Gasps for Guillotine Trick as
Sideshow Wows County Fair Crowds
Tommy Breen tilts his head back and
swallows nearly 2 feet of sword. A fairgoer gingerly pulls it out. Inside the
tent, John “Red” Stuart uses a microphone to hammer a huge nail into his head —
through a nostril.
World of Wonders Sideshow
at the San Diego County Fair is just
warming up at lunchtime Wednesday.
A woman in her 20s, stage-named Miss
Spooky, rests her head under a guillotine. Sir Kade, a young emcee from
Camarillo, acts as executioner and rabble-rouser — inciting a couple dozen
people to chant: “Off with her head!”
And so falls the guillotine, cleanly
slicing Miss Spooky in two — amid gasps of the audience.
But not to worry! Her head soon is
resting comfortably on a nearby chair, being interviewed by Joshua (Sir Kade),
who wouldn’t give his last name. But Miss Spooky left a lasting impression —
finally appearing again with her body reattached.
The most amazing thing of all?
Over the course of the fair, Miss
Spooky’s head will roll hundreds of times. The troupe of more than a dozen
performs about every half-hour — more than two dozen times a day.
Based in Gibsonton, Florida, Worlds of Wonder is
the oldest traveling sideshow in the world, according to John Robinson of
“I think that curiosity still sells,” Robinson
says. “The old folks who grew up with the sideshows still love to go and see
them. The young people just love everything about them. There are not as many
traveling today. A lot of performers do clubs. The
Beach Freak Show and other
venues are very popular today.”
But unlike the days of PT Barnum and
Joseph “Elephant Man” Merrick,
freaks are not featured in the current WoW show. It’s had midgets and dancing
fat men in the past. But no deformed humans this time.
“Some of our acts would be right at
home in Barnum’s show, and others would have been totally unheard of,” says
Breen, the show manager. “Some of Barnum’s acts would be considered boring to
today’s crowd, but the spirit and the goal of the show is the same.”
WoW is an entertaining mix of skill,
illusions and a fair amount of corny humor — with typical hyperbole from the
“Have you ever seen a sideshow before?” Breen
tells a gathering crowd in the
area of the track infield. “Today’s your lucky day!”
Breen boasts of having a Big Foot,
which he also cutely calls “the Abdominal Snowman.”
“Make up your own mind inside,” he
says. “We’re still waiting on testing of hair samples.”
Breen also declares that WoW is the
first sideshow at the Del Mar fair in 35 years — based apparently on what
fairgoers have told him. But fair spokeswoman Linda Zweig can’t confirm that a
sideshow last appeared here in 1979.
“I don’t have any facts to back that
up,” she told Times of San Diego.
For $3, fairgoers enter a tent
bathed in red-orange light. No seating. Just a long, narrow stage where a
kilt-wearing Stuart, 63, becomes the Human Blockhead.
In truth, Stuart is a legend. He’s a member of
Sword Swallower’s Hall of Fame,
with many records to his name.
Ward “King of the Sideshow” Hall — whose
biography was released
in June — is the 84-year-old owner of the
show along with C.M. “Chris” Christ. Christ was in San Diego for the first visit
of Worlds of Wonder to Del Mar but not Hall, Breen said.
“It’s been many years since a
sideshow of [this] size and type has been in Southern California,” said sideshow
expert Robinson. “You have Single O’s, Pit Shows, world’s largest this and that.
But not a show like the Worlds of Wonder.”
that, you might
— the animal-rights group.
In late March, Have Trunk Will
Travel — the Riverside company that’s provided elephant rides at the fair for
decades — announced it wouldn’t return in 2014.
U-T San Diego reported
that the owners denied animal-rights protests led to the abrupt pullout.
“It is always a big logistical
challenge to balance the needs of our elephants, their human caretakers and all
the other breeding, research and business factors involved,” said owners Kari
and Gary Johnson.
So when WoW applied for a spot in
the fair, it was given the nod.
“Yes, it was a late addition,” Zweig
said. “Given the size [of the sideshow tent and adjacent support vehicles], the
former home of HTWT was the only space big enough to accommodate them.”
Breen, 33, has been with the show 10
years. He calls WOW “the only true traveling 10-in-1 sideshow left,” and its
visit here is the first in the company’s 64-year history.
“WoW travels all over the country,
but this is our first time in California,” he said. “We played the Florida State
Fair, then had a winter hiatus, and made our way out to California. We played
the San Bernardino National Orange Show. … After this, we have several more
California fairs for a few months, and then may start to venture back East.”
Although WoW has not been at the San
Diego County Fair before, he said, “We’ve gotten quite a few customers come up
and thank us for playing the fair! A bunch of people have come up to talk to us
about how they saw the sideshow here 35 years ago when they were kids, and
always remembered it.
“And now [that] the World of Wonders
is here they took their family in with them to share the experience. I think
that’s pretty neat.”
Breen has no tally on how many
people have visited the sideshow, “but the response has been very positive.
Every fair is different, which is why I enjoy traveling with the show.”
In an age of Internet freaks and
geeks, how does a sideshow make a comeback?
“I think that people just have not
had any experience with them in a long time,” Breen said. “If you’ve never seen
a sideshow before, then your only basis on what it’s like is from a horror movie
or a comedy skit on TV. I think there is a spark of interest every few years or
so when a new film, play, TV show, etc., comes out with some sideshow roots.”
He points to
Jim Rose’s Lollapallooza
sideshow in the early 1990s and
sideshow stunts on his magic specials in early 2000s.
“Pop culture is constantly recycling
the sideshow,” Breen says, “and so there are waves of interest. For a form of
entertainment that goes back at least to the 1800s, it hasn’t ever disappeared.”
The Smithsonian Institution has
called such shows an indigenous American art form, Breen says.
Why the continued interest?
“It’s in our nature to be curious
about what’s out there in the world — what’s happening beyond our reach,” Breen
said via email. “It’s how we grow, we WANT to know what’s over the horizon, we
WANT to know what’s possible, and when we see something different then ourselves
and different from our experiences, its how we grow as people.
“To see someone swallow a sword is
something that before that point you KNEW wasn’t possible. When you see Red
swallow a car axle at the World of Wonders show, it changes your perception of
WoW’s summer season usually lasts
from June to November, and it has a shorter winter season of February-April.
WoW’s Facebook page,
a post boasted that on June 28, “the World
of Wonders had the fanciest dressed audience we’ve probably ever had! The San
Diego Steampunks came to the fair, and they all came in at once and loved the
show. What a great audience.”
With a Twitter handle of
Breen and others have moved the sideshow into the 21st century.
Fair spokeswoman Zweig said WoW came
with “excellent recommendations from another fair. Additionally, it was clear in
speaking with C.M. he was professional and understood the fair’s needs. This is
NOT a freak show.”
She’s seen the show herself.
“How do they do that!?” she said
days before Sunday’s finale. “They are great, very talented and nice NICE
people. One big family! … The entertainers are very professional and
approachable and interact well with the audience.
WoW is on a single-year contract,
she says. But will it return in 2015?
“Hard to say,” she says. But: “We
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