There recently was a series on TV called American Horror Story: Freak Show. It was fictional, about one of the last freak shows in America and its struggle to survive. The show featured such characters as a bearded lady, a woman with three breasts, and man with seal’s flippers for arms.
The show reminded me of years ago, when the fairs in NH actually had sideshow attractions. My husband and I, who were in our early 20s back then, always were fascinated with the sideshows. I mean, where else, for a mere $1.50, could we see exciting exhibits such as a “genuine” ancient Egyptian mummy that looked remarkably like a department-store mannequin wrapped in gauze bandages, lying in a pine box decorated with hieroglyphics written in magic marker?
But some of the sideshow attractions actually were meant to be educational. I remember one in particular at the Rochester Fair that featured a teenager locked in a cage. The poor kid was crouched in a corner, rocking back and forth on his heels as he grunted and growled like a wild animal. His hair was long and matted, his eyes glazed and unseeing. A corner of his mouth drooped, causing him to drool down the front of his filthy, tattered shirt. A large sign above the cage read: “If you take drugs, this could happen to you!”
“What a shame,” I said to my husband after we exited the tent. “I’ll bet he was a perfectly normal, good-looking kid before he got mixed up with drugs. I feel so sorry for him.”
My husband shook his head and sighed. “Yeah, but as awful as it is, maybe some good will come of it. I mean, if he makes even one kid think twice about taking drugs, then putting him on display like this will be worth it.”
We stood talking near the tent for a few minutes longer. Suddenly, my husband nudged me and pointed toward a grassy area behind the tent. There stood the poor, pathetic drooling kid we’d just seen in the cage. He was lighting a cigarette and drinking a soft drink…which just had been handed to him by an attractive young blonde.
“It feels great to take a break,” the “zombie” said to the blonde as he slipped his arm around her waist. “It really kills my back and my knees when I have to keep crouching like that.”
Okay, so getting duped was just another aspect of the sideshow’s appeal. Take, for example, the “Missing Link” that was featured years ago at one of the fairs. It was billed as a half-man, half-animal “living thing” that had been captured in the deepest jungles of Bora Bora, or someplace equally as exotic. I really wanted to see what it looked like, but my husband said he refused to waste good money on what he was certain would be nothing but a big hoax. Determined, I convinced my mother, who’d come to the fair with us, to go into the creature’s trailer with me.
Well, the Missing Link turned out to be a chimpanzee with long tufts of fake fur attached to its body. He (she?) smelled awful - kind of like a skunk that had taken a bath in a septic tank. The second my mother set eyes on the Missing Link, she burst out laughing. Even when the other spectators turned around to glare at us, she continued to laugh.
“I think they should rename it the ‘Missing Stink!’” my mother whispered to me as she choked back more laughter. When she said that, the creature yanked off a big tuft of its fake fur and flung it at us. Maybe he was part human after all.
There were a few sideshow attractions, though, that (in my opinion) weren’t fake. One guy, the Rubber Man, actually tied himself into knots. And there was a sword swallower who accidentally drew blood (though my husband insisted the “blood” was corn syrup mixed with red food coloring). And then there was the man who could turn his stomach inside out – and make everyone wish they hadn’t eaten those popular pepper-steak subs before seeing him.
One of my husband’s favorite attractions at the fair, however, wasn’t one of the sideshow exhibits. It was a particular clown in a dunking booth. Believe me, this clown wasn’t anyone you’d want to hire to entertain at kids’ parties. His sole purpose was to merciless harass and insult passersby until he made them so angry, they’d be willing to pay just about anything for the opportunity to peg a few baseballs at his head. My husband liked watching him, mostly because he wanted to see someone shut him up by dunking him.
One night, we witnessed the clown going a little too far with his taunting. As a result, he nearly ended up sharing the coffin with the Egyptian mummy.
On that night, a hulk of a guy who looked as if he could capture alligators with his bare hands, walked past the dunking booth. .
“Hey, Tiny!” the clown called out to him. “Is that your head, or did your neck throw up?”
The man stopped abruptly and narrowed his eyes at him.
“You’re here all by yourself?” the clown continued. “Well, I have three words of advice for you if you ever want to get a date – ‘soap and water!’”
The Hulk’s jaw clenched, and veins began popping out on his forehead. Still, the clown wouldn’t back off.
“Tell me,” the clown shouted, “just how closely related were your parents?”
I swear I actually saw steam rising from the Hulk’s collar. Then, as if right on cue, the clown’s assistant appeared and held out three baseballs. He asked the man if he would like to pay $2 to try to dunk the clown.
“Oh, I definitely want to dunk him!” the man snapped in a voice that sounded a lot like a bear’s, if bears could talk. “But you can keep your baseballs! I’m going to drown him with my bare hands!” With a guttural cry, he rushed up to the clown’s cage, jumped up and grabbed the front of it, then tried to yank off the protective metal screen.
When he didn’t succeed, he shouted at the clown, “I’ll be back later. You have to come out of that cage sometime tonight!”
Rumor has it that the clown skipped out early that night to go hire a couple bodyguards.
Within a few years, sideshows began to disappear. When my husband and I went to our first fair that didn’t have one (or any other “unique” exhibits), we couldn’t conceal our boredom. We stood in one building and stared, yawning, at the sheep. Then we went to the next building and stared and yawned even more at the rabbits and chickens.
“This sure would be a lot more exciting if one of the chickens had three legs or the rabbit had two heads,” my husband said.
“Oh well,” I said, trying to muster up some enthusiasm. “Let’s check out the arts and crafts building. I heard someone talking about a replica of the Statue of Liberty made entirely from elbow macaroni.”
“I’d rather go on one of the rides,” he said. “There’s one over there that goes about 60 miles an hour, plays great music, and you can steer it yourself.”
“Sounds good!” I said. “Let’s go!”
He led me back to our car.
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