The Secretly Normal Lives of Sideshow Stars

Step Right Up, Step Right Up, for a Fresh Look at Lobster Boy, the Human Blockhead and Other Circus Legends


Nov. 1, 2005 —  Show me a bearded lady, a knife thrower, and a pain-proof tattooed man, and I'll show you a college professor, a minister who's performed hundreds of weddings, and a prospective law student who relaxes on a bed of nails.

Many sideshow stars don't mind being called "freak," at least when they're working. But make no mistake; they'd like you to know that they choose to be freaks — to hammer nails up their nose, to eat light bulbs, to let facial hair grow to lengths no facial hair should grow.

After thumbing through Marc Hartzman's new book, "American Sideshow" (Penguin Group), I just had to contact some of today's curiously strange performers and talk about their remarkably normal offstage lives. One thing is clear: Just as countless Americans eagerly transform themselves into bug-eating reality TV stars, today's sideshow performers are proving anything's possible when it comes to second careers.

Bearded woman Jennifer Miller is a 45-year-old adjunct professor at New York University. She has taught dance and theater to students of all ages, including actress Claire Danes (when Danes was a third-grader), and she doesn't bother with waxing, shaving or electrolysis.

"I would never hide who I am," Miller says. She was in her early 20s and already working as a professional dancer when an endocrine disorder left her with a thick set of whiskers.

Miller was soon working at Coney Island's Sideshow by the Seashore as "Zenobia," putting a feminist spin on the traditional bearded woman act. She posed nude in acclaimed photographer Annie Leibovitz's book, "Women."

These days, in addition to teaching, she's ringmaster of Circus Amok, a politically charged big top where clowns have been known to break into Hula-Hoop routines to decry tax loopholes for the rich.

"The kids get over the beard much faster than the adults," she says. "The adults should know that many women have some facial hair."

Knife-Wielding Preacher Heeds Second Calling

The Great Throwdini, a modern knife-throwing legend, is not only a man of steel, he's also a man of the cloth. Otherwise known as the Rev. David Adamovich, he studied theology at the Unity in Christ Christian Fellowship Ministry and has performed more than 3,000 weddings.

At 59, Throwdini practices what he calls "The Impalement Arts," and this year he set a world record by throwing 75 knives around a human target in less than a minute. His female assistant — Ula, the Pain-Proof Rubber Girl — was unharmed. But what's more amazing is that Throwdini had never thrown a knife until after his 50th birthday.

"I heard this calling late in life," says the reverend, who practiced for five years on mannequins, perfecting the art of coming within an inch of the doll's clothing and hitting his mark blindfolded.

"I was taught to value life," he says, "so it was scary at first. But I had a natural talent for it that I couldn't ignore."

Indeed, Adamovich is a man of many talents. He also holds a doctorate in exercise physiology from Teacher's College at Columbia University, and he's taught at the university level for 14 years.

But knife-throwing led to work at Coney Island, then an off-Broadway show called "Maximum Risk," and now, international tours. He spoke with The Wolf Files while preparing to leave for a tour of Brazil.

Adamovich still performs dozens of weddings each year, and his Hummer reflects the two sides of his personality. On one side it reads, "Chapel on Wheels." Emblazoned on the other is "The Great Throwdini."

Another man of diverse talents is 7-foot-3-inch George "the Giant" McArthur. He's two inches taller than Shaquille O'Neal, but his true talent is sword swallowing, lighting 100 firecrackers off his stomach, or snorting a balloon through one nostril and blowing it out the other.

Still, this 36-year-old behemoth, who appeared on HBO's "Carnivále," doesn't stick out as much as you'd think: He's also regularly employed as a security guard, patrolling gated communities in Southern California.

"You could say that working in sideshows has given me a variety of professional skills," says McArthur. "It's easy, compared to other things I've done."

After appearing in Tim Burton's "Big Fish," McArthur wants more on-camera opportunities. In the meantime, he's held many highly unsought-after Hollywood jobs, including a stint as an insect wrangler on TV's "Fear Factor," corralling the "garden sushi" consumed by bug-eating contestants.

Reality TV Ushers in Sideshow Renaissance

Reality TV has certainly played a role in today's sideshow revival, if only by reasserting every American's right to self-exploitation, whether or not one has a physical abnormality.

Sideshows predate the Civil War, with stars like Chang and Eng Bunker, conjoined brothers who became stars as "The Siamese Twins." After years of touring, they bought a plantation in Wilkes County, N.C. Despite being joined at the chest, they married sisters, and eventually fathered 22 children, none of whom was a twin.

Another set of conjoined twins billed themselves as "The Hilton Sisters." Unlike Paris and Nikki Hilton, these girls could sing and dance.

The biggest of all sideshow stars was a 25-inch-tall dwarf from Bridgeport, Conn., known as "General Tom Thumb." P.T. Barnum's biggest star, General Tom Thumb performed in his famed military outfit for millions of people, including command performances for British royalty.

Economics, Modern Medicine — Not Political Correctness — Led to Decline

By the 1950s, sideshows had reached their zenith with more than 100 touring acts crossing America. Many believe that sensitivities toward people with disabilities caused these exhibitions to fade.

Indeed, some states began crackdowns, but they were often opposed by the very people they were meant to protect.

In 1972, Stanley Berent, a 3-foot-7-inch fire-eating dwarf better known on stage as "Sealo, the Seal Boy," challenged a Florida law that banned the exhibition of deformed people and was victorious in a state supreme court, becoming a champion of "Freak Rights."

Truly, it was economics and modern medicine that caused the decline in sideshows more than political correctness.

The carnivals that hosted sideshows found they could make more money with amusement park rides. At the same time, treatments had emerged that allowed people to address birth defects that made some people unique.

"It's interesting that modern medicine saved many people from physical abnormalities, but you now see people using the same medical advancements to change their bodies and turn themselves into sideshow stars," says Hartzman.

"When you see people with surgically implanted horns and forked tongues or earlobes that have been removed, you know it's completely by their own choice."

Hartzman, long recognized by the Wolf Files as one of America's leading connoisseurs of the bizarre, spent two years profiling some 200 of the most celebrated sideshow performers, from Lobster Boy (who beat his wife with his misshapen claw-like hands and was killed in a contract murder) to Lionel, the Lion-Faced Man (who was fluent in five languages and had the brains to go into medicine, but realized he could make more money just letting people gawk at him).

Then there's the story of Melvin Burkhardt, who perfected the art of hammering nails, spikes, screwdrivers and ice picks up his nose, to become the first human blockhead, an act that brought him international fame at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. He was a blockhead, but his wife loved him for it.

While the sideshows will always have their critics, many of the performers, even to this day, are a tight-knit bunch who defend their business and stick up for one another.

As legendary sideshow impresario Ward Hall once defiantly told 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."

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at "The Wolf Files" is published Tuesdays.