- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2007

FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — Ward Hall, clad in a red tuxedo, bow tie and shimmering gold lapels, looked around the Great Frederick Fair midway on a slow Monday evening in September and climbed to the stage.

Mr. Hall, 77, has been plying his trade for six decades. With a bold confidence, he said grandly: “Step right up and watch what we’re going to do. We are going to have a little fun.”

A few spectators at the fair looked toward Mr. Hall and his colleagues: a little person named Pete Terhune and a dark-haired woman twirling a sword almost as tall as Mr. Terhune.

“Watch. Watch what the little man can do,” Mr. Hall said, gesturing toward Mr. Terhune, who uses the nickname “Poobah.”

On cue, Mr. Terhune, a legendary sideshow performer himself, gently touched a torch in his right hand to a torch in his left. Suddenly, blazes of fire appeared in each palm.

The crowd grew to 20 or 30 onlookers. Mr. Terhune slowly put out the large flames in his mouth.

“You’re looking at one of the Munchkins from ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ Still performing,” Mr. Hall said. “He learned to eat fire for the movie ‘Carny,’ starring a young lady named Jodie Foster.”

Next, “Ms. Diane Falk, a Guinness Book of World Records women’s sword-swallowing champion,” lowered a 28-inch steel blade down her throat after audience members verified the weapon was real.

The crowd was enthralled.

Twenty-five persons bought $2 tickets and made their way through the “World of Wonders” turnstile. There, it was advertised, was a headless woman, a two-headed mummy, a mermaid skeleton, a woman walking on knives, a man willing to be hammered while lying atop a bed of nails, a spider woman and an “iron-tongue” pull. Also available were illusions, magic and a ventriloquist act for children.

This is one of the country’s last traveling sideshows.

“I quit school when I was 14 to join the circus, and my dad told me I’d be back home in two weeks,” Mr. Hall said. “That was 1944. I was the worst clown in history.”

Mr. Hall was not especially athletic, so the trapeze, acrobatics and daredevil stunts didn’t suit him. But he could sing and dance, and joined the circus’s musical.

But soon he learned to eat fire, swallow swords and juggle. Later, Mr. Hall spent $35, a week’s pay, on a mail-order wooden ventriloquist dummy. He traded it for another ventriloquist’s used dummy when it arrived, getting lessons in return.

“That act hasn’t changed in all these years,” Mr. Hall said. “I still make the same old, corny jokes.”

Mr. Hall lived on the rail then.

“We traveled on the circus train for six months,” he said. “I had a nice berth, and we ate good. Ask anybody who worked with those circuses in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and they’ll tell you it was the best days of their lives.”

Mr. Hall had a show with 15 dogs, eight ponies and 40 trained monkeys. He also did a lion act and a chimpanzee act for years.

Before there were televisions in every home — in towns throughout the Midwest, Texas and Oklahoma, where Mr. Hall was born — the circus or “carny” was the only chance for many folks to see the unusual.

Then, rides became cheaper and easier to transport, supplanting sideshows with each season.

Mr. Hall soldiered on. He took shows through Mexico and Central and South America. He did movies with MGM and appeared on the old Tom Snyder TV show. For years in the early 1980s, the Smithsonian Institution hired Mr. Hall and his traveling sideshow at the Mall as part of its tribute to American culture.

“Ward is truly a national treasure,” said Dick Flint, a former Smithsonian program director at the National Museum of American History. “When he goes — the 10-in-1, as they call the sideshow in the business — it will go, too.”

Mr. Hall, who uses a hearing aid and takes heart medication, said otherwise. He says he is in good shape and will quit at 100.

“I love it some days, [and] I hate it some days,” Mr. Hall said. “But I still want to be in show business. That’s why I left home when I was 14.”

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