The sideshow has been slowly disappearing. Over time it has become part of our past. Let’s go back in time and imagine what it was like to see on a midway.
There are four main types of classic sideshow attractions:
- The “Ten-in-One” offers a program of ten sequential acts under one tent for a single admission price. The ten-in-one might be partly a freak show exhibiting “human oddities” (including “born freaks” such as midgets, giants or persons with other deformities, or “made freaks” like tattooed people, fat people or “human skeletons”- extremely thin men often “married” to the fat lady. However, for variety’s sake, the acts in a ten-in-one would also include working acts who would perform magic tricks or daredevil stunts.
In addition, the freak show performers might also perform acts or stunts, and would often sell souvenirs like “giant’s rings” (we have some in the museum) or “pitch cards” (available at the museum) with their photos and life stories. The ten-in-one would often end with an extra act not advertised on the outside, which could be viewed for an additional fee.
- The “Single-O” is a single attraction, for example a single curiosity like the “Bonnie and Clyde Death Car” or Hitler’s staff car, a “Giant Rat” Midget Horse or other unusual animal, a “What Is It?” the Fiji Mermaid or a an attraction like: “See the Victim of Drug Abuse.”
- A “Museum Show” which might be deceptively billed as “World’s Greatest Freaks Past and Present,” is a sideshow in which the exhibits are usually not alive. It might include tanks of piranhas or cages with unusual animals, stuffed freak animals or other exotic items like the weapons or cars allegedly used by famous murderers. Some of the exhibits might even be dummies or photographs of the billed attractions. It could still be truthfully billed with the claim “$1,000 reward if not absolutely real — please do not touch or feed the animals on exhibit”. The Single-O and the Museum Show are usually operated as “grind shows,” meaning that patrons may enter at any time, viewing the various exhibits at their leisure.
- A “Girl Show” was sometimes offered in which women were the primary attraction. These could range from “Broadway Revue”with fully clothed performers to the racier “hootchie-kootchie” show which might play either partly clothed or “strong”
Working acts often exhibited a number of stunts that could be counted on to draw crowds. These stunts used little-known methods and offered the elements of danger and excitement. Although the mainstream media often explained fanciful methods of performing these acts, the real secret was usually that there is no secret, you just do it. Such acts included fire eating, sword swallowing, knife throwing, body piercing, lying on a bed of nails, walking up a ladder of sharp swords, and more.
Interest in sideshows declined as television made it easy (and free) to see the world’s most exotic attractions. Moreover, viewing “human oddities” became distasteful as the public conscience changed, and many localities passed laws forbidding the exhibition of freaks. The performers often protested (to no avail) that they had no objection to the sideshow, especially since it provided not only a good income for them, but in many cases it provided their only possible job. The sideshow seemed destined for oblivion, until only a few exemplars of the ten-in-one remained. A greater number of “Single O” attractions still tour carnivals.
In the early 1990s, Jim Rose developed a modern sideshow called “the Jim Rose Circus“, reinventing the sideshow with two types of acts that would attract modern audiences and stay within legal bounds. The show featured acts reviving traditional sideshow stunts and carrying some of them to extremes, and “fringe” artists often exhibiting extreme body modification, performing bizarre or masochistic acts like eating insects, lifting weights by means of hooks inserted in their body piercings, or stapling currency to their forehead. The show drew audiences at venues unknown to old-time sideshows, like rock clubs and the 1992 Lollapalooza festival. The Jim Rose Circus held its last known performance in 2013 at The London Burlesque Festival. The impact of the Jim Rose Circus on pop culture inspired a new wave of performers. There are now more sideshow performers than at any other time in the genre’s history. At the same time in Canada, Scott McClelland, grandson of itinerant showman N.P. Lewchuk, formed Carnival Diablo, a show that performs frequently to this day.
The success of these shows sparked a growing number of performers to revive the traditional sideshow arts, taught by sideshow veterans, and many now perform in spot engagements from rock clubs and comedy clubs to corporate events.