The last sideshow

Fire eater
Pete Terhurne is originally from Breckenridge, Minnesota. For over five decades, he's been performing around the country as Poobah the Fire-Eating Pygmy.
MPR Photo / Nikki Tundel

People make a lot of promises at the state fair.

The guy manning the break-the-plate game swears anyone can be a winner. The woman in the merchandise mart guarantees her slicer-dicer is the fastest around. And the operator of the Fireball says it's impossible to get sick from his ride.

King of the Sideshows
Ward Hall has been in the sideshow business for 61 years. Today he and his partner Chris Christ operate the World of Wonders/Palace of Illusions.
MPR Photo / Nikki Tundel

But all of those pledges pale in comparison to what Ward Hall has to say. This guy vows he has a headless woman under his tent -- and that you can meet her for the cost of just six tickets.

Of course, if anyone can make good on that kind of promise, it's Ward Hall. Hall is known around the world as the King of the Sideshows.

You can find him at the back of the state fair midway, under a poster of Spidora -- who, as the story goes, was born with a human head and the body of a spider. Hall is the one with the constant smile, the one in the top hat and sequined red tailcoat.

Step right up
Visitors to the Minnesota State Fair gathered to see the first sideshow to stop at the fairgrounds in 17 years.
MPR Photo / Nikki Tundel

The Nebraska native got his first job as a circus clown when he was 13. He moved on to fire-eating, and was soon promoted to "that guy who gets the knives thrown at him."

Then, when he was 17, he shelled out $1,000 to buy his very own sideshow. Over the past 61 years, he's worked with pretty much everyone who's anyone in the sideshow world.

"I had for some years with me the Frog Girl, Emmitt Bejano the Alligator Skinned Man," remembers Hall. "I had Priscilla the Monkey Girl. She had an orange-green complexion and long, silky, beautiful hair all over her face and body. She was a very intelligent, educated lady and she loved to dance. I loved to dance in those days. I'd rather dance than eat. And every Friday night we would have a dinner dance. Oh, I spent many hours dancing with Priscilla. She was a great Latin dancer and I loved Latin dances."

Open up and say ah
The 76-year-old, 3-foot-11-inch performer has been part of the sideshow business for 54 years.
MPR Photo / Nikki Tundel

Hall gets frustrated with people who assume the Monkey Girl was just some local teen with hair glued to her body. He says his show always featured genuine human oddities, as they're called in the business. These were real people, people who had birth defects or genetic abnormalities.

The Elephant Foot Girl, for example, had elephantitis of the feet. Sealo the Seal Boy had no arms, just hands coming out of his shoulders. And the Turtle Man was born with neither arms nor legs.

Of course, while the people were real, their monikers were pure show biz. It certainly wasn't enough to say, "We've got a woman with ichthyosis. Step right up and see her rough, scaly skin." Instead, she'd be promoted as the Reptile Girl or something like that.

Hall does admit that sometimes the personas the entertainers were given could be a bit misleading, as was the case with Abdul the Arabian Giant.

To the point
Today's sideshows no longer showcase giants or fat ladies. Instead, they are made up of fire eaters and sword sallowers.
MPR Photo / Nikki Tundel

"He was actually from Mississippi," explains Hall. "But he had a beautiful wardrobe. The headpiece with the feathers and all stood about four feet tall. Part of the lecture I told about him would be, 'He towers over other men as Mount Kilimanjaro towers above the plains of Africa. Tower for us, Abdul.' And I had taught him to never ever, speak. As far as the people were concerned, he did not speak or understand anything but Arabic. But one night, he stepped on stage, raised his hand and said, 'Hi, ya'll, hi, y'all, hi, y'all', of course in his Southern accent."

But even with little mishaps like that, people came from all over to see the giants and midgets and fat ladies. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were more than 100 traveling sideshows in the United States. Today, Hall's is the only one left.

His business partner, C.M. Christ, admits the political correctness movement didn't exactly mesh with concept of the sideshow -- or, as it used to be known, the freak show.

Today I wouldn't give you 50 cents a week for a tattooed lady because it's too common. It's not an attraction anymore.

"Today the first thing they say is, 'You don't have any freaks, do ya?'" says Christ. "What would be acceptable today is midgets. You could have a very big fat person, because a 500-pound fat person wouldn't mean anything. And a giant would be acceptable. But beyond that, the world's just different."

The way Christ sees it, society's become a bit too politically correct. Ward Hall agrees. He's convinced that without these shows, the majority of the human oddities would have been put in institutions or left to live on welfare.

Back when Hall started, no one was about to hire the Mule-Faced Woman to be a lawyer, or the Lobster Boy to teach social studies to school kids.

"The people who call themselves politically correct would deny these people the right to make a living," says Hall. "They were in sideshows because they wanted to be. They're ham actors. They love applause."

Certainly, the debate over putting human beings on display is a heated one. But when it comes to sideshows, it's become almost irrelevant.

Even if it were acceptable to refer to someone as the Legless Wonder, medical advances have made the very existence of people like the Penguin Lady or the Living Torso far less likely.

The strangest show on Earth
In the 1950s and 1960s, there were over 100 traveling sideshows in the United States. The World of Wonders/Palace of Illusions is the only one left in the country today.
MPR Photo / Nikki Tundel

Today it's possible for conjoined twins to be separated. There's plastic surgery for people like Koo Koo the Bird Girl. And there's electrolysis for the bearded ladies.

As a result, the human oddities have been replaced on stage by illusions. Hall admits that, really, today's sideshow is mostly smoke and mirrors. It features acts like the Cobra Girl and the Headless Marvel he was advertising. That one's basically on old magic trick. It uses a special chair contraption you can actually buy on the Internet.

But the show does have a sword swallower and a fire-eater, and a guy who drive nails into his head with a hammer. What truly is amazing is that they do this show every 20 minutes or so from 10:30 in the morning to 11:30 at night. That means the fire-eating midget is gulping flames about 45 times a day

When it all comes down to it, though, Ward Hall says the acts that used to pack the tent just don't cut it today. "I always had a tattooed lady. And that's interesting because they were wonderful attractions then. Today I wouldn't give you 50 cents a week for a tattooed lady because it's too common," says Hall. "It's not an attraction anymore."

He says these days, the tattooed lady is just the girl next door.

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