For 57 years, Ward Hall barnstormed with his band of freaks, but few will pay to see a fat man and a midget these days. It's just not weird to be weird anymore.
By LANE DeGREGORY
Published September 28, 2003
[Times photos: Scott Keeler]
Harley Newman, a solo performer who came from New Tripoli, Pa., to take part in the final show, blows fire 25 feet high, while spectators watch along with performers John LeBrun and Pete Poobah Terhurne and co-owner Chris Christ.
You will need the free Flash player to view this interactive gallery.
In keeping with an old sideshow tradition, Danny Bechta, 12, of Allentown, Pa., tries for a free peek at the freaks inside the Strangest Show on Earth. The colorful banners were created by Safety Harbor artist Johnny Meah.
ALLENTOWN, PA. - First, the sword swallower left to joined a Renaissance Fair. Then the fat man got sick and started losing weight. The midget has high blood pressure, so he can eat fire only a couple of times a day now.
It's tough trying to hold onto America's last sideshow.
Past the Tilt-a-Whirl, over by the air brushed T-shirts, Ward Hall is sitting in his van, in the dark, petting his old dog, Springer. He's parked in the empty space where his sideshow is supposed to be.
They should have been here by now. Chris and Jimmy and Pete, the midget. They should have set up the tents, built the stage, dusted off the Living Half-Girl.
Ward pulls off his Panama hat, runs his fingers through his thinning hair.
He drove four days from Gibsonton to get here. He had to sell some of his treasures to buy gas: the two-headed duck and a shrunken head. He got $50 for his six-legged frog.
He pulled into Pennsylvania at daybreak. It's almost midnight now, and he's still waiting for his sideshow to show.
Ward unbuttons his red polyester jacket. He loosens the knot on his American flag tie. He keeps watching out the windshield, hoping for headlights.
Through the open window of his van, he smells chickens. This year, fair organizers stuck him out by the poultry barn.
Born freaks, learned freaks
Ward's sideshow used to be at the beginning of the midway, where it smells like funnel cakes. He would set up right under the Ferris wheel. Those crayon bulbs would spill spotlights across his sequined blazer while his honeyed voice cried out across the carnival.
But that was long ago. Back before bearded ladies discovered electrolysis.
Ward is 73 now. He's been on the road for 57 years.
He traveled with Schlitzie the Pinhead: "Her head was no bigger than a grapefruit." He threw a retirement party for Percilla the Monkey Girl: "She had long, silky hair growing over her face, head and body." He found insurance for the fire-eating midget.
He worked for Ringling Bros., for Cole Bros., even for the Smithsonian. He crisscrossed the country countless times, took the stage in every state except Alaska. He toured Canada and Mexico. Headlined the Hollywood Bowl and Carnegie Hall. On this evening in late August, he's getting ready to open at the Great Allentown Fair. After a half-century of swallowing swords and having knives thrown at him and hawking human oddities, the P.T. Barnum of his time is hanging up his top hat.
This is Ward's last gig.
So while the Blockhead hammers an ice pick up his nose and the midget wrestles the python and the fat man just sits there being fat, Ward will be out front by the ticket booth, doing his final ballys.
He'll get a chance to relive his past. Then he'll get a surprise visit from the future.
And along the way, he'll reveal some sideshow secrets. Now that he's ready to retire, Ward is willing to tell you how much the fat man really weighs, whether the midget was actually a Munchkin, who married the Monkey Girl.
He'll tell you what the Ossified Woman used to laugh about. And why anyone would want to be a part of this weird world.
He'll explain the difference between born freaks and learned ones. He'll show you how to turn a tip.
Then he'll tell you about human nature, and the best $3.50 he ever spent.
Just after 7 a.m., while the sun is changing clouds into cotton candy, two tractor trailers pull into the parking lot behind the poultry barn.
Chris and the midget climb out of one, drinking Diet Pepsis. Jimmy Long jumps down from the other. He tells Ward he had to wait at a weigh station for hours while transportation officials inspected models of the dog-faced boy, the pop-eyed man, the mule-faced woman.
Ward checks his watch. "The fair opens in 10 hours," he says. "We've got to find some help."
Years ago, when sideshows were the main attraction, Ward took 20 men on the road to set up six tents. Now, he hires three teenagers off each carnival lot to set up the only tent the sideshow still uses. Jimmy spends all day teaching the boys how to drive spikes into the asphalt, how to raise canvas and tie ropes.
Just before dark, Ward sets a stool beside the stage. He used to do his ballys standing. But now he's too old, too tired. After doing 30 shows a day, 12 hours a day, seven months a year, for a half-century, a man needs to sit down. He clears his throat and clicks on his microphone.
It's time for the Strangest Show on Earth.
A family of black sheep
Ward had never seen a sideshow until he joined one. He grew up in Nebraska during the Depression. He signed on with his first circus in 1946, when he was 15.
"I was a terrible clown. I wasn't funny," he says. "I was trying to get away from my dad."
Ward's father had a bad limp and an even worse temper. As a child, his dad had suffered from polio. As an adult, he blamed his handicap for every hardship.
On sideshows, Ward met a legless man who walked on his hands.
He also knew a woman who didn't have any arms, who could eat with her feet. He found a Frog Man who rolled his own cigarettes. A Turtle Man who fixed stereos with his teeth.
In the hot, dusty tents behind circuses and carnivals, he formed a new family.
"Now, ladies and gentlemen, you're standing in front of the largest fairground show in the world, the World of Wonders. And if you'll all please take a look from way down there," Ward says. He points with his right hand, to a painting of a two-headed girl that towers above the trailer. "To way to down there," he opens his left arm, toward the portrait of the man with three eyes and two noses. "You'll see just some of the anthropomorphic freaks that you'll find here inside our show . . . "
Ward never went to high school. He has no idea what that five-syllable word means. His lawyer told him to add it to his pitch, as an out. Plus Ward likes how smart it makes him sound.
It's opening night at the Great Allentown Fair.
On the midway, parents are pushing strollers. Teenagers are pushing each other. Folks are crunching kettle corn, cradling stuffed animals, trailing silver balloons. Rap music from the roller coaster is drowning out the calliope.
Ward is wearing his last sequined blazer. Tonight, he has pinned a yellow carnation to the lapel.
"Now, ladies and gentlemen, before you step inside our big show here, we invite you to watch a couple of our performers," he says in a slick, thick drawl. "Poobah here is 73 years of age."
The midget climbs on a milk crate. Then onto the stage. He pets the python, surveys the growing audience.
"Poobah comes from, uh, Beverly Hills, California," Ward says. Actually, the midget lives with Ward, in Gibsonton, just down the road from the Showtime Bar & Grill. "And Poobah has been performing in show business since he was 9." Ward found him when he was 24, washing dishes in a diner. "He was the youngest Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz." The midget didn't even see that movie until he was much older. "After that, he was seen in 27 other movies, 114 television shows and three Broadway musicals." Every time Ward tells this story, the numbers change. "And now, ladies and gentlemen, if you all are ready, I'm going to ask Poobah to eat the fire."
Poobah's name is Pete Terhurne. He hands the snake to Ward. He dips a torch into a coffee can and lights it. He twirls the flame, until its glowing orange streamers are taller than he is. Then he drops his head back. He opens his eyes and mouth wide. He eases the fire down his throat and smacks his lips.
No one claps.
Freaks like us
Audiences used to be amazed. In the '50s and '60s, when more than 100 sideshows were still touring the country, folks would crush around the stage a dozen rows deep. They weren't ashamed to stare.
They had a right to ogle human oddities, they figured. After all, those freaks put themselves out there.
Most people still have that curiosity about human deformities, Ward says. But it's not PC to look.
At least not outside your living room.
Jerry Springer, Fear Factor, Jackass - over the last 10 years, those television shows pretty much killed off what was left of the sideshows. Why pay $2 to walk through a tent when you can watch freaks on TV for free? What human oddity wouldn't rather sit in an air-conditioned studio than travel in a trailer from fair to dusty fair?
"There's this two-headed girl who lives in Texas. She must be almost 20 by now. I tried to get her to join my show a few years back, but her mother wouldn't let her," Ward says. "She said she'd make more money on Oprah."
Plus, there's the progress of science. Conjoined twins can be separated. Extra eyes can be removed. Midgets can take hormones. Born freaks never get to be grown-up freaks.
Even learned freaks - the ones who spew fire and lie on barbed wire and shove ice picks up their noses - are becoming extinct. Most of them can't compete with so-called normal people who will bury themselves in tarantulas in prime time. The ones who are left keep risking their lives trying to come up with scarier and scarier stuff. "It's almost impossible to shock anyone these days," Ward says.
No one wants to see a tattooed lady anymore. You can see that at Kmart.
And the fat man? Forget it. You see bigger people at Ponderosa.
Alive on stage
The midget climbs down off the stage and takes the snake back from Ward. It's a baby Burmese python. Sometimes Ward says its a giant boa constrictor.
"And here inside our tent tonight, ladies and gentlemen, you will see Grace McDaniels. She was the ugliest woman who ever lived, because she had a face like a mule," Ward continues his litany. "Betty Lou Williams, from Albany, Georgia, had her little baby sister growing right out of her abdomen."
You have to pay to see if it's true.
"And the star of our show, here alive, is the biggest, fattest, funniest man in the world, Harold Huge. He weighs 712 pounds." More like 459, after the illness. "He's so big, so fat, it takes four girls to hug him and a big truck to lug him." When money was good, the fat man used to stay in motels. Now he lives in the back of a bakery truck, even when he's not on the road.
"And if that big fat man starts to dance, you'll swear he must be full of jelly, 'cause jam don't shake that way." The fat man doesn't dance anymore. He can't even walk. He needs help just heaving himself from his truck to the tent.
"That fat man's alive on stage now." Spilling over the sides of his armchair, eating a corn dog, reading a science fiction paperback. He seldom makes eye contact with the crowd anymore. He's through answering all their questions about how big he was as a baby, where he buys his clothes, how huge other parts of his body are.
"Come in and see him and all the rest of the attractions in the World of Wonders. See it all, for only $2."
Then Ward leans over the ticket booth and dares the crowd.
"See it to believe it!"
Once, they were alive.
Laloo, who had half of his twin brother growing from his stomach; Sealo the Seal Boy, who had flippers for arms; the Alligator Man, who was married to the Monkey Girl for 40 years.
Ward worked with them all.
The Ossified Woman, who could move only one hand, always said she was getting the last laugh. "You people had to pay to see me," she would tell audiences. "I get to stare at you freaks for free."
Ward always traveled with at least 10 human oddities. Plus a dozen performers who climbed ladders of swords, turned girls into gorillas, pushed pins through their flesh.
But then the freaks started aging. They started retiring and dying.
So Ward had models made of his most famous attractions.
The World of Wonders is a museum now, mostly, with 50 figures of former freaks. He stands the statues along the sides of the striped tent. They stare out of plastic eyes, through grimy glass cases.
Chris and Jimmy don't bother to dust them off much anymore. This morning, they didn't have time, even, to check body parts. Laloo's half-twin broke off during the trip. It's dangling from his belly. Lobster Boy's right claw came unscrewed and fell behind his pants. And Schlitzie the Pinhead toppled over in transport. Her grapefruit-sized head is wedged in the back of the box.
Only three live performers are left: The fat man and the midget, who have been with Ward for 26 and 51 years, respectively. And a new guy named John LeBrun, "Screwy Louie," who hammers an ice pick up his nose.
John was a mental health counselor in Chicago who worked as a street performer on the weekends. He's 31, at least 20 years younger than the other showmen. He had read about Ward in carnival history books. He wanted to be part of a real sideshow before the last one disappeared.
He has been with the sideshow for three months. He has logged more than 12,000 miles on his car. Chris taught him how to do "The Man Who Can't be Hanged," a trick where you wrap a rope around your neck and let people from the audience pull on either end. All along the East Coast, John has made folks faint.
Living conditions are harsh. "This is the first time in my life I've gone a week without a shower," he says.
On his best nights, when kids are stapling $5 bills to his forehead, he peels off $130 in tips.
Turning the tip
All night, Ward woos the crowd. While the midget eats fire and the fat man eats corn dogs and Screwy Louie stabs his tonsils, again and again, Ward sits on his stool spewing his stories.
Lots of folks stop to listen, to see the free show. But only a fraction fork over the $2 to enter the tent. When they do, Ward calls that "turning the tip." He takes their money, ushers them inside, tells them they are, indeed, about to be amazed.
A mother and her two sons duck into the darkness. She shoos them past the Elephant Man. A grandmother lingers to read the legend of the half-snake, half-girl. A dad stops his daughter at Laloo's case.
"Poor fella," he says, laughing. "They could at least have tied his twin back on."
Most of the people complain that the attractions aren't alive. Some say they were ripped off.
Ward doesn't apologize. "If they were," he says, "they were only ripped off $2."
It's almost over. Only a few hours, now, until the fair closes.
Soon, sideshows will be just another quirky American art form that got trampled by the mainstream, like a clown under an elephant's foot.
Already, other entertainers are cashing in on the sawdust-covered memories. While the Strangest Show on Earth was grinding to its gritty end, Rolling Stone ran a story on teenage carnies; HBO started its new series, Carnivale; and director Tim Burton finished his new movie, Big Fish.
Ward's World of Wonders is part of all of those projects. His picture is in the magazine; the man who painted his sideshow banners helped write the HBO script. And his fat man, Bruce Snowden, stars as himself in the movie - along with Danny DeVito and Ewan McGregor.
The old-style sideshow is over. But freaks will always be fascinating.
About 9 p.m., while Ward is finishing his fifth cup of coffee, two surprise visitors show up at the ticket booth. One is carrying a bed of nails. The other is holding a briefcase filled with swords.
They're the future of sideshows, Ward explains later.
They came to be a part of Ward's final performance, to honor this last great carnival talker.
Harley Newman, 55, is a "professional lunatic." He sprawls on nails and barbed wire, wraps his face in bicycle chains, hangs fish hooks inside his eyelids. He has worked with Jim Rose, done Lollapalooza fests. He always wanted to work with Ward.
Todd Robbins, 45, played Coney Island for years. He swallows handfuls of swords. He turns a girl into a gorilla. He threads a balloon through his mouth, and blows it out his nose. In August, he opened a new show off-Broadway, Carnival Knowledge. Tickets start at $35 and have sold out almost every night. At the county fair, sideshows seem seedy; in New York, they're retro, classic, cool.
Tonight is Todd's night off. He drove in from New York, to shake Ward's hand.
"In my new show, I do a few of your old acts: the Snake Girl, the Woman Who Loses Her Head," Todd tells him. "You're a legend in this business.
"You're my hero."
Breaking down the show
The Ferris wheel stops spinning at midnight. The roller coaster stops pumping rap music. And the lights go off over the Great Allentown Fair.
At the far end of the midway, behind the striped sideshow tent, Ward is sitting in his trailer, counting his last night's take. On good nights, in the good old days, he'd pull in 10,000 people, he says. Tonight, 700 people saw his show. He scribbles "$1,008" on a white envelope.
Ward's partner, Chris Christ, is smoking another pack of Pall Malls. Chris has already packed up the sound system, closed the tent and helped the fat man back to his bakery truck. The midget is resting in the bunkhouse.
Except for a few squawks from the poultry barn, the parking lot is quiet.
Ward sinks into the sofa. He unbuttons his red sequined blazer. The carnation he pinned on this morning is wilted.
"Did I ever tell you about the best $3.50 I ever spent?" he asks Chris.
Chris is 55. He's tall and craggy and has shaggy black sideburns. He used to swallow swords, train chimps, throw knives at Ward. They've been partners for 39 years. "Partners in everything," Ward says.
He's heard all of Ward's stories. He could recite most himself. But he lights another Pall Mall, pops another Diet Pepsi, and tells Ward, "Nope, I don't remember hearing that one."
So Ward pulls off his Panama hat, crosses his scuffed saddle shoes.
"We were playing some circus in the South. Mississippi, maybe. It was 1951. You weren't with us yet," Ward says. "In the morning, before the show opened, I walked across the street to this dime store. I bought two rubber dolls, brown paint and some glue. Then I went next door to this little diner and said could I please have an empty pickle jar. When I got back to the trailer, I made iced tea."
He popped the head off one doll, glued it onto the other, and painted it brown "to hide the seam." He stuffed his creation into the pickle jar and poured in the iced tea. "So people couldn't see as well, so they couldn't really tell."
He charged folks 50 cents to look. In the first hour, he made a week's wages.
"I didn't tell them they'd see a real baby," Ward says. "I told them they'd see a two-headed baby."
Chris laughs and looks out the window. He puffs on his cigarette. He stares into the dark.
People want to believe. If you give them a reason to, they will. They want to stare at human oddities, watch performers swallow swords and eat fire. They want to prove to themselves that they're normal. More normal, at least, than these freaks.
"Sure," Chris says softly. "Tell them anything but the truth, right?"
Ward doesn't answer. He's sprawled on the sofa, with his old dog, Springer, in his lap. His head is tipped back and his mouth is open.