Circus Clowns to Washington: 'Don't Call the Presidential Recount a Sideshow'

By Buck Wolf

Nov. 18 — The sideshow stars of Gibsonton, Fla., are all but gone. For the most part, all that remains are the memories of the Half Girl, the Human Seal and Lobster Boy.

Fifty years ago, folks who made their living as sideshow attractions spent the winter months in this seaside town just outside Tampa. Back then, folks wouldn’t bat an eye when a bearded lady, hermaphrodite, or three-legged man ambled down the street. Some of the residents even affectionately called the place “Freaktown, USA.”

The circus and carnival people still reside here. But sideshows have gone the way of the minstrel act, and only a few elderly residents ever made a living as “professional freaks,” as they were once called.

Still, this town of 7,000 people, who largely live in small houses and trailers, remains the largest concentration of carnies. Residents of Gibsonton and vicinity are ticket takers, ride and attraction mechanics, working clowns, acrobats, and animal trainers.

These folks take a lot of pride in their profession, and they’re none too pleased with the throngs of reporters and political analysts who’ve arrived in their home state, calling the Florida election a “circus,” “carnival” and “sideshow.”

“I’ve been in circus life for 40 years, and let me tell you, a circus is highly organized and efficient. This election is chaotic,” says Jackie Le Claire, a retired white-face clown who traveled with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

“You ever try to manage dozens of clowns, acrobats and wild animals? Don’t use ‘circus’ when you mean ‘disorganized,’” Le Claire says. “Everything needs to be precise. We could teach these election officials a thing or two.”

Blockhead: ‘We Deserve a President’

Gibsonton’s last remaining human blockhead, 93-year-old Melvin Burkhardt, is having a good laugh over the election chaos. “I wouldn’t honor those election officials by calling them blockheads. At least I made an honest living at what I did. I entertained thousands of people all over the world and on TV,” he says. “I’ve been on Jerry Springer four times.”

Burkhardt’s routine, which he still performs on occasion, involves leaning backward and hammering nails, spikes, screwdrivers and ice picks up his nose. A boxing injury as a teenager resulted in several bones being removed from his nasal cavity, allowing him to thrill and amuse audiences around the world.