Monday, October 20, 2003

YORK, Pa. - Ward Hall, consummate showman, is drawing a crowd outside the “World of Wonders” tent by speaking endlessly about the world’s tallest woman, the world’s fattest man and the world’s ugliest face.

At his side, Poobah, a 73-year-old man who is the size of a 5-year-old boy, eats a mouthful of fire.

“You only need two things to do this trick,” Mr. Hall says. “First, you need a midget who’s willing to let you take his head off.”

At this point, the second thing on Mr. Hall’s list becomes moot. The crowd is hooked, and onlookers fork over the $2 admission to the tent.

Still, Mr. Hall and his partner, Chris Christ, keep working the crowd, calling passers-by to check out what is certainly the most bizarre attraction at this country fair in rural Pennsylvania. But the two men say that when this season is over, they will fold their tent for good.

They are tired after decades on the road, and tastes in entertainment have changed. “World of Wonders” may very well be the last traveling sideshow in America, and when it closes this year, it will be the end of an era.

Mr. Hall started in the business in 1946, moving to sideshows when he determined he wouldn’t make it in the circus. In the 1960s, he brought in Mr. Christ. They have worked together on the Gibsonton, Fla.-based show ever since.

They traveled the country, visiting carnivals and county fairs. Acts on a small stage outside their tent attracted passers-by who, for a small fee, saw even more wonders within.

Sometimes a dozen or more performers shared stages inside — fire eaters and human pincushions. But it was the “human oddities” who always stole the show — a “human turtle,” a “penguin boy,” an “alligator-skinned man” and a “monkey girl.”

The performers had joined the show of their own free will, but over time, public understanding of genetic conditions evolved, making the acts less palatable.

Emmett Bejano, the “alligator-skinned man,” suffered from icthyosis, a family of genetic skin diseases that make the skin appear hard and scaly. Percilla Lauther, the “monkey girl,” had a condition that caused her to grow hair all over her body.

They met in the sideshows, traveled together and eventually married. Today, they probably would receive medical treatment, and they probably never would have met.

“Today, most of the ‘freaks’ most people see aren’t out of the ordinary anymore. We understand what it is that makes them different,” said Stephen Baker, 36, a magician in Mr. Hall’s show who performs under the name “Mystic Marlow.” “It used to be the best way for a midget to make a living was in the circus or the sideshows. Now, anybody can do anything.

“You won’t find any freaks here other than the midget, the fat man and myself,” he added. “I was born with an extra Y chromosome.”

Genetic imbalance or no — extra Y chromosomes do not result in any outward physical manifestations — Mystic Marlow has made a career of being freakish. His specialty in the “World of Wonders” show is hammering nails deep into his nostrils.

But most of the other “freaks” advertised by “World of Wonders” exist only in the past. Outside, the tent’s bold, hand-painted panels advertise “Laloo: the Strangest Man in Pakistan,” “Schlitzie: A head the size of a grapefruit” and “Betty Lou Williams: Considered the Greatest Human Oddity Ever Born.” Inside, guests find nothing more than their images and stories, in a museum of sideshow history.

Showbiz has changed, too, since Mr. Hall and Mr. Christ started. “This business used to be an entertainment business,” Mr. Christ said. “Now we’re in the amusement business.”

“Up until the early ‘60s, a fair like this would have maybe 25 rides, a big all-girl revue, orchestras, an all-black revue. And there would be a sideshow, sometimes more than one,” Mr. Hall said. “People came to see the shows. Today, the carnival business has turned into the ride business.”

Mr. Hall already has semi-retired, traveling only at the tail end of this year’s tour. Mr. Christ, 55, who started as a teenager, says he needs a change.

Al Stencell, a circus owner for 20 years and author of “Seeing Is Believing: America’s Side Shows,” calls the two men “the last of the sideshow operators, through attrition mostly. Pretty well all the old-timers died off in the ‘70s, but Ward was a little bit behind that generation and he kept going.”

Still, Mr. Stencell said, the sideshow tradition will continue in other venues after “World of Wonders” stops. Fixed sideshows still operate on Coney Island and other carnival sites, and sideshows in theaters are gaining popularity — perhaps even enough to persuade some future operator to go on the road and fill the void created by Mr. Christ and Mr. Hall’s retirement.

“I’d hate to see it be the last,” Mr. Stencell said.

“Professor Chumley,” a fire eater whose real name is John LeBrun and who can lie on a bed of nails while a 250-pound man stands on his torso, joined the “World of Wonders” this season because he wanted to be part of the show’s final tour.

“I had heard rumors that this was going to be their last year,” Mr. LeBrun said. “I knew if I ever wanted a chance to really live the life, this would be it.”

“I’m not sure what I’ll do,” said Bruce Snowden, 57, the 400-pound “fat man” who goes by the name “Harold Huge.” “It’s like asking the bartender of the Titanic what he’s going to do when the ship’s already at 45 degrees.”

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