July 3, 2013

Step Right Up

The Loop > Magazine > Issue 5

Download The Loop Magazine on the App Store.

By Seamus Bellamy

I spent a good chunk of 2011 and 2012 trying to peel back the grease-smeared curtains of the modern sideshow and curiosity circuit in order to take a look at the outcasts, showmen and technicians that have kept a slow dying art form alive, albeit bleeding, on the fringe of the entertainment scene. It’s my kink. I dig it, and that’s all there is to it.

When you’re chasing down stories about showfolk and their craft, you have to beat the historians (and tourists like me) willing to have a jaw-wag about gaffed freaks, pickled punks, dog faced boys and the Fiji Mermaid off with a stick. Everyone thinks they’re an expert. But ask most of the performers about the technique, skills and years of training that go into surviving some of their more dangerous acts? In my experience, you typically don’t get too far. I reckon it has something to do with never having earned it. I’ve never attempted to eat a lightbulb, or pierced my scrotum so I could slide a stainless steel ring through the hole and lift a cinderblock with it.

A few performers have been willing to talk to me about their careers and some of the crazy crap they’ve seen or endured for their art. The good stories involve pain. The better ones typically end in massive blood loss and minor reconstructive surgery. But I’m not going to talk to you about good or better.

I want to talk about the best sideshow story I’ve ever heard.

Karl was wired for show business. Not the gossamer foo-foo crap that comes with being in the movies or on TV, but the hard, often thankless craft that comes with time spent schlepping about in live theatre. He started as a stage hand, and fought his way into stage management. He learned lighting and sound design. He wasn’t screwing around. But after a stint goofing on street theatre in his native England with a few friends, he woke up hooked on preforming.

It wasn’t long before street theatre gave way to a darker, more flamboyant yen. He took out a loan and used his borrowed scratch to board a plane to the states, where he spent some time studying under Tom Robbins at the Coney Island Sideshow School. Sword swallowing. Fire Eating. Snake charming. Hammering a ten penny nail into your head. It was all homework. He brought fresh-honed skills back to the island he grew up on, and started piecing an act together.

Lesley was a Canadian, but like most Canadians, her people came from elsewhere.

Lesley’s younger years were filled with stories told by her grandmother. She’d moved to Canada from Liverpool while she was in her twenties, but her people, family long dead now, were gypsies and show folk who used to travel with the fairgrounds as they shifted from town to town across Britain. Her claws of her grandmother’s stories were sunk deep into Lesley’s shoulders and back by the time she was old enough to ramble on her own. So, like her grandmother, she left her home when she was in her twenties, not to settle down, but to gather the strings of a heritage she knew only through her grandmother’s regaled memories.

It was while she was researching dead showmen that she met a live one.

Read the rest of this article by subscribing to The Loop magazine on the App Store from your iPhone or iPad.