Ward Hall: King of the Sideshows
by James Taylor
(originally appeared in Shocked & Amazed Vol. 1, July, 1995)
If you want to climb the highest mountain, you go to Mt. Everest. If you want to talk to the King of the Sideshows, you talk to Ward Hall. Around longer than virtually anybody in the business, involved in just about every aspect of it as well (and in a lot of attempts to break the barriers between sideshow and mainstream venues), it’s little wonder that his name ends up on every showman’s and performer’s lips if you talk to them long enough. Grind shows? “You talked to Ward Hall?” Freak shows? “You oughtta talk to Ward Hall.” Sideshow history? “Ward Hall was on ‘Nightline’ for that. You seen him yet?”
When I first spoke to him, it was by phone, at the start of my work on SHOCKED AND AMAZED. During our brief conversation to set up an interview, he pretty much told me that sideshows, especially freak shows, were a thing of the past and that I should be writing my book in a library somewhere. Knowing this was not the way to start my book, I told him I’d like to see and talk to him anyway. I suppose that at that point, I sounded to him like every other nit wit writer who ever thought he’d spook his editor with some Halloween or July 4th tomfoolery.
The Florida Citrus Festival and Polk County Fair in Winterhaven, Florida, where I met Ward in person, was another matter entirely. The World of Wonders show was there, as Hall had said his show would be, in all its glory, a massive banner line across its face as in the days he’d told me were long gone. And if it harked back to an era now past, at least it did so with the flash you’d expect. Ward Hall or some other “professor” wasn’t working the front, out on the bally platform giving the gathering crowd the spiel, tossing them some morsel from one of the performers (maybe a quick sword swallow, a blast from the fire breather at twilight), getting ready at just the right moment to go from their bally to the grind and, thereby, turn the tip. There was, though, a mysterious figure, its head covered in a black cloth bag, sitting out front, a silent lure to the passing fair goers to step right up. And of course “Little Pete” Terhurne, the dwarf performer who’s been with Hall four decades, a performer who’s nearly a 10-in-1 all by himself, Little Pete was acting as ticket seller.
The days of multi-act, multi-performer shows at nearly every carnival, the old 10-in-1 shows, may be gone. Certainly, Ward Hall thinks they are, killed as much as anything by the economics of the carnival and fair lots themselves. As he told me over the phone that first time we spoke, he wasn’t mounting the huge shows with massive overhead he used to put together. His current show is more of a museum, which is how he has the World of Wonders billed on the banner line, an outrageous mix of gaffed and for-real taxidermied freak animals, Egyptian giantesses, wax museum figures, live pythons. He told me that at least with a museum he didn’t have to pay the mannequins. Truth be known, Ward and his long-time partner in the business, Chris Christ, still had the show on the road and still have some performers working the World of Wonders in the ’94 season in spite of the difficulties.
When I first talked with him at length, Hall’s stories of the business started where many a discussion with showmen and performers starts, how you just can’t win. I don’t remember whether I asked him how his current show was going or what, but he cut real quick to 1977 and the the Lake County Fair in Illinois when he played the spot with a pickled punk show, a common carnival show over the years, a display of fetuses in jars. He told me he’d played that spot numerous times without incident, but politics was to change that.
WH: It was 1977, playing the Lake County Fair [in Illinois], which I played numerous times and they had a new law that was going into effect eliminating the job of county coroner and replacing them with medical examiners. The fellow who had been the county coroner for 20 some years was going to lose his job, so he was going to run for sheriff. And he needed something to get him publicity so they came down down and raided the freak baby show and arrested my partner [Chris Christ]. The charge was illegal transportation of human remains. The idea is that you can’t just go out and pick up a dead body and take it around unless you’re a mortician. [The county coroner] wanted to get publicity, [but] he didn’t know how much publicity he was going to get out of it and neither did we. It was a little local thing, [but] all of a sudden it hit the wire services, so it went all across the country. I had that show the year before at the Ohio State Fair [in Columbus]. I had had it at the Illinois State Fair…
JT: And nobody said anything about it?
WH: No. Had it all over the country. Big fairs. Now, all of a sudden, the newspapers are calling the fair board in Columbus [for example, asking], “Was this the same show you had last year?” “Well, we think it probably is.” “Well, is it coming back?” “Well, we don’t think so.” Now I had it booked [in Columbus] but then they called me and they said [they] were just afraid of unwanted bad publicity so please don’t bring it in so I didn’t. Now, at one point in this procedure, we could’ve pled guilty and paid a hundred dollar fine and the whole thing would be forgotten, but we weren’t guilty of doing anything wrong and we weren’t about to have that record of guilt. So we fought it. And it cost us a lot of money because it took several trips back there and it went to court. Now, we had had [the show] at the Illinois State Fair and other fairs in Illinois. The original freak baby show, or as they call them in the business, pickled punk shows, was in 1933-34 Chicago World’s Exposition. A guy by the name of Lou Dufour had it. One of the biggest exhibits of freak unborn babies is at the Soldiers and Sailors Museum is Chicago, and at the moment we were exhibiting in Lake County, the King Tut exhibit [with its remains] was [also] in Chicago.
Pickled Freak Pig
JT: So much for your display of human remains.
WH: So finally the judge ruled that these were not corpses; they were fetuses: they had never been issued birth certificates, therefore, there were no death certificates, therefore, it was legal to have them. But in the mean time they had confiscated the babies. [Fortunately,] we already had molds [of them and I had one of my people] sitting at the rubber factory. We were only out of business with that show for a week, then we had the bouncers. Now I’m going to show you how you cannot win no matter what you do. I had had that show at the Ohio State Fair and numerous other fairs in Ohio. Ohio has a 16 page booklet that gives all the rules and regulations and state laws pertaining to the operation of sideshows and carnival shows at state fairs in Ohio. Very specific. You cannot have a picture on the front that shows blood. You cannot have a torture show. You cannot have a girl show. You cannot have a show where anyone dances under a tent (which means I could not take the Bolshoi Ballet and legally present it in the state of Ohio if it’s under a tent). You can’t have a ticket box over four feet high. You can’t have a show within a show for an extra charge. So the people know that what they see advertised is exactly what they’re going to see.
JT: So you’re moving with the bouncers at this point. Did you ever get the babies back?
WH: No. I never asked for them back. I didn’t need them anymore. At least I thought I didn’t need them. But I’m coming to that. So I just closed the show for the season. Now, the next year, we’re opening the show, the first spot, at Canfield, Ohio. We had it all set up the opening day of the fair and I’m waiting for the inspector because every show has to be inspected. At any given time there’s 50, 60 people standing out in front of the show waiting to go in. Well, the inspector finally got there at 4:00. He’s a very nice gentleman. I’d known him for a long time. And a man by the name of Henry [Valentine] was running the show for me at that time. So when the inspector came in, the first Henry said was, “Hello, Mr. (So and So),” and he opened one of the bottles and took out the baby and said, “You see, these are all legal. These are all rubber.” And the inspector said, “Well, Henry, when Ward was here before always he had the real ones. Haven’t you got the real ones?” Henry said, “No, no, we replaced them all with the rubber ones.” And he said, “Oh, Henry, the law is very specific. You cannot have any made-up freak. Now if you had the real ones there’d be no problem. You’d get the license, but I can’t license these because they’re fake.” Now, when we got the [pickled punk] show snatched, we hit the wire services. Preliminary hearing, wire services. The hearing, wire services. And then the county coroner, his name was Mickey, did one more shot. They lined up 12, 14 little coffins. And he had a priest, a minister and a rabbi and Mickey standing there with the coffins at the cemetery having the burial for the carnival babies. This hit the wire services and came out during the New Orleans [carnival trade] convention and the New Orleans paper carried a picture [of the burial] about 4 columns by 8 inches. He got more press than he ever wanted, really, out of this thing. But he did get elected sheriff and we’ve been back and played the fair several times with sideshows since then, and it’s, “Hi, Mickey.” “Oh! Hey, glad to see you.” Everything is fine. But Mickey died two years ago. He was a good guy. He just did what he was doing. He did his bit.
“Fire Poobah” Pete Terhune, the fire-eating midget
JT: To get to another subject, you guys caught some heat down in Florida over Stanley “Sealo” Berent, and, I think, “Little Pete” Terhurne and their being on display, didn’t you?
WH: There was never any heat. Never any heat. Let me explain this. 1921, I can’t tell you exactly, or 1923, a law was put on the books in the state of Florida, I can almost quote it verbatim, “It shall be prohibited to exhibit for profit any human being that is deformed, malformed or disfigured. To present or to promote such an exhibition shall be punishable with a $1000 fine and/or a year in the state penitentiary.” Nobody [in the business] was even aware this law existed.
JT: You mean the shows are going on and nobody’s even doing anything about it, even with this law on the books?
WH: Nobody knew it and everybody had been working in Florida all these years. Now, [there] had [been] a problem at Raleigh, North Carolina, on the James E. Strates Shows with Slim Kelly’s sideshow because a little deformed girl in a wheelchair objected to the sideshow and they went to court there and it got kicked out. During the Manatee County Fair, there was an article in the “St. Petersburg Times” about a frog girl show (which was not mine) and it quoted this law. This was the first time any of us ever knew about it. So our immediate reaction was these people live in Florida, they own property in Florida, they pay their taxes in Florida, and yet they would not be able to work in Florida. So we decided we ought to do something about it. So my company, which was World Attractions Inc., with Stanley Berent – Sealo, the Seal Boy – and Pete Terhurne, we wanted to get this thing cleared up. My attorney at that time was a man by the name of Roy Flagg Jonas out of Miami Beach. Very good attorney. Roy wanted to do this because he knew this case was so unusual that it would put him in the book of precedents, which it did. Roy had formerly been the mayor of North Bay Village, Florida, which is the 79th St. causeway between Miami and Miami Beach, so of course he knew the police there and everything, so he applied for a license for a freak show for North Bay Village, with the understanding that the chief of police was going to turn down the application for the license on the basis of this law. So now we had somebody we could sue. Now at that time, Richard Gerstein was the state’s attorney for Dade County and it was going to be tried in a Dade County Court. And Richard Gerstein, also a very fine gentleman, was a member of the Miami Showmen’s Association, and he agreed that he would fight this because normally [with] something like this, they’d say, “Oh well, just throw it out of court.” But we needed to go to court and we needed to lose. So we went into court in Dade County and we lost the case which now gave us the privilege of going to the Court of Appeals. Now in the Court of Appeals, again we lost, which was what we had to do. This went on till we got to the Supreme Court for the state of Florida.
JT: So how did they rule?
WH: There are six justices and to make sure that it couldn’t be contested later, one judge voted for the law, the others voted on our part. That way it can’t be contested. As I understand it, a unanimous decision can be contested in the federal courts. Of course, nobody wanted to contest it anyway. So at that point, the law was stricken and removed from the books. But it’s not over yet.
JT: It never seems to be over.
Ward Hall — Fire Eater
WH: The next year, I had a unit and I had just closed the season at the Texas State Fair and had got home. The other unit was at the fair in Tallahassee. Henry, who had the thing with the baby show and couldn’t get open because they were rubber, he was in Tallahassee. We had Dollie Regan, the Ossified Girl, and Dick Brisban, the Penguin Boy. The sheriff came down accompanied by the television news cameras and so forth. And they made a big thing about closing up the sideshow because of this law. They didn’t want to put anybody in jail, but it was illegal and it couldn’t operate. They shut it down. Dollie was our MC. This will show you how ridiculous this is. They said Dickie can’t work at all; Dollie can MC the show, but in such a way that her body would not be seen. They had to wrap a sheet around her so only her head was sticking out!
JT: You should’ve just had her do Spidora.
WH: Yeah! Henry immediately went to the phone and called me. And he says, “I thought we had [this] straightened out.” It was ruled that it was a discriminatory law, discriminating against handicapped people who are making an honest living. Nobody was forcing them to be in show business. [It’s] the same old thing, especially in television. How many of these handicapped people do you have anchoring the news on television? How many do you see performing in your sitcoms? They want to be actors. They want to be in show business. This is their only outlet. So I said [to Henry], “Go down to the carnival office, and tell Mr. Kaufmann,” (who owned the carnival). I was lucky. I had got home and I was sitting at my desk and I happened to have the whole court [decision] right in front of me. So I said, “Here’s the number of the case, the date it was tried, etc. etc.” So he went down [to the office] but Mr. Kaufman wasn’t there; he was out of town. So [Henry] said, “Now what should I do?” I said, “Go to the fair office.” And I can’t remember the lady’s name – she was the manager of the fair, she was also the secretary of the Florida Association of Fairs and Exhibitions. And because this was a state-wide thing, I had kept her informed of every step, so she was well aware of it. So now the fair had opened on Friday night [and we] got closed and now it’s late Saturday morning. And Henry went over to the fair office and she said, “Oh yes, Mr. Valentine, I am well aware of that and, yes indeed, that was stricken from the books. And they can’t do that to us!” So she got on the phone and she called the fair’s attorney and got him off of the golf course.
JT: I guess he was not amused.
WH: Well, he was amused, because the Saturday morning’s paper had come out about [how] the sheriff had closed this illegal freak show and of course it was on television because they had been there with the cameras. It made the 11 o’clock news! So now they got down there and they called the sheriff. What is was, the sheriff still had an old law book and somebody had called and made a complaint about the show and cited the number of the [old] law and he looked it up and sure enough it was in [his] book and he wasn’t aware that it had been stricken. So now the next day, the headline comes out, “Leon County Sheriff Doesn’t Even Know What Laws He’s Supposed To Enforce.” That didn’t do us any good either because this put mud on the face of the sheriff. But of course they came down, they apologized, and the show opened right back up.
JT: So how was the sheriff afterward? Was he pretty decent about everything in spite of the bad press he got?
WH: Oh certainly! Oh yeah.
JT: And in the years after, you didn’t have any other problems with that sort of thing? You kept playing the spot?
WH: This is the first year in many years I haven’t played it.
The Gallions — Donnie and Ronnie
JT: In terms of performers, the Gallion Brothers, the Siamese twins, are pretty amazing. Are you still in touch with them?
WH: I have not talked to them for quite some time, but they’re either in Mexico or South America. They’ve been down there now [since] ’78. [But] they were never with my show. They had their own show. We put together the people for a motion picture called Being Different.
JT: So you put together all those people? Being Different’s a hell of a documentary.
WH: But that was the only time that [the Gallion’s] ever worked for me, because they had their own show which their father managed. It was a trailer mounted show. The people walk up and they look in the window and see the boys sitting there watching television or something. The greatest attractions I [ever] had were Emmitt and Percilla Bejano – the Alligator Man and the Monkey Girl; Slitzy the Pinhead; and the various giants. I’ve had several giants over the years. Johann Petursson only worked for me once. Johann came over to this country in 1948 for the Ringling Circus. He was with them for about 2 – 3 years and then he went to work for Doc Saunders who framed a big sideshow [that] went to Canada. And he was with Doc, I think, only one year. And then he went to work for Glen Porter and he was with Glen several years and then he wanted to have his own show, so Glen helped him to build his own show and Glen booked it for him for awhile. He made a lot of money [and] he had his own show for many many years until he retired. He had been in retirement for some years and in 1973, I believe, I got him to come out of retirement to work [the Ringling] show [in Washington, DC]. Now, Johann was a good friend of mine. I liked Johann, I always did but I also knew Johann could be a little temperamental. So even though in my contract I was to have only one giant, I got a second giant, a big, tall boy by the name of Tyrone Reader and we had him made some beautiful, Arabian-style wardrobe and I had a big headpiece that I bought out of the Folies Bergere with pheasant feathers. It was an Egyptian thing that stood four feet high on its own. So we had individual stages for the acts, the old circus style. I put Johann on one side, and directly across, facing him, was Tyrone. Several things happened. And it turns out that Johann and the other giant both loved to play chess. So they became good buddies because between shows they played chess all the time. And I don’t know what happened; I’d give a thousand dollars to have it back, somewhere it got lost, or I gave it to somebody or something, but I had a picture and it was the only time that I know of that Johann ever allowed such a thing, I had a picture of him and Tyrone together.
JT: That’s sad. You’ll never get another chance at a shot like that. So the show opened pretty well?
WH: On opening night, Milt Robbins was my inside lecturer and he was going to take the crowd to Johann’s platform next and he saw this well dressed gentleman walk up the steps onto Johann’s platform. So he went over; he was going to stop him. But then he saw that they greeted each other and the man sat there with Johann for the next hour, as long as the sideshow was open, and it turned out he was the ambassador for Iceland. They had been schoolboys together!
Johann Petursson pitch card
JT: I guess that was one of the first times Petursson had seen anyone from the old country in a long time.
WH: A long time. But Johann, of course, he was old and had his ailments by then and there was one point there where we had some newspaper people and they wanted to interview Johann. Chris [Christ] went over and told Johann, “These people want to do an interview.” “I don’t want to talk to nobody. Don’t want to talk to them.” So Chris said, loud enough so Johann could hear, “Fellas, you don’t want to talk to him. You want to talk to the big giant, don’t you? Come right over here, because he’s the smaller of the two and you want to talk to the big giant.” And [Johann] turned around and goes, “Chris! Chris! Come over here! I talk to them!” But Johann was a great attraction. I had worked with him on other shows, and when he was younger he had a great sense of humor. A wonderful person. He used to love to tease. We had a lady sword swallower worked for me for quite awhile, her name was Patricia Zurm – Lady Patricia. And she was, I think, the first one to [swallow a] neon tube [in her act. She] always wore beautiful gowns. It was a beautiful act. We were working the Tampa Fair and Johann was there and so was Pat and she used to tease him. She would chase him and it was so funny to watch this great big giant running away from this little woman. On the King Bros. Circus, the band leader, [Phil], who also worked for me later as an inside lecturer, was married to Christine, the Alligator Skin Girl. And it was in the winter time. The show hadn’t opened yet and they were visiting one day and in jest Johann said to Phil, because Phil was a feisty little guy, he said, “You know, Phil, this country ain’t no goddamn good.” “What do you mean?! What do you mean this country’s no good?!” “Well, I been here already for five years and I only save $50,000.” “Why you big son of a bitch, you should’ve stayed in Iceland! You wouldn’t have 50 friggin cents!”
JT: You were talking earlier about Emmitt and Percilla Bejano. It’s sad, but the picture that’s painted of many of the sideshow and freak show marriages is one of marriages for publicity. But Emmitt and Percilla have been married longer than 99% of the married population.
WH: We gave them a 50th wedding anniversary at the [Showmen’s] Club. [And] Phil Dotto and Christine, the Alligator Skin Girl, [were] married until they died. Another great attraction who worked for me and a wonderful, wonderful man was Bill Durkes, the Three-Eyed Man, and he was married to Mildred, the Alligator Girl. She died; he never remarried. And you could go on and on. The Davenports, the two midgets; Cliff and Mamie King, the midgets; Sandra Reed, Lady Sandra we called her, the albino sword swallower. She married on my show to Harold Spohn, [the] fat man. And when Harold died, it just devastated her to the extent that she quit the business and has not worked since then.
JT: It’s pretty obvious that loyalty’s not an unknown virtue to show folk. The people you have left have been working with you for a long time, haven’t they?
WH: Little Pete is in the ticket box. I’d have to ask him: this is either is 39th or 40th year. So he probably won’t stay: He’s very unreliable! Jimmy Long, the fella I asked to get the chair for me [a few minutes ago] is my boss canvasman, this is 27 years for Jimmy. He’s made me a very religious man: I pray for him every day because if anything happens to Jimmy, I’m just going to leave [the show] sit because I wouldn’t know how to put it up or tear it down or drive the truck. And Bruce [Snowden, “Harold Huge,”] has been here for 12 years. Hi! (a kid comes up to Hall) Kid: Where’s the Tasmanian Terror at?
WH: The Tasmanian Terror? Look over there, now wait a minute, come here, not the [little] box, but the one next to it with the light in it. That’s the Tasmanian Terror. Took it out of there and put it in the big box because it grew too big for the little one. (Kid goes off to see the Terror) You hear funny things you know. Years ago, one woman [was] in the baby show and she said, “Do you have to get bigger bottles for them as they grow?” And another one came in she said, “Oh, it’s so sad those babies in those bottles.” She said, “How do their little souls get out of there and go to heaven.” But one of the greatest [was when] I had a medieval torture chamber. And this very sweet old lady came up to the ticket box and said [to our lady ticket seller], “Miss, how long do you have to wait?” And [my ticket seller] said, “Oh, you don’t have to wait. You can walk in right now and see it.” And she said, “No, I mean how long do I have to wait once I get in there?” “Well, you don’t have to wait. It’s going on right now, you just walk through.” “I don’t think you understand. Do you have chairs that I could sit down while I wait.” “Wait for what?” She says, “Well, how long does it take for one of them to die?”
JT: Getting back to the loyalty of your people and those working the shows, that loyalty really contradicts the charge you always hear about sideshow performers being exploited. I’ve read some things that were pretty cruel to showmen in that regard.
WH: [I had one] gentleman [make] the statement that I was “the pornographer of the handicapped.” That offends me. [These writers] set [themselves] up as [authorities] on the sideshow business. And yet [they get their] research about sideshows while sitting in an air conditioned library reading books. I doubt [they] ever had to help load a sideshow tent when it was wet and cold and pouring down rain and had to get behind a truck and try to push it off of the lot because it was stuck. I’m sure that [they] never had to take a fat lady to the hospital in the middle of the night and sit in the waiting room of the emergency ward for six hours to find out if she was going to be okay. I’m sure [they] never even attended the funeral for one of these people. I exhibited freaks and exploited them for years. And right now James Taylor is going to exploit these people. The difference between Ward Hall and James Taylor is when Ward Hall exploits these people, I pay them very well to do so. These authors, newspaper columnists, and television companies don’t pay them a frigging penny. I had a call from a company in New York and they wanted to bring a crew down here and film a music video with a rock group with the sideshow in the background. Generally, [with] anything like that, I tell them right off, “What is your budget?” And they say, “Well, we don’t have much of a budget.” “What do you expect for us to get out of it?” “Oh, well, you get publicity.” And I say, “I don’t do this for publicity. My people can’t eat publicity. And we don’t need publicity. We do it for money.” And generally, [it’s] the same thing for talk shows on television, especially now when they call me and they want you to bring them some people for nothing. And I say the same thing, “Before we start talking, let me have you understand my position. I am the same as an attorney. I will provide a service for you. You will give me a retainer and then pay me by the hour.” And one woman from [one of the talk shows] said, “Well, what if you don’t get these people?” I said, “It’s just like the attorney when he takes you into court. If he doesn’t win the case, he doesn’t give you back the money.”
JT: You’ve said a number of places, including in your own book, My Very Unusual Friends, that the sideshows are nearly gone, that they get harder and harder to book.
WH: It’s economics. All economics. First of all, organized carnivals were first started, developed, from the Columbian World Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. At that time there was a carousel and probably a live pony ride. A few years later came the first portable ferris wheel. So there were no rides [at first]. But there were all these shows. Museum type shows, girl shows, the Streets of Cairo, the Streets of Paris, so on and so forth. Over the years, even up through the 1930s and 40s, the average large carnival, a big big carnival, would have about 20 rides and about 30 shows. A medium size carnival would have 12 rides and 12 – 15 shows. A small carnival would have 5 – 6 rides and 6 or 8 shows. My research, which is not accurate I know, but the best I can tell, about 1950, along in there, was the apex perhaps of the sideshows, because by then there were so many carnivals. Well every carnival practically and every circus had a sideshow at that time. And there were, I believe, between a hundred and a hundred and ten 10-in-1 sideshows in the United States and Canada. At the same time, there were over 400 girl shows. There were over a thousand grind shows. Today, there is one sideshow, and you’re sitting in it, and really it’s not a 10-in-1 sideshow anymore; it’s a museum. There is one big illusion show. There are, I think, three motordromes. And there are probably five girl-to-gorilla shows and probably 50 grind shows. In the whole country. And the reason for that is the rides.
JT: So what were the mechanics of the change? How and when did it happen?
WH: By 1959 I had a sideshow that had a 200 foot front. I used to get free rent because I had such a big front, because the shows, which they called the back end, created the fence around the rides which were all down in the center. Along about the mid-50s, carnival owners all of a sudden discovered there was something called Europe. Some of them had been overseas during the war. The European rides were always far more elaborate, far bigger, far better than anything that was produced in the United States. So [the owners] started importing rides. Prior to that time – you go back in the old “Billboards” and you’ll see this – they would advertise, “Want Sideshow; Want Girl Show; Want Minstrel Show; Want Motordrome.” The carnival owned the equipment. All the operator had to bring was the attractions. My first carnival experience was in 1948. I was 17 years old and I went with a carnival out in Kansas. They furnished me with brand new bannerlines, brand new tent; every stick of that show was brand new except the tent stakes were Ford axles. All I had to come in with was sound equipment – which they would have furnished, but I didn’t like theirs so I furnished my own – and my acts. And this was the standard deal with every carnival in the United States and every circus. You provided the acts; they provided all the equipment and they transported it. And the carnival received 40% of the gross. The operator got 60% of the gross of the front and all the inside. And in those days, the inside meant the fortune teller and the tattoo artist and all those things which you don’t have now. Railroad shows, which were predominant in the early days, [used] three wagons for a big sideshow, that’s one flat car, [and] one sleeper for the sideshow personnel. Now they can come along with a big ride. Generally, the ride is on two wagons and maybe 25% of the sleeping car. So now they can put two rides on the same transportation as one sideshow. The ride can be operated by three people, usually. The sideshow had maybe 15 – 20. And the ride works from the time it opens until it closes. [And] the carnival keeps 100% of the ride; they only got 40% of the show. Now if you want to go to the reviews, the big girl reviews and the big colored reviews, they were even bigger shows as far as transportation and equipment was concerned. The investment in those shows was terrific because they had bigger tents, seats, big stages, scenery, lights, very elaborate fronts, costumes. And they’d have 40 – 50 people, some of them. So now these shows would take even more transportation and the carnival generally didn’t get anything out of them. In fact, it was the practice, usually, that they would lose $20 – $30 thousand a year with one of those big shows, but it was their big prestige thing. But it’s not only [that way] with carnivals. The 1920s were considered the golden age of the circuses. Circus came into town with a 10,000 seat tent, with 25 elephants, and every day they gave a magnificent free street parade. Today, I’m going to visit a circus that travels on eight semis, has no street parade, has probably 15 – 16 performers, the music is recorded. And this is typical of today.
Ward Hall selling tickets, York Fair, 1992
It was the end of my day at the York Fair in Pennsylvania, and I was beat, but it was just the beginning of the busiest part of the day for carnival: evening. I was finishing up talking with banner painter/sword swallower/stand-up comic Johnny Meah, just being told how to turn the tip – what crowds looked good, which didn’t. Almost in mid-sentence, and maybe to show me how it was done, Johnny stepped up to the inside platform and went into his routine, pitching the blow-off: The World of Wonders freak baby show. Fat Man Bruce “Harold Huge” Snowdon sat waiting to make change, his chair positioned just by the sidewall through which the tip would have to pass. It wasn’t much of a crowd, maybe a dozen people, a ma and pa with their baby, a couple of teenaged boys (alternately giggly and smug), some others. Not a soul was doing anything except shuffling in place in response to Johnny’s spiel. Finally, playing stick unasked, I cut past the platform to Bruce, gave him a buck and told him to keep the change. Pretty much everybody followed after that.
In the small top which housed the blow-off, a platform stood in a corner, the objects on top covered by an outrageous multi-colored day-glo fake fur blanket. Next to it sat a folding metal chair, the kind you might find in a church, school or hospital. On its seat was a black plastic boom box. The crowd fidgeted in place, most everybody giggling nervously now. Outside, Meah was grinding the last couple or two in. And we all stood there. And stood there. Something was amiss. “Ward!” Johnny was calling out in a stage whisper. “Ward!” he called again. “They’re inside!” At the last moment, Ward bustled through the sidewall, obviously in a slight sweat, popped the flap on the boom box, dropped in the cassette, and hit play. Then he threw back the day-glo blanket.
Ward Hall (bottom, third from left), Chris Christ (top, third from right)
and “Little Pete” Terhune (top, second from left),
Clyde-Beatty Cole Bros., Philadelphia, PA, 1967… Still together after all these years.
Most of the tip turned and walked out the second that blanket flew from the large jars it covered. On top the platform were the World of Wonders bouncers, each floating in its couple gallons of clear fluid. The tape on the boom box, Ward’s voice announcing that he was doctor somebody or other, ground out a lecture about, “these replica freak babies,” the word “replica” spoken so softly you could hardly hear it spoken, the lecture going on to tell of the horrors of drug abuse. Pretty much, I and those two teen-aged boys were the only ones who heard it all the way through. They walked up the minute it was obvious that only Ward and I were left in the blow-off besides them. The expected “Cool!” and “Shit!” could be heard from both of them. They didn’t get giggly again until they were almost through the flap, almost back in the sideshow itself, far enough away that the babies couldn’t see or hear them.
Ward was having trouble pulling the blanket back down over the bouncers, so I stepped over and gave him a hand. All straightened out, he popped the tape from the tape player and then held the flap for both of us to go out behind the show, back to where his trailer sat. Hardly turning to me, he smiled and spoke in a voice softer than I’d have expected. “What a way to make a living.” The only way to make a living.