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    Freaks out

    By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 17, 2002


    photo
    [Times photo: Stefanie Boyar]
    Mephisto, the Human Blockhead, hammers a small nail into his sinus cavity at the Florida State Fair.
    TAMPA -- Mephisto shoves an ice pick up his nose. Then he yanks it out with his fingers. The 4-inch nail goes in next. This time he uses a hammer.

    But who cares?

    Outside the World of Wonders tent at the Florida State Fair, a few passers-by pause, lingering for a moment. They wrinkle their own noses and then plod on. Only a few take up Mephisto's offer to enter the World of Wonders for $2 a pop, where they are treated to a scrappy museum of plastic fetuses, a model of a one-eyed Pygmy cow and dummies of human abnormalities.

    The carnival sideshow, once known far and wide as the freak show, is dying. Political correctness and medical advances have helped snuff out what was once an American tradition.

    And Mephisto and his peers don't appreciate it one bit.

    "They call us "oddities' now, "special people,' " says Fred Lulling, 55, also known as Mephisto.

    "You can invent all the euphemisms you want," says Robert Snowden, known as Big Jim, who weighs in the high 600s and spends his days in a big armchair on the dusty ground inside the World of Wonders tent. "Call a spade a spade. I'm a sideshow freak."

    And for Pete's sake, stare.

    "If they don't stop and stare, then I'm not serving my purpose here," says Snowden, 55.

    But the world has turned its back on Mephisto's stunts and Snowden's girth. The sideshow is now nearly extinct, in part because the abnormal of old are the nipped and tucked of today.

    Bearded ladies get electrolysis. Fat men staple their stomachs. Extra appendages get removed at birth, Siamese twins are surgically separated, and skin conditions get medicated.

    "Now that they're all gone, what is it that's still holding me here?" asks Mephisto, who once performed onstage alongside such friends as the Monkey Girl and her husband, the Alligator Man.

    "Could it be hope?" Mephisto asks with a shrug. "That maybe the show could rise up again?"

    With roots going back to Europe, the traveling sideshow emerged in the United States in the late 1800s and reached its height of popularity between the world wars, when such shows numbered in the hundreds.

    Circuses, carnivals and state fairs relied heavily on the tented, secondary attraction planted on the stretch between the main entrance and the big top. There were men who lay on beds of nails, swallowed swords and spat fire. There were contortionists and tattooed wonders.

    But the real attention -- and money -- went to those with unique physiques. They were people such as Betty Lou Williams, whose unseparated and dead twin protruded from her stomach; "Pop Eye" William Perry, whose eyeballs bugged out like a cartoon character's; Johnny Eck, the Quarter Boy, whose body was severed above the pelvis, and Grace McDaniels, the self-explanatory Mule-Faced Woman.

    The fat, the tiny and the giant were always part of the package.

    The decline began in the 1950s, when television put sideshow performers in America's living rooms, robbing live shows of their novelty. The circus moved from the big top to buildings and no longer had space to erect an outside tent for the sideshows. Carnival owners realized rides were their biggest moneymakers, and the oddity shows got lesser billings and fewer invitations.

    Then came laws protecting handicapped people, giving them equal access to schools, bathrooms and jobs. Calls for greater dignity followed.

    "To have people with disabilities being represented as freaks, it just sends a horrible message to the public," says Helena Berger, chief operating officer for the American Association of People with Disabilities in Washington, D.C.

    Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus pulled the plug on their sideshow decades ago. Others followed.

    "It comes down to people wanting to share the positive things with their kids rather than things that were a point-and-stare," says Catherine Ort-Mabry, director of corporate communications for the Ringling circus. " . . . Some of the classic oddities, it became something that people didn't want to see."

    Some in the industry bristle at the suggestion of exploitation.

    "Those people are out there performing, entertaining," says James Taylor, who owns the American Dime Museum of oddities in Baltimore and whose magazine, Shocked and Amazed, chronicles the lives of carnival workers and performers.

    "You might consider it low entertainment, demeaning, but those shows perform a function as valuable to the entertainment business as opera," he says. "It really does get down to class anyway. . . . The more we make it rude to stare at these people, the harder it is for them to feel comfortable making money."

    Ward Hall, owner of World of Wonders, got into the sideshow business in 1948, starting out with "seven to eight freaks" and several performers, he says.

    In the 1950s and '60s, he bought out competitors and at times was the official sideshow for Ringling Bros. With the number of performers dwindling in the mid 1980s, Hall decided to expand his curio exhibit.

    Hall insists his sideshow, one of few left, is in demand. In mid May, he'll pack up his museum and three performers -- Mephisto, Snowden and Pete Terhurne, a 72-year-old dwarf -- and head to the Westchester County Fair in Yonkers, New York.

    "The business is better than it's ever been," he says, ticking off seven cable and foreign television shows that interviewed him this year.

    But at the Florida State Fair, which closes its 12-day run on Monday, patrons seem more inclined to jump aboard the Kamikaze ride than to gawk at a dwarf with a python around his neck.

    "It's hard to get booked right now," said Little Pete, who has been with World of Wonders for about 50 years. "They use me, but not very much."

    Snowden, the show's Fat Man, figures the sideshow will persist only another decade, about as long as he gives himself to live.

    His extra weight has given him ailments ranging from a strained back to bone spurs. Show business wasn't always easy, given the constant travel, long hours and meager money. But it did offer him an alternative to a boring life.

    "I've had a moderately rough life. But I'd rather live the way I've lived than be a shoe salesman in some mall," he says. "It's interesting. It's exciting."

    It can also be insulting. Disrespect has always been a part of the sideshow experience. Snowden says his tongue is "razor-sharp" from sparring with the rude.

    Those who revere the sideshow culture say there's nothing they can do about its imminent demise.

    "I think there's something very romantic and alluring about it as part of the carnival midway," the Dime Museum's Taylor says. "But by the same token, it's a brutal world out there. And it's brutal at the money level."

    Hall, known as a stalwart of the sideshow industry, says he won't be around much longer.

    "In fact, the show is for sale," he said. "All of us would love to retire."

    -- Staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383.

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