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Archive for the ‘sideshow’ Category

Ward Hall BiographyThe official biography Ward Hall – King of the Sideshow! was published with great fanfare earlier this year in celebration of Hall’s 70th anniversary in show business. More than a dozen years ago, while traveling with S & S Amusements as the High Striker Girl, ATZ had the honor of being on the same midway as Hall & Christ’s legendary World of Wonders. At the Great Allentown Fair, where the patrons love shows, the throng in front of the banner line and the torchlit bally stage conjured up the long ago golden age of the midway. Hearing Ward deliver his classic pitches against this backdrop was one of the unforgettable moments of the season.

In 1946, Ward Hall left his Colorado home at age 15 to join Dailey Bros. Circus after answering an ad in Billboard for a magician and fire eater. Though the teen did not yet know how to eat fire, a friendly canvasman taught him the skill and before long he was also working as an outside talker on the sideshow’s bally stage.

“I didn’t know what to say, so I looked over at Norma, who was selling tickets, and she hollered at me, ‘Tell ‘em about the painted-face mandrill.’ Well, I did that and then I looked back at Norma and then she would tell me what to say next,” Ward recalls. By the 1960s, burlesque dancer Sally Rand had crowned Hall “The Silver Throated King of the Carnival Talkers” in an NBC documentary Carny. Sideshow historian James Taylor gave Hall the title “The King of the Sideshow” in the 1995 volume of Shocked and Amazed–On & Off the Midway.

Author Tim O’Brien, who first wrote about Ward as a reporter for Amusement Business, has masterfully researched and organized material spanning the showman’s career in sideshows, circuses, theater, movies and television, and his partnerships with Harry Leonard and Chris Christ. Photos, clippings and anecdotes from their life on the road are interspersed with chapters about the art of the bally, the value of the banner line, carny lingo, and Gibsonton, the Florida town fondly known as “Showtown USA,” which Hall and Christ call home.

Ward Hall Pete Terhune

Ward Hall and Pete Terhune. Photo © Paul Gutheil via Casa Flamingo

Among the subjects covered in the book are why there are so few sideshows and freak shows today compared to 30 years ago. Hall says it has to do with economics, not political correctness–spectacular rides have replaced shows on carnival and fair midways.

Also of interest are details of legal cases which were fought and won by Ward, such as a three-year court battle that successfully overturned the 1921 Florida law banning the exhibition of human oddities. The plaintiffs included Pete “Poobah” Terhune, a dwarf who worked with Ward and his partners for 55 years as a fire-eater, snake handler, circus clown and king of the pygmies. In the 1971 ruling, the Florida Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional because the plaintiffs “must be allowed to earn a livelihood.” The chapter “Ward Meets Pete: How a Dwarf Won the Heart of a King” is a loving tribute to Pete, who passed away at age 82 in 2012.

Ward Hall – King of the Sideshow! The Official Biography by Tim O’Brien. Casa Flamingo Literary Arts, Nashville, TN, 2014. 262 pages, 100+ photos & illustrations, $24.99

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Zola the Wizard

Double, double, toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble. This early 20th century sideshow banner advertising “Zola the Wizard” will be on the auction block this weekend at Slotin Folk Art Auction. Phone and online bidding is available for the sale in Buford, Georgia. The pre-sale estimate is $1,000-$2,000 for the piece, which measures over 10 feet high by 6-1/2 feet wide.

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Bindlestiff Family Cirkus

Ringmistress Philomena and Kinko the Clown of Bindlestiff Family Cirkus via Facebook

Bindlestiff (BIN-dl-stif) noun. A hobo who carries a bundle of bedding and other possessions. From English bindle (bundle) + stiff (tramp).

Tonight through Sunday, the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus is bringing their cabaret show – a mix of vaudeville, circus, Wild West, burlesque, and sideshow – to the Brooklyn Lyceum. The variety arts troupe founded by Stephanie Monseu (Ringmistress Philomena) and Keith Nelson (Kinko the Clown) is celebrating their 20th anniversary season.

Bindlestiff Family Cirkus

Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, 1996. Photo via Facebook

Over the past few weeks, they’ve been posting photos from the family album on their Facebook timeline, beginning with this old-timey snapshot from 1996 with some of the many performers who’ve been with the Cirkus. It’s also a reminder of the many venues where we’ve seen the troupe perform, from Coney Island to Rhode Island, from the Bindlestiff’s Palace of Variety on 42nd Street to a Spiegeltent. For a calendar of upcoming events through the spring and summer, visit http://www.bindlestiff.org.

20th Annual Bindlestiff Family Cirkus Cabaret, March 13-16, 8pm shows are 18+. $20 advance / $25 door / $10 discount for anyone in circus makeup. Family matinees for all ages on March 15 and 16 at 3pm. $12 / 4 for $40. Info: 1-877-BINDLES. Brooklyn Lyceum, 227 4th Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11215.

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May 25, 2013: Saturday Matinee: The Wheel House by Acrojou Circus

February 4, 2013: Rare & Vintage: Girl to Gorilla Sideshow Banner

March 3, 2012: Saturday Matinee: Bluto & Popeye, Kings of Coney’s Mardi Gras

February 25, 2012: Video: Happy International Sword Swallowers Day!

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Rsuh Aaron Hicks

Sideshow performer Rush Aaron Hicks. Photo via Facebook

Black history month is over and guess what? There are people who still don’t know blackface is never okay. Last year, it was Brooklyn State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who wore an afro wig and brown makeup to a Purim party, and whose apologies showed his ignorance. Now New York’s sideshow and burlesque community is in a furor over the news that rubber skin man Rush Aaron Hicks did his act in blackface at the Lower East Side’s Palace of Variety, the Slipper Room, on Friday.

Initially, the performer tried to brush off criticism by posting that he did it “at random” and wasn’t racist because he “slept with two black girls this year,” which only made matters worse and provoked a rebuke on the blog Jezebel. Since then, all posts on his Facebook page that are critical of him, including outraged comments as well as friendly advice from members of New York’s sideshow and burlesque world, are being deleted.

Al G Field Minstrels

Circa 1910 Poster for Minstrel and Vaudeville Comedian Nick Hufford. Al G Field Minstrels, Otis Lithograph Co. Library of Congress Collection

What’s next for this young performer? An apology followed by an assignment to read a few books on the history of blackface and minstrelsy and write a report on what he has learned would be in order. James Habacker, artistic director of the Slipper Room, told ATZ:

The Slipper Room has always been a place that has welcomed diversity. Over the years our stage has been graced by people of every ethnicity, sexual orientation, body type, and proclivity. We do not now, nor will we ever have, a policy of telling artists what they can and can’t do in their acts. Rush Hicks made a poor choice in doing blackface. His unfortunate comments after the fact have only served to make matters worse for him. We had a few bookings with him for this spring, which we have cancelled, to give him time to reflect on his actions and their consequences.

Last season, Hicks was in the cast of the Coney Island Circus Sideshow but his scheduled appearance at the organization’s Gala later this month has been cancelled. Coney Island USA artistic director Dick Zigun told ATZ in an email:

Yes I am aware of this sad controversy. Rush is not currently under contract with CIUSA. His questionable performance took place at the Slipper Room and he was in no way there on behalf of CIUSA . He was scheduled to perform with us in a few weeks and that appearance has been cancelled.

No performer has ever appeared on any CIUSA stage in blackface. Whether or not Rush ever appears with us again will depend on his apologies and actions regarding this incident. I will personally be monitoring his personal and performance statements

William H. West's Big Minstrel Jubilee

Circa 1899 Poster of Carroll Johnson as himself and in blackface. William H. West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee. Strobridge Litho. Co., Library of Congress Collection

The Brooklyn-based performer was born with vascular Ehlers Danlos syndrome, a condition that gives him hypermobile joints and the ability to stretch his skin in the tradition of classic sideshow acts like The Rubber Skin Man and The Elastic Man. Hicks usually appears in whiteface, as seen in photos on his Facebook page. On Friday night at the Slipper Room, after showing up without a costume and white greasepaint, he decided on the spur-of-the-moment to do his act nude and in black makeup, according to a YouTube video which is now “private.”

Despite the furor on social media, Hicks is not without supporters. One friend recommends that Hicks’ critics should “get so excited about police surveillance, NSA encroachment, violent hate crimes, genetic modification of food, pollution, pay inequality and other things that actually call for 700 comments on a Facebook page and an article in Jezebel and others.” Steve Peluso, who produces a show at Lucky 13 Saloon, thinks the controversy will be good for business. As he says on Facebook:

Congratulations Rush Aaron Hicks. You are doing exactly what any good clown should. Playing the fool to expose the foolishness of others. Plus you got LOADS of FREE advertising for yourself, The Slipper Room and every other venue and performer/producer who works with you. Including me!

Thanks for saving me the expense of a full page layout in the Voice for our shows. I’m one of the few producers who understand that in showbiz Controversy like this is simply… GOLD!

The vintage posters shown above are from the Library of Congress’s collection of more than 175 original lithographs documenting the history of 19th and early 20th century minstrel shows.

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November 7, 2013: Photos from the Glory Days of the Sideshow Banner

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Lady Aye, Sword Swallower. Photo © Rose Callahan

Lady Aye, Sword Swallower. Photo © Rose Callahan

Step right up, the “Sweetheart of the Sideshow” is alive and on the inside at the library! Today at 5pm, sideshow sword swallower and pain-proof girl Ilise “The Lady Aye” Carter is lecturing and performing at The New York Public Library. “Her story exemplifies how overcoming fears can make perceived failures into real opportunities – a skill everyone can benefit from. Live performances of traditional sideshow skills like walking on glass, sword swallowing, and human blockhead make this is a one-of-a-kind experience,” according to the listing.

The free event is at the Tompkins Square Branch of the library at 331 East 10th Street in Manhattan’s East Village.

We’ve attended sideshow performances in art galleries and museums but never in a public library. As far as we know it’s a first.

The Lady Aye, whose writings on sideshow, culture and performance have appeared in many publications, tells ATZ: “I’ve given these talks at places like the Gap and Innovate VA, where I use my experience going from stage-shy financial editor to the ‘Sweetheart of the Sideshow’ and how people can apply these principles of creativity to their own careers. I work with the Alternative Speakers’ Bureau and founder Noah Scalin’s book Unstuck to help people realize these changes.”

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December 4, 2013: Curator of the Unusual Seeks Sideshow Freaks & Working Acts for 2014

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Sword Swallower's Day

Ripley’s Times Square, Sword Swallower’s Day 2013. Photo courtesy of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not

Today at 2:22:14pm local time, sword swallowers at Ripley’s Odditoriums in Times Square, Hollywood and several other locations will simultaneously participate in the annual “Big Swallow” for World Sword Swallower’s Day. The free live show begins at 1:30pm.

“Because sword swallowing is so rare, sword swallowers usually perform solo,” says Dan Meyer, the president of the Sword Swallowers Association International (SSAI), which co-sponsors the event. “World Sword Swallower’s Day gives us a chance to work together to be part of something bigger.” The annual event promotes this ancient art, honors veteran performers, and raises awareness of the medical contributions sword swallowers have made in the fields of medicine and science.

At the Times Square Ripley’s, performers include Todd Robbins, Kyle Mertz and Jim Stileonis. Last year, Robbins’ 5-year old son, Phineas “Finn” Robbins, a Broadway and television actor who often accompanies his famous Dad to sideshow gigs, cutely performed with a toy sword.

Lucky Daredevil Thrill Show

Sword Swallowing Couple Tyler Fyre and Thrill Kill Jill of Lucky Daredevil Thrill Show. Photo Carlo Pizarro. August 3, 2013

Tyler Fyre and Thrill Kill Jill of West Virginia-based Lucky Daredevil Thrill Show will perform in Baltimore. The ravishingly beautiful Jill, who is currently 7 months pregnant with the couple’s third child, is billed as “The World’s Only Pregnant Sword Swallower.”

In St Augustine, Florida, 15-year old Haley Hall, “The World’s Youngest Sword Swallower,” will join multiple Guinness World Record holder Dan Meyer. For World Sword Swallower’s Day 2013, Meyer swallowed a sword and used it to pull a 3700 lb car out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not Baltimore.

At Ripley’s in Hollywood, performers include George the Giant, known as “The World’s Tallest Sword Swallower,” and Brett Loudermilk, who posted this artful and hilarious how-to-be-a-sword-swallower-video along with the disclaimer “DO NOT TRY THIS! ALL INSTRUCTIONS ARE FAKE.”

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October 6, 2013: Video of the Day: The Down Home Daredevils

February 4, 2013: Rare & Vintage: Girl to Gorilla Sideshow Banner

April 18, 2012: Rare & Vintage: A Neon Sword Swallower’s Sideshow Banner

February 25, 2012: Video: Happy International Sword Swallowers Day!

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Jim Zajicek's Big Circus Sideshow

Jim Zajicek’s Big Circus Sideshow. Photo © Jim Zajicek

Jim Zajicek, Curator of the Unusual and Proprietor of the Big Circus Sideshow recently wrote a Help Wanted post on Facebook that grabbed our attention. His idiosyncratic slang called up memories of carnival ads from the dear, old Billboard, the Showman’s Bible…

The BIG ONE IS NOW LOOKING TO HIRE
for 2014 Season..

Can place Couple and or Individual/s…
WANTED: Freaks, Working Acts, Swaller, Blockhead, BON, Fire, Those that double, given preference, let us know what you can do?…
Chinese involved
We Pay REAL Money, and you must deliver the goods…Salary/Cherry Pie..
A good home to save money for right people…
Don’t misrepresent or get by with smut as the Mgr is a Old Showman…
Only Serious Inquiries Only…
NO Boozers, Chasers, Dopers, Funny Book Readers No Tats on Dome or Bones in noses…This show plays Church spots…

IF you walk upright and eat with a Knife and Fork this could be a Good opportunity for you…

Contact: Jim Zajicek..
Big Circus Sideshow.
curatoroftheunusual@hotmail.com

Or message Jim Zajicek on Facebook

Zajicek is taking applications for the upcoming season, which runs from mid-March through the first week of November. The Big Circus Sideshow plays mostly West of the Mississippi, he says. After starting in the circus business in 1979 with Franzen Bros. Circus, the showman started his own show more than a decade ago.

Here’s a video by Cris Siqueira of the show’s last three spots of the 2011 season at the Heart O’ Texas Fair & Rodeo in Waco, Texas; the Washington Parish Fair in Franklinton, Louisiana; and the State Fair of Louisiana in Shreveport.

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Related posts on ATZ…

November 23, 2013: More Photos from the Glory Days of the Sideshow Banner

November 7, 2013: Photos from the Glory Days of the Sideshow Banner

June 27, 2013: Photo Album: The Front of the Show at Meadowlands Fair

September 18, 2010: Photo of the Day: Takeshi Yamada’s Freak Baby Museum at San Gennaro

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