The Thrill You Get When They Canít Believe Their Eyes


by Liana Kerzner


Hi, my name is Liana, and I manage a sideshow.

Those words, reminiscent of an AA greeting, have come out of my mouth numerous times, because of my association with Carnival Diablo: ďCanadaís Premiere Travelling Circus SideshowĒ.  Iím always a little awkward when I say them, because the idea of managing a sideshow is ridiculous to me.  Sideshows donít have managers.  They have Patches.  They have Talkers.  ďManagerĒ is just too mainstream a word.

But if I said ďPatchĒ, people wouldnít understand what I was talking about.  And Iím not a Patch.  I donít bribe local authorities.  Instead I bribe local media.  I suppose Iím more like a director of marketing, but that sounds obscenely corporate, as does ďinvestorĒ and ďsponsorĒ; so ďmanagerĒ is my title for now.


The most ridiculous thing is that I donít ďmanageĒ a damned thing.  Managing a Sideshow is like trying to herd cats.  Iím not a Freak or a Marvel, so, in the established hierarchy of Sideshow, I really donít have the right to insist on any show detail or career direction.  All I can do is make suggestions, and only 30% of those are followed.  Even though Iíve officially been with the Sideshow for seven months -- and Iíve been around unofficially for years -- as of Christmas I was still being referred to as a First of May.  Iíve invested over $21,000 of my own money in attractions, but, since I donít have a traditional role, Iím still only half ĎWith Ití.  Still a First of May.


Some manager I am.


To add another layer of silliness, I manage the show as a side project.  My Ďday jobí is in television.  Iím the co-host of an internationally syndicated late-night show which wins its timeslot here in Canada.  In the pecking order of mainstream media, Iím up there, but with the Sideshow, I have to defer to people who barely register on the television radar.  Not that Iím complaining, mind you: I think the mainstream system sucks.

I just recognize the absurdity of it all.  Sideshow is going through a slow and painful metamorphosis right now, and no one knows what parts of the old time shows are going to remain and what parts are going to be abandoned for the sake of survival, so weíre doing what we can to save as much as we can.  Iíd love to do a traditional tent show Ten-In-One.  I really would.  But we tried to do a grind show this summer and the performers were almost fainting from the heat.  In a country like Canada, which is a climate of extremes, Sideshow has to move indoors.  No one is going to pay to watch a fire show in the middle of July in a swelteringly hot tent.  They will, however, come to see a show in a building, just for the air-conditioning.


But with the move indoors comes insurance and fees and numerous other stumbling blocks.  Many venues wonít let you do fire acts, because their insurance doesnít cover it.  Some municipalities have banned exotic animals, so the snake charmer act is out.  So two of the biggest traditional Bally draws are out.  We have to find new ways to draw a Tip.


And audiences overall have just become more timid.  Theyíre so used to the safe, fake thrills of blockbuster movies that they donít know how to handle the real thing: the sword swallower, the impaler. . . any of the fakir feats are dismissed as trickery of some kind.  Yes, there is an element of trickery to every Sideshow feat.  If there wasnít a Ďtrickí to it, everyone could do it.  But sometimes the gaffe is as unpleasant as the impossibility itís aping, and sometimes its not so much a Ďtrickí as technique.  Just as the arcane knowledge of the Masons was likely just geometry and architecture, the know-how of the Sideshow is how to make the impossible seem possible.

And that, I think, is the basic principle that makes Sideshow what it is, and is the thing that will endure even as the details evolve.  Thatís the magic: that thrill people get when they canít believe their eyes.  Even when theyíre insisting that itís fake, part of them believes, and they canít handle that all at once.  That will live on.


Even in the mess of tacky, modern touches like managers.  Gah.

Fortunately, this little oddities show Iím with seems to have some teeth.  Carnival Diablo is entering its thirteenth year of touring, and it seems to have found a niche in both the college and carnival circuits.  Following modern business practices of diversified holdings and branding, the show seems to be building strength, and after thirteen years with no major changes to the product, thatís pretty amazing.   When promoters have the guts to put on the show, audiences get it.  Itís getting them out thatís the biggest challenge.  There are still those that want to experience a world outside of their televisions.  The internet has actually helped a lot, which is a strange but wonderful mix of old and new.

And some day, there will be a proper name for people like me, because there will be more people like me.  Hopefully itís a name that doesnít make me feel quite so silly.


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