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Monday, June 27, 2011

The World of Wonders Sideshow at the Northeast Fair

Six years ago I nearly got a chance to see a sideshow at the Bloomsburg Fair. It was the World of Wonders Sideshow, which I would later learn was the last of the great traveling carnival sideshows. I didn't get to see it - the outside talker, the legendary Ward Hall, went on and on, gathering an enormous crowd of onlookers, but it seemed like the show itself might never start, and my friends grew restless and decided to move on.

Last week I heard about the Northeast Fair coming to the area, setting up shop in an industrial park on the outskirts of Pittston, Pennsylvania. (Not far from one of the runways at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport at Avoca - that must have been something to see on final approach!) I scoured the papers for any hint of a sideshow, but found nothing. Finally I checked out The World of Wonders Facebook page - and found that they had just set up shop in Pittston, less than twenty miles from my house!

That was, I think, last Wednesday, and I spent a good deal of time since then trying to find someone to go with me to the Northeast Fair. I was ultimately unsuccessful in my quest, but decided to head out there by myself on Sunday, the last day of the fair. Unencumbered by anyone else, I was able to move according to my own whims and stay as long as I wanted. Naturally I made a beeline for the sideshow - wherever it might be.

Almost as soon as I paid my money walked through the main gate I spotted swordswallower-turned-photographer Lady Diane and her husband. I could have stopped her and asked her for directions, but I decided to follow my nose and wander around the grounds a bit. I walked past the Bar-B-Q stand and the stage for Boffo, the World's Strongest Clown, past the Ferris Wheel and the Green Monster, an enormous slide. I picked my way along a side route and there, across from the petting zoo, next to the camel rides, was the World of Wonders banner line.

Tommy Breen is the Outside Talker (known to rubes by the Hollywood term "Barker") - but right now he's just talking to Scott Saturn and swordswallower-turned-photographer Lady Diane  

I didn't know who was who or what was what at that point. I had expected my friend and fellow sideshow fan (and an actual scholar of the sideshow) Cris to be taking the tickets, but instead saw someone I didn't know (I would learn from living legend Harley Newman that this was Tommy Breen) in that spot. He wasn't doing any "Talking" at that moment - the pitch to the potential customers (affectionately referred to as "marks") trying to draw them into the sideshow tent is done by the "Outside Talker," known to those of us whose only familiarity with carnivals and sideshows came from TV and movies by the non-carnival term "barker" - but was instead talking to a person I would later learn was performer Scott Saturn and Lady Diane, a former swordswallower turned photographer who I had seen several times at the Sideshow Gathering. I took the opportunity to snap a few shots of the banner line.

Life is funny when you see it through the viewfinder of a camera; sometimes you don't see things which everyone else does, and sometimes you cause people to slow down and see things they might otherwise have missed. I don't know if that's what happened here, if maybe a few passers by had seen me taking photos and stopped to see what I was looking at, but soon Tommy Breen had started his bally, trying to turn the gathering crowd into paying customers. It worked.

The people line up to hand over their money and gain admission to what for many of them will probably be their first-ever sideshow

The people paid their money and entered the tent. There, along with the painted canvasses that are as much a part of sideshow tradition as anything else, they saw a collection of taxidermy exhibits and wax replicas of sideshow wonders from generations past - including a snake with an eerily familiar human face. (It was, Lady Diane told me, a replica of the head of Liza Minelli, covered in scales to match the body of the snake.)

Then, as we passed the tank containing two live snakes - including an albino python much, much smaller than the one Thrill Kill Jill dances with at the Sideshow Gathering - we came to the stage, where the act was already underway. And there on stage was my friend Cris, in costume, performing as Cris Monga, a.k.a. Electra!

Cris Monga. a.k.a. Electra, sits in the electric chair - and lights a torch with a spark from her fingertip

It was a true delight to see her, and she took a moment to smile and wave from the stage. She was performing as the Inside Talker, the M.C. of the sideshow, but also took a turn in the electric chair ("A replica of the very first electric chair, invented by Thomas Alva Edison, now on display at the Museum of  Crime and Punishment at the former Sing Sing Prison!"), where she made fluorescent tubes light with her touch and lit fuel-soaked torches with her fingertip.

Then it was her turn to get revenge on Scott Saturn, who had encouraged the gathered crowd to chant "Flip the switch!" as she sat in the chair, and she had him lie down on the bed of nails - and then sat on him. She then had him show his bare back to the audience, to show everyone the pattern of indentations left by the nails.

Cris Monga's revenge: making Scott Saturn demonstrate the Bed of Nails - showing his back to reveal the indentations

...and, of course, his tattoos, including a pony and Hello Kitty.

Close-up of Scott Saturn's tattoos

After that came the lovely Miss Sunshine, who walked up a blade ladder and then did some fire-eating - a favorite with the kids.

The lovely Miss Sunshine prepares to eat fire

Next up was a true legend of sideshow: John "Red" Lawrence Stuart, the world's oldest performing sword swallower, who has directly taught (as of last week) thirty-two performing swordswallowers, many of whom have gone on to teach students of their own, all of whom can trace their heritage to Red (who himself traces his heritage to the royal family of Mary Stuart.)

John "Red" Lawrence Stuart demonstrates sword swallowing with a Tai Chi sword

In addition to swallowing swords, Red performed the act known as the Human Blockhead, in which a nail or other object is driven deep into the nasal cavity. It is a relatively recent addition to the sideshow repertoire, developed in the mid-twentieth century by the legendary Melvin Burkhardt. First he inserted an extra-large nail, and then a screwdriver - because, he said, people had always told him he had a screw loose.

Red says his friends call him "Screwy Louie" - here with a nasally inserted screwdriver

Red has an enormous collections of things that he swallows - broadswords, car axles, and even a lightsaber!

The Force is strong with this one: Red swallows a lightsaber

After I stayed through several rotations (or "grinds") of the performance, I turned my attention to the audience. Both adults and children alternated looks of awe, dismay, and delight at what they saw. I don't think anyone walked away having not been entertained.

The audience was, at times, fascinated, aghast, and terrified by what they saw

Keep in mind: these are not tricks. They are not illusions. The bed of nails is a bed of nails. Cris really did light a torch with a spark from her fingertip. Sunshine really did "eat" the fire, closing her mouth around the flaming torch to snuff out the flame, at times even transferring flames (and fuel) to her tongue and her fingers. Red really did swallow swords - no roll-ups or fake blades here - and pound nails into his sinuses. These are all real acts, and dangerous ones at that: the bed of nails is relatively safe, and once you know how it's done, the "Human Blockhead" is as safe as, well, sticking something in your nose. But sword swallowing is dangerous - even trained professionals can and have been seriously injured doing it. And fire eating involves exposing the mucous membranes of your mouth and tongue to toxic, easily-absorbed fuel - fire eaters can only do the bit for so long before they have to take some time off to let their livers regenerate.

I stayed at the sideshow for hours. I had arrived in time to see the last performance before their dinner break, and so I got to hang out with John "Red" Lawrence Stuart backstage - which consisted of a hidden part of the tent containing a row of fold-up chairs, a small table, and, incongruously, a laptop computer with a WiFi connection. ("After five gigs of downloading in a month, they downgrade you to DSL speed," John grumbled - a sentence which probably would not have been uttered behind the scenes at a sideshow until fairly recently.) After Tommy Breen started his bally again, I went back through the main entrance and watched the acts perform over and over.

I was just about ready to leave and I got a semi-expected treat: there, in the crowd, was the legendary Harley Newman, who Red had hoped to see during his time in the area. Harley spotted me, and as the crowd made their way into the "Dr. Frankenstein" blow-off - an extra act with separate admission, not included in the price of the sideshow - we got a chance to speak. I then took my leave of the sideshow, my first sideshow ever, and started the long trek back to my car.

Leaving the Fair

And now The World of Wonders Sideshow has pulled up stakes and moved west, to a carnival just outside of Pittsburgh. After that they will be in Maryland, and then Ohio. I wish them safe travels, good crowds, fair weather, and hope to see them again someday!

3 comments:

dr.antony said...

I am still fascinated by these shows.But the attendance at these places is dwindling and many are getting closed down.People are more in to more interesting outings and the performers are vanishing too.

Todd HellsKitchen said...

Sideshows by the Seashore in Coney Island is apparently still going strong in the summer... Though I haven't heard that firsthand...

D.B. Echo said...

Yes it is, Todd! The World of Wonders folks just paid a visit there before coming to Northeastern Pennsylvania! God bless Dick Zigun for keeping that alive! And while we're at it, God bless your neighbor, Todd Robbins, for everything he does! (Have you been to see Play Dead yet? It will be closing down in a few weeks - hopefully just for a little break.)