The Sideshow.......Then And Now

   by Slim Price


Sideshows, or at least the exhibiting of freaks dates back at least to 1645.  In the United States though, the concept of a live ”Human Oddities and Curiosities” exhibit only predates P.T. Barnum’s shows by a few years.


The Pan-American Exhibition was probably the birth of the sideshows as they were known during my time. Social construction? Hmmm... The freaks were the stars, the made-freaks like myself, and the hired help were all pretty much one family. There was no need for a social structure, because each of us respected one another. The owner/boss/Manager was father, and everyone else truly was a closely-knit family.


We all protected and cared for and about each other within the sideshow “community” and only slightly separated ourselves from the “townies". If there was any sort of “social ranking” I was never aware of it. Of course, the “true freaks” got a bigger paycheck with more money going to the bigger draws. Any perks we might have had were not related to any kind of ranking.


It’s really kind of hard to give an outsider an awareness of just how we were except that each show was a family group where everyone was equal.  Other shows traveling in the same venue were sort of looked upon as our “cousins” and still considered to be our equals. Within that, of course there were mad and happy times just the same as any family group. The “made-freaks” and working acts were just fills to bring the show up to size.  More or less ten acts in one show, hence the term “ten-in-one.”


I was a little more versatile than some and learned several of the “arts.”  I performed Sword Swallowing, Fire Eating, Snake-Handling, Human Dynamo, Human Pincushion, Talker, Grinder, Magician, etc.  Basically whatever fell short of being a physical oddity. All this meant was that wherever some filler was needed, I got pointed at! <grin> In fact I might have appeared more than once in the same show.


Enough about that though. Back to my feeble attempt to build a picture. I don’t think the way a sideshow is displayed has changed all that much from the beginning.  An act got on stage, completed their performance, got off the stage and the next act appeared. What has changed is the premise. The modern shows seem to feel that shock is required.  It seems as though if it doesn’t make you throw up, it wasn’t a good show. That saddens me greatly.


The old performers truly brought with themselves dignity and often humor. I guess the modern shows need to compete with Acid Rock to get an audience and that is sad. There are still “freaks” born, but now they are shamed, hidden, taught that they are handicapped and put on the dole. The “Old Timers” were proud people who made their own living and were a fiercely independent bunch of souls. All in all I think we have lost a very special part of our culture to the “politically correct” movement.


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