Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sideshow history

A few months ago the legendary (but very real) Todd Robbins created a Facebook group called Sideshow Spectrum. It's an invitation-only group, but any member can invite anyone into the group. The idea was that it would bring together the entire spectrum of the Sideshow world, from veterans and old showmen to current performers, up-and-comers, rookies, historians, fans, and even the merely Sideshow-curious. It's a fun place to be, with all the infighting, recriminations, and general chaos of a big, dysfunctional family getting together for Thanksgiving dinner. Sometimes it's an amazing resource to have access to, like when a friend accidentally swallowed a piece of glass last week (she found the glass bowl from which she was eating fruit had started to chip apart) and was wondering how worried she should be. I immediately took the issue up with a group of people who eat glass on a regular basis, and was able to get expert advice. (She was fine.)

Yesterday someone posted this to the group:

hoping someone can help....i want to learn more about the history of sideshow....can anyone suggest where to start.

Now, instead of the usual response (which would be to club him with a tent peg, take his wallet, shoes, and pants, and dump him somewhere in the next county), people actually supplied useful information. Even I was able to suggest a couple of resources, the things where I first learned about Sideshow, and some that I've come to know though my association with performers.

The top response is John Robinson's Sideshow World ( The motto there is "Preserving the Past, Promoting the Future" - with a third item thrown in, "Enjoying the Present." Past, present, and future are all covered in the articles and interviews that appear with an alarming frequency, sometimes several times a day.  John and his staff  put a lot into this site, and you will get a lot out of it. You can easily get lost for many, many hours on this site, and they would all be hours well-spent.

Another response is James Taylor's Shocked and Amazed ( This site serves to promote the irregularly-produced Shocked and Amazed! On and Off the Midway  periodical - a book-length magazine that contains long articles covering every aspect of past and present sideshow. James is a historian, curator, and archivist (and not to be confused with a certain mellow music maker of the same name), and he and his staff gather information from far and wide for each edition. The next one is coming out soon, back issues of many of the previous ones are available, and rumors abound of a second "best of" compilation. (The first is, I believe, out of stock.)

Here's a nearly hour-long documentary based on Shocked and Amazed! from 2003, featuring many amazing performers who are still active a decade later:

Another suggestion is to simply connect with the giants, the living legends, the walking repositories of history. Folks like John "Red" Lawrence Stuart, Ward Hall, and the great Todd Robbins. I have only seen and heard Ward from a distance, I have been in touch with Todd online and was his designated "...that guy over there" at last year's Sideshow Gathering (as in "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,  and that guy over there"), but I have had the privilege of sitting down and talking with Red for a good long while behind the scenes at the first (and so far, only) sideshow I have attended, the World of Wonders at the Northeast Fair in Pittston, PA in 2011. I showed up just before they broke for lunch, and Red was watching the set while everyone else went to eat, so we got to sit and talk about all sorts of things - including how some wireless high-speed internet companies will slow you down to DSL download speeds once you exceed a certain monthly limit. (At least, I think that's what Red said! I wasn't following all the technical details.)

One other suggestion was to get a job with a sideshow. While this might not educate you in the history of the sideshow, aside from what you can pick up there or learn from the crew, it will certainly immerse you in the here-and-now of sideshow. As one participant in the discussion said, "You know how to get a job at a carnival? Just ask." Unfortunately, sideshows these days are few and far between, and you have to know when they're at a carnival or fair, because they're often not advertised.

I had some suggestions of my own. One is the excellent book American Sideshow by Marc Hartzman. This book is not just a history of sideshow in America, but was also my introduction to many of the sideshow performers I would later meet through the Sideshow Gathering, and my introduction to the Sideshow Gathering itself. (Actually I had heard of the Gathering years before, but had heard the whole affair advertised as more a sort of side-show to a tattoo convention - which, in fact, it is.)

Another fine book I recommended is the regrettably out-of-print Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women by Ricky Jay. This is an excellent history of sideshow and other performers from decades and centuries past.

Todd Robbins himself has a great blog that covers a lot of sideshow history. Confessions of a Glass Eater ( has not been updated in several years, but rest assured that Todd is as active as ever.

If you have not seen Tod Browning's "Freaks", you should, just for the sheer number of historically significant performers who appear in it. Plus it's an amazing film. The "One of us!" scene is required watching for anyone interested in sideshow. Here's the film in its entirety:

Then there is, of course, the Sideshow Gathering itself. In that place you can meet dozens of current performers, veterans, historians, and fellow fans. You'll have access to countless historical references and artifacts, many available for sale or for bid at auction. The death of founder and driving force Franco Kossa back in 2011 and the effects of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 (which resulted in extensive damage to the sideshow Mecca, Coney Island, and caused numerous guests and exhibitors to cancel their plans) were tremendous setbacks to the Gathering. Will there be another Gathering in 2013, or has it, too, passed into sideshow history? That remains to be seen.

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