CANTON, Ohio - Most every summer for the past three decades, Tim Deremer has carried on a not-so-secret fling with “Princess Gabora, the Gorilla Girl.” After all, he’s the one who created, nurtured and made her into what she is today.
He’s ashamed and proud.
You see, Gabora is a carnival sideshow. Shows like it mostly have gone the way of Hula Hoops, lava lamps and sea monkeys.
“It’s kind of a dying thing,” Deremer said.
In a 16-foot trailer and camper, Deremer – also a magician – hit the road this month, with a first stop at the Cuyahoga County Fair. He moved to a fair in Lorain County this week, before he heads to Geauga County, then the Virginia State Fair next month.
If you have a weak heart …
In the shadow of a Ferris wheel, amid greasy odors of funnel cakes and fresh-cut malt vinegar fries, his sideshow sat beneath a sprawling birch tree. The entire show is contained in the rear of a trailer and can be viewed only from inside a tent.
From the asphalt path that snakes through the Berea fairgrounds, the Princess Gabora sideshow is like a car wreck. You don’t want to look. But you have to look. You don’t want to listen. But you can’t help but hear.
A 50-foot-long, two-story metal framework, plastered with signs that would make P.T. Barnum proud, entice customers:
“Was Darwin right?”
“See her change before your eyes from a beautiful girl into a terrifying gorilla”
The ultimate teaser: “Warning! If you have a weak heart, are an expectant mother, or are easily frightened, do not experience Gabora!”
Loudspeakers broadcast a looped tape. Over and over. Complete with jungle background noises. From noon until 11 p.m. Marines in the booth across the path have heard it so many times, they know it by heart. “Was Darwin right ... see her teeth become fangs.” The voice is familiar in northeast Ohio.
Deremer said he paid Howie Chizek $30 to make the tape, before Chizek turned into a talk radio icon in Ohio.
A Different Era
Show-watchers react in one of three ways.
They smile and laugh. They walk away mumbling, “It’s fake.” Or they run away in fear.
The 58-year-old Deremer wears a Mickey Mouse watch. He performs comedy magic at birthday parties and corporate events in the autumn and winter. Balding, with a dark beard and mustache, the summer sideshow circuit isn’t as fun as it was in his younger days, when he could hire college kids eager to work, not leftovers no one else would employ.
“The stories, you wouldn’t believe them,” he said.
Through the years, Deremer ran other shows alongside Gabora. Fire-eaters and sword swallowers. A six-legged cow named Barney and 558-pound man nicknamed “Big Billy Pork Chop,” who died in 1990 at the Ohio State Fair.
“Those things aren’t politically correct anymore,” Deremer said.
That, combined with age and a kidney replacement in 2001, have slowed him.
Not enough to retire Gabora, though. After seeing a headless woman show at the Ohio State Fair, Deremer and a friend from Kent State University built the Gabora show in the 1970s.
To the audience, it appears that a beautiful woman slowly transforms into a gorilla. Of course, it’s all a trick, an illusion. A take-off on a centuries-old classic known as a Blue Room or Pepper’s Ghost. For critics who claim every illusion is done with mirrors, they’d be close in explaining this. Without revealing too many secrets, it’s accomplished with a pane of glass, two performers and Deremer as the “talker,” leading an audience through the illusion while guiding his two actors with subtle cues embedded in his story.
The People Behind the Ape
Dozens of women and men have played the roles of Princess Gabora and the gorilla. At this stop, Deremer recruited Janet Swisher for Gabora. She’s a 5-foot-3, 115-pound laid-off dental assistant.
The gorilla is Sterling Taylor, who met Deremer at the Virginia fair three years ago while seeking a job.
“As long as the audience runs, I’m doing my job,” Taylor said.
Gabora is a “grind” show. There are no set show times. The signs, speakers and ticket-taker combine to grind fair-goers all day. When a handful of people have bought tickets, or if someone has waited longer than 15 minutes or so, Deremer puts on a show.
He and the actors pass time playing cards behind the show tent, or he kicks back in his air-conditioned camper, waiting for a knock on the door from his ticket-taker. A fan of magic and student of the history of sideshows, Deremer keeps snapshots of himself with the likes of Lance Burton, David Copperfield and Penn and Teller.
“It’s all I’ve ever done; I’ve never really worked for anyone but myself,” he said.
He’s lost count of how many times he’s performed the Gabora illusion but remembers celebrities who’ve seen it over the years: musicians such as Teddy Pendergrass, Ted Nugent, members of Journey and Steppenwolf and comedian Jerry Van Dyke.
Business was so slow on one Wednesday in early August that he had to put on a show for an audience of one. A middle-aged man in khaki shorts and a Cleveland Browns hat. The guy stood poker-faced from beginning to end.
A woman and four elementary-school-age children filed into the big green tent later that afternoon. Microphone in hand, Deremer started to sell the upcoming illusion. The crowd shuffled on the grass behind a pair of crowd control ropes. Their eyes glued to the trailer “stage” in front of the tent, just beyond Deremer.
Bellowing and gesturing toward the stage curtain, he hyped the main attraction.
“She was captured 18 months ago in Nairobi, South Africa ... the daughter of a scientist or missionary ... believed to have been subjected to cruel experiments.”
Never mind that Nairobi isn’t in South Africa.
Deremer knows that. Still, he said, it sounds better, more mysterious.
He explained that Princess Gabora was under a trance. He’s in complete control of her when she’s in that state. The curtain slowly drew open, to reveal Gabora in back of a cage, clad only in a leopard-skin cavewoman dress.
“Wave to the people, Gabora,” he said.
“Pay close attention to her face.”
“You’ll actually see her face begin to transform ...”
The audience stared.
“I want you to think back 25,000 years Princess, back, back.”
“Think fangs instead of teeth.”
“Think back, Princess.”
“Gorilla, gorilla, gorilla, gorilla, gorilla,” he urged in rapid-fire succession, like an auctioneer trying to squeeze an extra dollar.
On the Loose
In less than a minute, she’d changed into a gorilla. Deremer woke the beast from the trance but warned her to remain in the back of the cage. The gorilla stumbled around, visible to the crowd through the three cage door bars.
He flipped a switch near the microphone, so the audience could hear the gorilla breathe.
“Grrrr ... Grrrr.”
The gorilla fumbled around the cage.
“What’s wrong, Gabora? Gabora, what’s wrong!?”
“Get in the back of the cage,” Deremer frantically ordered.
The gorilla grabbed the cage bars.
The woman in the audience smiled. Two children stepped back a few paces.
With a mighty shove, the gorilla pushed the cage door open.
One boy, about 10, darted out of the tent, before the cage slammed to the stage floor.
“Exit carefully and exit quickly,” Deremer instructed the remaining four.
They walked out to tease the terrified boy who made an early exit. The actors regrouped behind the tent. And loudspeakers continued to grind away for the next show:
“Was Darwin right? See her change before your very eyes.”