Illusions play an important part in John Strong's sideshow.  The "Spider Woman" is one of his newer additions.



Sideshow Keeps Visitors Guessing


Inside the sideshow tent is a world of stories - the two Headed Woman who is modeled after a young Jaqueline Kennedy, a five-footed dog, a duck with a leg growing from its head.  They all have stories and John Strong knows them all.


Strong and his wife, Candy, co-own John Strong Show, a sideshow in the style of the classic 10-in-one shows that once crisscrossed the country in countless numbers.


Strong began in the sideshow at age 11, charging patrons of his father's circus a quarter to see a stuffed two-headed cow, the same that still occupies a spot in his show.

"I've had a show every week, nonstop since I was 11," says Strong, 55.


There's no vacations in this business.  That's fine with the Strong's and their crew of performers and roustabouts.


"My biggest thrill is when we go places and find something unusual to add to the menagerie", says Strong, seated on the stage inside his striped tent, before the fair go underway last week.


Behind him on the stage, a high-backed chair hides the swords Katya the Snow Leopardess swallows for patrons.  A bed of nails, a box used for the sword trick and a box used by the spider girl are set up on the stage that site about two feet off the ground.  There's just enough room between the stage and the small museum of oddities  to fit about 30 people.


The inside stage show is a continuous show.  Katya is known to perform onstage sometimes for 12-hour stretches, acting as performer and pitchman in one.


The world of the sideshow, like that of the circus, is often a family affair passed down through generations, but new recruits are welcome, Strong says.  The show, enticing patrons to part with their money to go inside - from his dad and later his stepfather.


The John Strong Show lately has become a presence at Coney Island with their Strange Girl Show and dime museum.


The show entices passerby to part with their money as they walk by the bannerline it catches their eye, with Strong's pitch in their ears, they fork over $2 and find themselves on the inside where they see wonders that amaze, disgust, perhaps even offend.


But the show is also family friendly.  Strong said he's careful to keep the traveling show safe for kids.


Strong's father wasn't a fan of young Strong's ambition to own a sideshow.  The circus was classic, family-friendly entertainment.  The sideshow was where the black sheep went, the outcasts.


But Strong wants more oddities than anyone else.  He's been amassing a collection of the weird for decades.


Katya ran away to join the sideshow, as they say.  She met Strong while taking a class to learn the sideshow arts in New York, and he later gave her a job in the Strange Girl Show.


Katya is one of the few female sword swallowers in the world.  But she also eats fire and walks on glass.


She's been in the sideshow full time for five years.


"I really wouldn't call it a job.  It's more like a life,:" she says. "You never know where you're going the next week or what's going to happen."


Strong calls Katya a "tremendous performer and pitchman."  On the stage during a show last weekend, she drew in a small crowd of about 12 with a relaxed, conversational act that combined sword swallowing with electricity.


The hot, dim tent lent itself to the oddities displayed there.


"Is the real?" one youngster asked his parents, pointing to the mummified body of a mermaid, staring at passersby from a glass case.


Blurring the lines between what is real and what is illusion has been the business of the sideshow for more than a century.


I like to make the impossible, possible, says Katya. "Lots of people don't believe the possible is possible."


Article by Briana Wipf - Tribune Staff Writer Aug. 1, 2014

Photos Kylie Richter - Tribune

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