The Circus Sideshow Comeback

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Where Have All the Bearded Ladies Gone?

As recently as the early 1950s, dozens of traveling "freak shows" featuring bearded ladies, hermaphrodites, giants, dwarfs and folks with multiple limbs toured the country. The pros say it took more than political correctness to bring them to the edge of extinction.

Medical science provided corrective surgery and other treatments for many people born with deformities, reducing the potential stable of talent. But the real killer may have been economics.

"The sideshows used to work on a 60-40 split with the carnivals," says sideshow impresario Ward Hall, who has operated the "World of Wonders" sideshow for more than 40 years.

"But then the carnivals started investing in big rides. Once you have a ride, you get all the money and you don't have to worry about the split."

Hall's World of Wonders still pitches its tent all around the country, recently playing the Westchester County Fair in New York. In its heyday in the 1950s, Hall acted as the carnival barker, standing in front of the theater with a straw hat and cane, shouting, "Hurry, hurry, hurry, see the most amazing sights in the world with your own two eyes …"

Hall is now 72 and that patter is delivered via a tape recorder, and a good part of the World of Wonders exists as a wax museum. The show still features "Howard Huge," a 712-pound man; a fire-eating dwarf; a woman who dances the cha-cha over broken glass; and a man known as "Tough Titties" — because he pulls a wagon laden with sledgehammers by hooks in his chest.

In the early 1960s, some states began cracking down on sideshows. Pete Terhurne, Hall's 3-foot-7-inch fire eater, and a man known as "Sealo, the Seal Boy" (he had hands growing out of his shoulders), challenged a Florida law against exploitation of deformed people, and in 1972, the state Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional.

Hall has since gone on the offensive to defend the sideshow life. In 1994, he denounced critics who wrote about exploitation shows, telling the Chicago Tribune, "Until you've sat up all night with the fat lady in a hospital room or consoled a brokenhearted dwarf, you're no expert."