS IT A MAN?  IS IT A WOMAN? WHO CAN TELL? FIRST IT’S ONE, THEN THE OTHER”…

This was my parents performing the fastest sub trunk in the history of magic. Ask anyone who’s seen it. As acrobats and flyers, they had the physical ability, and as an expert prop builder, my Dad created the perfect cabinet, tuned up like a racecar, and tailored to fit their needs.

 

THE HINDU MYSTIC…

“FEELS NO PAIN… FEARS NO WOUNDS…SURVIVES ON A DIET OF RAZORBLADES…NOT FOR THE WEAK OF HEART”…

Yours truly, performing the Houdini threaded needle gag (and often I did) with a sharp new edge to the presentation. [4]

 

THE DISEMBODIED LADY…

“WILL ALLOW NOT ONE, NOT TWO OR THREE, NOT THREE OR FOUR, BUT OVER A DOZEN, RAZOR SHARP SWORDS, SABRES, AND BAYONETS, TO BE INSERTED, INTO THE MOST DELICATE PARTS OF HER BODY”…

A bally beauty in the blade box…

 

THE HALF GIRL…

“NOT WHOLE BUT HALF, COULD YOU LIVE AS ONLY HALF A PERSON?”…

Was the sawing a woman in half illusion…

 

THE MYSTERIOUS CABINET OF PROF. LASZLO…

“WHERE A BEAUTIFUL YOUNG LADY CROSSES OVER TO THE PHANTOM WORLD, AND ACTUALLY DISAPPEARS AS VAPOR BEFORE YOUR VERY EYES”…

An upright vanishing effect cabinet…

 

THE LIVING DISCONNECTED HEAD…

“ NOT QUITE HUMAN, FROM THE REALM OF THEINHUMAN, AND THE UNDEAD, NOT FOR THOSE WHO FEAR NIGHTMARES”…

Was the family pet, as the bodiless head. Even the dog got into the act…

THE MYSTERIOUS MIND READING MENTALIST…

 

“DOES THE SPIRIT WORLD HAVE A SECRET MESSAGE FOR YOU?”

A terrific mentalism routine from my parents night club show…

 

INFERNO THE INFERNAL…

“MASTER OF THE FIRES OF HADES”…

My little brother, who thirty five years later is still setting the audience aflame and burning up territory for shows everywhere[5]

 

THE ESCAPE KING…

“STRAPPED INTO A REGULATION STRAIGHTJACKET, BY A COMMITTEE OF VOLUNTEERS, SHACKLED AND MANACLED, HOISTED HIGH INTO THE SKY, AND DANGLING UPSIDE DOWN FROM A BURNING ROPE, WITH ONLY MINUTES TO ESCAPE BEFORE THE ROPE BURNS THROUGH, OR PLUMMET TO HIS DEATH”…

They tried and tried to kill me, but I outsmarted them every time…

 

I’M STILL HERE…

SADLY, THE SHOW IS GONE[6]

It appeared for a few seasons along the routes of carnivals that also have become only memories…

 

Gooding’s Million Dollar Midway… The Thomas’ Joyland Shows… Deggeler’s Magic Midway… Bobby Cohn’s West Coast Shows… The Buck-Page Exposition… Rocky Dell’s Great American Shows… Johnny’s United Shows…  The David B. Endy Shows… Dell and Travers Shows… The William T. Collins Shows… and others I shall forever miss.


[1] “Big Bertha” Ringling Bros.& Barnum and Bailey Circus. Origins have to do with the Pullman berths on the train.

[2] Madison Square Garden in New York City.

[3] “Wait bros.” Ringling Bros.& Barnum and Bailey Circus. Origins have to do with the advance paper, which said “Wait for the Big One”

[4] I intend to write an article on the “Gillette Diet”.

[5] I hate to follow him, as he can’t be topped. He must close the show because when he’s done, the audience is disabled. With his midway shows, other showmen, if they’re wise, see him setting up, and look for a different spot.

[6] I was told that a photo of this classic showfront was published in a carnival fan magazine a number of years ago, but I have had no success in digging up an issue.

 

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