Tuesday, April 24, 2012

time magazine carny sideshow photos (1958) / grey villet / cornell capa / hans wild

Selection of images taken by Life Magazine photographers, Grey Villet, Cornell Capa and Hans Wild at a carnival in 1958. Time Google.

a man performing a magic trick at a carnival, november 1958 (photo: grey villet)

a woman being sawed in two at a carnival, november 1958 (photo: grey villet) 

stunt driver riding a motorcyle as an audiance watches at a carnival, november 1958 (photo: grey villet)

ontortionist demonstrating abdominal control before a crowd, august 1948 (photo: cornell capa)

hoop-la layout, august 1948 (photo: cornell capa)

jean frazier getting hooked up - the iron tongue lady, august 1948 (photo: cornell capa)

people pitching pennies for cigarette prizes, august 1948 (photo: cornell capa)

set up or nap time, august 1948 (photo: cornell capa)

the man from mars is demonstrating how his head has grown since he entered the army at the beginning of the war, august 1948 (photo: cornell capa)

people attending a local carnival, august 1945 (photo: hans wild)

Monday, April 23, 2012

how to win five state fair games

Posted on Art of Manliness by Brett & Kate McKay, 26th September, 2011
Beat the Carnies: The Secrets to Winning 5 Popular State Fair Games
It’s state fair time once again all over the country. And that means Ferris wheels, giant turkey legs, a visit from the world’s smallest horse, and, of course, the chance to try your hand at winning the carnival games that line the midway.
If you love playing these games at the state fair, but usually find yourself walking away from the booths empty-handed or with a dinky Chinese finger trap as a consolation prize, then this post is for you.
Step right up, gentlemen! Today you’re going to learn the secrets to beating the carnies and winning a giant stuffed animal for your gal.
Assume most games are gaffed. Gaffed is carnie speak for rigged. Gaffs in midway games lie on a spectrum that ranges from “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” to downright criminal. Most gaffs don’t make the games impossible to win. They just make you work harder. For example, it’s common knowledge that the basketball rims at carnival free throw shooting games are usually smaller than regulation-size and bent into an oblong shape to appear larger in the front. Moreover, the baskets are often hung higher than regulation basketball goals. You can still make a basket, it just take a bit more skill and finesse.
Bottom line, if a game looks really easy to win, assume that something’s been gaffed to make it harder.
Watch before you put down your money. One way to guard yourself from gaffed games is to watch other suckers, I mean customers, play. Check to see if the carnie uses different balls when he’s demonstrating the game from the ones he gives the customers. Observe what works for successful players.
Ask questions. Don’t assume you understand how the game works or what the rules are. Milk Can at the Vermont State Fair might have different rules than Milk Can at the Tulsa State Fair. Before you lay your money down, ask questions so you know exactly what you have to do to win.
Use the same equipment and stand where the carnie stood while playing. Carnies often demonstrate games to customers to show them how easy it is to win. When you step up to the counter, and before you lay your money down, ask the carnie if you can use the same ball he did and stand in the same spot he was standing in when he successfully completed the game. If the carnie hems and haws, it’s probably a sign that the game is gaffed and can only be won using a certain ball or if you’re standing in a certain spot. Take your money elsewhere.
Have fun! Don’t forget to have fun. Some people take these games way too seriously and scream bloody murder if they lose. If you lose, no need to make a federal case out of it. Most of the prizes aren’t even worth the $2 you paid to play the game. When I play state fair midway games, I like to think I’m paying $2 for a chance to test my skill at a particular game and to match wits with a carnie. It’s entertainment! If I lose, at least I had some fun doing it. On to the deep fried Snickers bar!
Milk Can is a classic state fair game that has been part of midways for over a century. The object of the game is simple: Toss a softball into a 10-gallon metal milk can from a line about four to six feet from the can. Sounds easy, right? Well, here’s the catch: these aren’t your ordinary milk cans. For carnivals, a concave piece of steel is welded to the rim of the can, making the hole just one-sixteenth of an inch larger than the softball. That’s a tight squeeze. Despite the small margin of error, Milk Can is actually one of the easier games to win (if you use the right technique). And it also usually offers some of the largest prizes on the midway.
The secret to winning Milk Can is to give the ball a bit of backspin and hit the back of the can’s rim. The backspin will decrease the ball’s momentum, and instead of bouncing off the can, it will slide into the hole. Easier said than done, of course!
Aim for the back of the rim. Remember, we’re trying to deflect the ball in, not sink the ball straight through the hole.
Toss the ball underhanded, but grip the ball on top. This will allow you to give the ball the needed backspin.
Give the ball some backspin as you release it. As you release the ball, give a little flick of the wrist so the ball starts spinning backwards in the air.
Throw the ball softly and with little arc. This point is debatable. Some people suggest that you give the ball a high arc so that it lands directly in the hole. While you could certainly go this route, there are two reasons you shouldn’t. First, the high arc might not be possible. Some carnies take this approach out of the equation by hanging big stuffed animal prizes right over the milk can, thus blocking a lofty throw. Second, the hole is too freaking small! You’d pretty much have to hit the hole dead-on to win. Remember, the best way to win Milk Can is to bank the ball off the back rim with some backspin. A soft, low-arc toss, with plenty of backspin will ensure that the ball sinks into the hole.
Ah, the Rope Ladder. My childhood nemesis. I don’t know how much money I’ve sunk into this game trying to reach the top, only to find myself spinning upside-down and being tossed onto a mattress. Defeat never tasted so bitter. Only the taste of a corn dog could wash it out of my mouth.
Rope Ladder is an addicting carnival game because it looks so simple to win. The object is to climb up an angled rope ladder with nine rungs and ring the bell at the top. The only problem is that both ends of the ladder are suspended over pivoting pulleys. One false move by a climber, and he’ll find himself spun upside-down and thrown off the ladder.
My 10-year-old self always thought the game was rigged, but Rope Ladder is actually very winnable. The secret is maintaining perfect balance the entire way up the ladder. Here’s how:
Make your center of gravity as wide as possible. Most people try to climb the rope ladder like it was any regular ladder–with feet and hands near the center of the rungs. Taking that approach will result in a guaranteed spin to the mattress. Instead of placing your hands on the rungs, place them on the rope. Next, place your feet as wide as possible on the rung, ideally where the rung and the rope meet.
Counterbalance every movement on the right side of your body, with a movement on the left. This is the tricky part. In order to maintain balance as you scale up the ladder, you need to counterbalance your movements. For example, when you lift your right arm to the next rung, you must simultaneously lift and move your left foot the same distance. Think of the way your dog walks–when he moves his right front leg forward, he moves his left rear leg, too, and vice versa. Do the same thing.
Lean forward. Best to keep your weight forward. Any shift back and you’ll be looking up at the sky.
Watch your knees and feet. Your knees and feet are prone to getting caught in the rope or on a rung while climbing up. To avoid that, keep your knees and toes pointed to the outside of the rope.
For over a century, men at county and state fairs across America have tested their he-man strength with High Striker. Sometimes they compete for a stuffed doll for their gal, and sometimes the prize is the manly pride of beating their buddies.
If you’ve been to a fair or carnival, you’ve seen this game. A carnie stands next to a tower, goading men to step on up and show off their manly strength. Contestants are handed a heavy mallet and instructed to hit a pad that will launch a small puck up a track (usually a metal rod) along the tower. The man who rings the bell at the top wins the prize.
Many men think the key to winning this game is strength. Big buff football dudes will take the mallet in their paws and swing it as hard as they can, only to see the puck get up to the “Puny Weakling” level on the Strength-O-Meter. Dejected, they hand the mallet to their shrimp of a friend, only to see him ring the bell with ease, as seen in this great clip from Pride of the Yankees:
The most important factor is swing accuracy. While strength is necessary, you have to hit the pad directly in the center if you want to ring that bell.
Swing the mallet just as you would when splitting wood. There are two schools of thought on proper swing technique. The first and most prevalent is to swing the mallet just like you’re splitting wood. Start with your stronger hand towards the head of the mallet and your weaker hand as close to the end of the handle as possible. Bring the mallet up and over your head, and as you swing down towards the pad, your strong hand will slide down toward the end of the handle to meet your weaker hand. This technique gives you a bit more control and balance.
The other school of thought is to hold the handle as near to the end as possible with both hands and just bring the mallet head directly over your head and swing down. Sort of like Mario in Donkey Kong. Give a slight flick of the wrists–like Lou Gehrig does in the clip–right before you hit the pad. This technique gives you more power, but you lose some control and, consequently, accuracy.
Use whichever of the two techniques works for you.
Aim for the center of the pad. Remember, the center of the pad is the sweet spot.
Make sure the face of the mallet hits the pad squarely. If the mallet’s face is tilted when you hit the pad, you lose some of the oomph in your swing. You want the mallet face to hit the pad flatly and squarely.
What man can pass up a chance to show off his marksmanship skills with Shoot the Star? You’re given a BB gun and 100 BBs. The object of the game is to shoot out every bit of the red star off the target with just 100 BBs. It’s a difficult task, but doable with the right know-how.
Check the size of the star. Back in the 1980s, the FBI actually ran a study on the chances a player has of winning Shoot the Star. They determined that the game can be won if the diameter of the star is less than 1 and 1/2 inches. Your chances increase as the star gets smaller. Your best odds are when the star is an inch wide or smaller in diameter.
Check the type of paper. The type of paper the target is printed on is another factor in shooting out the star. If the target is printed on high fiber paper or linen, shooting out the star will be more difficult.
Self-zero the gun. The BB guns you’ll be using have probably seen years of wear and use, so they likely have flaws and don’t shoot straight. Some people think that carnies purposely bend the rifle barrels a bit so they don’t shoot true and straight. Either way, you’ll likely need to make adjustments in how you aim, so you can hit your intended target. You can do this quickly through self-zeroing.
Aim right above the top point of the star and quickly fire 3-4 BBs. Check where the BBs actually hit. They probably didn’t hit where you aimed. To make up for that, you’ll need to adjust where you aim the gun so the BBs hit where you want them to hit.
If the BBs hit a bit high and right of where you aimed, you’ll know you’ll need to aim down and to the left to hit your intended target. It might take a few shots to get used to this.
Shoot a circle around the star. This is the big secret to winning this game. When most people read the instructions–”All Red Star Must Be Shot from Card to Win a Prize”–the first thing they do is take aim at the center of the star and try to obliterate all the red, piece by piece, with their 100 BBs. This strategy is almost guaranteed to fail. There will almost always be just a wee bit of red left–one hanging red “chad” and you’re sunk.
Instead of shooting out the red piece by piece, shoot a circle pattern around the star. You’re basically cutting the red star out in a circle with your pellets. Difficult? Definitely. You’ll need around a 90% accuracy rate to accomplish the task. But it’s not impossible. Just take it slow and use the tips above.
In Flukey Ball, contestants must bank a wiffle ball off a slanted board and into the basket below. Sounds easy enough, but don’t be deceived. This game is tricky. But with the right technique, you can dominate it and win oversized combs by the fistful.
First, understand that the size of the board, the board’s angle, the size of the basket, the weight of the ball, and your distance from the target will vary from fair to fair. You’ll need to adapt these tips to your game’s unique set-up and rules.
Ask if you can lean. The closer you can get to the board, the easier it is to get the ball into the basket. If you can lean over the railing, lean over as far as possible to increase your chances of sinking the shot.
Make sure you use the same ball as the carnie. Some unscrupulous carnies will demonstrate how easy it is to win by using a heavier wiffle ball. Heavier balls are more likely to land in the basket after banking off the board. Watch to see which ball the carnie uses. If you notice that he gives you something different than what he used, he probably gave you the lighter, regulation-weight wiffle ball. Ask if you can use his.
Just graze the board. There are two different techniques to win Flukey Ball. What they both have in common is the need to toss the ball as lightly as possible and to just graze the board with it.
The first technique is called the High Toss method. Toss the ball as high as you can, but aim it so that on the downward arc it just grazes the middle of the board.
The second technique is the High Bank method. Instead of hitting the board on the way down, you graze the top of the board as the ball is going up so that it arcs back down into the basket.
Which method you use is a matter of preference.
Give it some front spin. Whether you use the High Toss or High Bank methods, to ensure your ball goes in, add a bit of frontspin as you release it.
While most of the complete scam games at carnivals and state fairs have been outlawed in many states, there are a few games still around that you should avoid, as they are often gaffed in a way that makes it impossible to win.
One Ball is a popular state fair game that has bilked customers for decades.
Three old-fashioned looking milk bottles are stacked in a pyramid on top of a box. You’re given one throw with a softball to knock all three milk bottles off the box. It looks like if you hit the ball right in the middle of the triangular zone where the three bottles meet, the stack will come tumbling down. You give your hardest throw and make a direct hit, only to find a single bottle remaining on the box. Gaaaaa!!!! You club yourself over the head with a giant turkey leg in frustration.
Here’s how One Ball can be subtly gaffed so that it’s impossible for you to win.
The carnie will make one of the bottles heavier than the other two, but still light enough that it can be knocked off the table with a direct hit. When the carnie sets up the bottles, he’ll put the heavy bottle on the bottom row and slightly to the rear. When you throw your ball, it will hit the lighter bottles first, but won’t have enough energy to knock the heavy bottle off.
If people get suspicious, the carnie will show that it’s indeed possible to win with a quick demonstration. However, when he sets up the pyramid for himself, he’ll put the heavy bottle ontop of the pyramid which makes it easy to knock all three bottles off if you hit the ball right in the middle of the pyramid.
The gaff is so hard to detect that it’s just not worth paying money to play this game.
Here’s the typical setup for Swinger: A wooden pin sits on a table. Above it hangs a ball suspended from a rope. The object of the game is to swing the ball past the pin and knock it over as it returns towards you. Easy, right?
If the pin is sitting directly under the hanging ball, it’s impossible to win. Here’s why.
In order to swing the ball past the pin first, you’ll have to swing the ball to the side of the pin in an arc. Basic physics says your ball will return in an arc the same distance from the pin on the return swing, meaning the ball will miss the pin completely on its way back.
If the pin is placed one inch to the right or left of the point where the ball hangs, then you have a chance to knock it over on the return swing. Carnies will often let you practice with this set-up so you’re fooled into thinking you can win. But when the throw actually counts, they’ll shift the pin directly underneath the point where the ball hangs. The shift is so small that it can be hard to detect.
Just avoid this game.

the wall of death / with sidecar and lion

circa 1929 at Revere Beach, Massachusetts, USA

Posted on Carters Steam Fair

The Wall of Death

The Wall of Death or motordrome is a carnival sideshow featuring a drum- or barrel-shaped wooden cylinder, ranging from 20 to 36-feet in diameter, in which stunt motorcyclists ride and carry out tricks. Derived directly from US motorcycle boardtrack (motordrome) racing in the early 1900s, the very first carnival motordrome appeared at Coney Island amusement park (New York) in 1911.

The following year portable tracks began to appear on travelling carnivals and in 1915, the first “silodromes” with perpendicular walls were seen. These motordromes with perfectly straight walls were soon dubbed the “Wall of Death.” This carnival attraction became a staple in the US outdoor entertainment industry with the phenomenon reaching its zenith in the 1930s with more than 100 motordromes on travelling shows and in amusement parks.
In the USA Miss Samantha Morgan actually rode a specially adapted bike and side car containing a fully grown Lion around the motordrome.

Video: Taking A Lion For A Ride! 1934 on British Pathe.


Posted on Circa71

" These type of “Wall of Death” or Thrillarena exhibitions were an amazing draw for the carnival, circus and traveling sideshows of the early to mid 1920′s. Called motor dromes—they came in all shapes, sizes and configurations. Set against the cheers and screams of fans and a busy depression era midway, many of these acts were performed on 90 degree (straight up and down) wooden barrel board walls, others were fully enclosed within steel and iron cages. None of which offered the riders any protection against injury, in the case of a wreck, or from being attacked by the animals used in the acts. Promoters of all sorts hurried to sign daredevils who were capable of both marveling the crowds with their death-defying driving skills and taming the wild beasts used in the shows."

Posted on New York Times

Defying Death (See: Wall of) to Make a Living
Published: August 20, 2006

ON a sultry night in Florida 32 years ago, 14-year-old Samantha Morgan sat, entranced, inside a roaring and heaving motordrome, looking down on a man on a motorcycle as he rode effortlessly around in circles, perpendicular to the floor at 60 miles an hour, laughing all the while. “I saw this guy sideways on the wall, and it was like somebody slapped me,” she said. “It was the coolest thing I ever saw.” When the show was over, she walked up to the owner, Sonny Pelaquin, and asked, “Can girls do this?”

Indeed they could, and at 46 the girl is still doing it, sometimes 13 times a day, on what is known as the Wall of Death. “She’s the best there is,” said Sandra Donmoyer, 27, who learned to ride the Wall from Ms. Morgan. “I’ve never seen a trick rider like her. She’s amazing.”The Wall of Death motordrome is a 30-foot movable circle made of Douglas fir. It is 15 feet tall and looks like an old-fashioned wooden water tank or silo, and within that circle, motorcycle riders seem to defy both the laws of physics and common sense. They ride a couple of loops around the arena until they are going fast enough to make their bikes cling to the wall. They don’t wear helmets, because the G-force would exert such a pull on the helmets that it would be impossible to hold up their heads.

Ms. Morgan, who also uses the stage name Samantha Morgan Storm, was getting ready two weeks ago for an evening of three shows inside Jay Lightnin’s Wall of Death at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the country’s largest, an annual event that draws more than a half million people. The motordrome is a small part of this event, set up in a parking lot in front of a biker bar and drawing 20 to 30 people per show.
The slight, unassuming Ms. Morgan smiled a big smile when asked why she chose this unusual occupation, and then shrugged. “I fell in love with the wall,” she said. She and Mr. Pelaquin, who died from diabetes complications in 2002, were inducted into the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame earlier that day.

“Sonny loved the wall,” she said, a look of reminiscence on her face. “He always laughed when he rode.”
Surrounded by her dogs Mischief and Daisy, in an air-conditioned trailer that was a refuge from the blast-furnace South Dakota heat, she confessed to some preshow anxiety. “I feel like a kid before the first show,” she said. “I always have butterflies. Not scared, but butterflies.”
Such feelings, of course, are the coin of the realm for those involved in such pursuits. “If the wheel slips while you are up there on the wall and you catch it and you don’t hit the floor, it’s kind of a rush,” she said.

If you do hit the floor, of course, the rush is drowned out by the pain. And she has hit the floor, dozens of times. There have also been three big hits, which means a broken back. The most memorable time was at a 1992 show in France; she was so broken — pelvis, back, knee, shoulder, rib cage, sternum; “like a swatted fly,” she said — that she couldn’t go home for four months. The upside, she said, “is I speak French now.” The most recent big hit was in 1998, and now she has metal pins and rods in her back, plus one fake vertebra.

The Wall of Death, or the Thrill Arena, as Ms. Morgan prefers to call it, is no carnival trick, but simply the clever exploitation of centrifugal force. Dromes were an outgrowth of mile-long racetracks — similar, but with less steep sidewalls — that were prevalent in the 1920’s. But so many racers and a few spectators died, hence the name Wall of Death, that the tracks were outlawed. The motorcyclists turned to motordromes, and a new phenomenon was born.

Some riders even added lions, creating the lion drome and the Race for Life. Once the riders were zooming around the wall, trained lions would be released, and would charge after the motorcycles, swatting with their huge paws. (They usually wouldn’t catch the bikes.) Mr. Pelaquin’s family owned and operated the last of the lion dromes; that era came to an ignominious end after a drunken carnival worker stuck his hand into the lion cage in 1964 and was bitten by a male lion named King. The police were called, and one bullet later, King was gone and the last lion drome closed.

Motordromes are nearly extinct. There are just three left in this country, Ms. Morgan said, including that of the California Hell Riders, which is based, incongruously, in Swansea, Mass. There are perhaps 15 overseas. One of Ms. Morgan’s pastimes is riding in as many existing dromes as she can find, and so far she’s ridden in 11. An ornately carved drome in Munich stands out.

Jay (Lightnin’) Bentley, a trick rider from the Bay Area, built the one used here. Finished in 1998, it is the first new drome constructed since 1958, he said. “Building it took two years, night and day,” he said. “My neighbors thought I was Noah building an ark in the backyard.” Mr. Bentley tours with his drome, to shows like Sturgis or Biketoberfest in Daytona Beach, Fla., or Evel Knievel days in Butte, Mont.; the five performers — who also construct the heavy drome each time it moves — do 2 to 13 shows a day, depending on the crowd’s interest.

Just before 7 p.m., with a molten sun sinking behind the Black Hills, Mr. Bentley announced over loudspeakers that the first show was about to start. The riders, including Rick Ransom on a kart, and the motorcyclists Wahl E. Walker, Ms. Morgan and Mr. Bentley, revved up. A few minutes later, Ms. Morgan, the star of the show, was doing her act, in black stretch pants, black boots and a black tank top. Her long silver-blond hair, with two small braids amid a thatch of hair framing her face, blew straight out behind her in the 60-mile-an-hour wind, and a big smile flashed across her face. The sight was unusual enough to stir the crowd of grizzled, beer-can-holding bikers whose heads swiveled in unison to keep their eyes on the lady. “This is full-blown, not right in the head, something you have to see for yourself, once-in-a-lifetime insanity,” said Rick Krone, a bearded ample-bellied biker from Fargo, N.D. Continuing her act, Ms. Morgan rode no-handed, and then taped the throttle open and turned sideways, riding with her hands and feet splayed out. The motorcycles and karts flying around the wall created a down-the-rabbit-hole perceptual twist. No other experience comes close.

Ms. Morgan’s fascination with this extreme sport began early. After running away from a troubled foster home in Long Island when she was 11 and living on the streets of East Coast cities for a few years, she ended up at a carnival in Dade County, Fla. The barkers for Sonny Pelaquin’s show, Hell on Wheels, waved her inside. She was hooked. Now her repertory of tricks is among the largest. “She’s one of a kind,” said Mr. Ransom, who has been taking a few pointers from her.
Ms. Morgan rides a 1975 Harley-Davidson 250, but only because her favorite “wall” bike, a 1931 Indian 101 Scout named Beth, needs a new front end. Beth is big, has a low center of gravity and holds the wall much better, which also means Ms. Morgan can do more tricks. If she falls, though, the hefty bike can spell trouble. “When the Indian lands on me, it breaks me in half,” she said. In September, she’ll head off to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to try to break the land speed record, which now stands at 130.115 miles an hour, on an Indian Chief.

As she continues her maverick pursuit, Ms. Morgan worries it may be the end of an era for women in the dromes. There were as many as 30 in the dromes’ heyday, she said, but now there are no young people coming up to take her place. She knows only one other female rider, Ms. Donmoyer, who rides for the Hell Riders and is known as Sandra D. But Ms. Morgan will continue zooming defiantly around the Wall of Death for some time to come. There is no retirement program for these riders, no health insurance plan, just the dollar bills that flutter to the ground after the spectators are asked to donate toward medical costs; at one point in the show, Ms. Morgan rides with no hands to pluck the proffered bills. But when it comes down to it, people like her ride the wall to taste that potent mix of G’s and adrenaline. To taste the freedom, for a few fleeting minutes, from the problems afflicting the earthbound. “When I am on the wall,” she said, “is the only time all the pain goes away.”

Sunday, April 22, 2012

carny giants - al tomaini 8’4.5″

Posted on Listverse, May 20th, 2008

Top Ten True Amazing Giants

Al Tomaini was a giant who claimed a height of 8’4″ (though the Guiness Book of Records stated that he was 7’4″). Weighing 356 pounds (162 kg) and wearing size 27 shoes, Al spent most of his life as a circus giant. He was working with a circus at the Great Lakes Exposition in Chicago, in 1936, when he met his future wife, Jeanie Tomaini. Jeanie was born without legs and was only 2 ft 6 in (76 cm) tall. After retiring from the circus life, he and Jeanie settled in the circus community of Giant’s Camp, Gibsonton, Florida.

carny giants - edouard beaupré 8’3″

Posted on Listverse, May 20th, 2008

Top Ten True Amazing Giants

Edouard Beaupré, born in 1881, was a circus sideshow freak, a strong man, and a star in Barnum and Baileys. He was the eldest of 20 children and was born in Canada. While he was of normal height during his first few years of life, by the age of nine he was 6 feet tall. His death certificate showed him as being 8’3″ and still growing. As a strongman, his feature stunt was crouching down and lifting a horse to his shoulders. He reportedly lifted horses as heavy as 900 pounds. He died in 1904 of tuberculosis.

gibsonton, florida - carny giant al tomaini's shoe trouble

Al and Jeannie Tomaini

Posted on Hey Rube Circus by Noel Benedetti, April 27th, 2010
Al Tomaini’s shoe trouble

If you’re interested in sideshow culture, you should know about Gibsonton, FL and you likely have heard of Al Tomaini. If not, allow me to fill you in.

Al Tomaini was a giant (literally, he was 8 feet 4 inches tall) who fell in love with Jeanie, a legless woman who stood 2 feet 6 inches tall. The duo were career sideshow performers and were billed as “the world’s strangest married couple.” Eventually, they settled in Gibsonton, FL, also known as Gibtown or Freaktown because of the large population of circus folks who settled there.

Al truly was, in more ways than one, a pillar of the community. He donated the town’s first ambulance, served as fire chief, helped build the community hall, served as president of the Chamber of Commerce and owned several local business including Giant’s Fish Camp and a TV repair shop. 
In Al’s honor, one of his boots (size 27) was displayed on the side of Highway 41 for years after his death in 1962. Now, the Concerned Citizens of Gibsontonwant to place a stone replica of Al’s boot in its place to cement his impact on the community. However, Hillsborough County has declared the statue a “accessory structure” and will only allow it to be displayed 50 feet away from the highway due to zoning restrictions, where no one could possibly see it.

sideshow freaks (and business)

Posted on Sunday Magazine bDavid, February 24th, 2011:

The Passing Of The Once Popular Sideshow Freak
From February 26, 1911
The phenomenon of the sideshow freak is one of the most fascinating bits of popular culture history I can think of. On the one hand, forgetting for a moment that these are actual people with feelings to consider, there is just the natural curiosity about the different shapes and sizes people come in, and the interesting ways that maladies manifest themselves. But on the other hand, it’s sad to point and laugh at people’s misfortune and disfigurements. But then again, not all sideshow freaks were victims who didn’t know better. Many of them were intelligent people, making the best of the public’s fascination.
In this article, the Magazine explores how the public’s new fascination with music and movies affected the business prospects for the sideshow freak.
Mike the Midget notes, “I’m not blaming the public, only it’s hard on old-time freaks. It takes a top-notch freak now to be able to earn his living in the profession.” Here, the article describes the industry’s gradual decline:
One by one the freaks have been eliminated. The fat woman was the first to go. On every museum platform for years the fat woman sat; the smallest ones were first taken off, leaving only the big ones. Then the tattooed man and the tattooed lady had to seek other employment. In their wake followed the albinos, the living skeletons, and armless and legless wonders.
Those able to hold on longest were exceptional freaks such as two-headed boys, the woman with the horse’s mane growing between her shoulders, the elastic-skinned man, the three-legged boy, the elephant-footed man and the lion-faced boy.
Where once a good freak commanded $200 a week he can now scarcely get on at $30. It now takes a prodigy of more than passing novelty to draw more than $25 a week. The Tocci twins — boys with two heads, four arms, and two legs — drew $300 a week for years. A regular scale of prices now regulates the pay received by freaks. A living skeleton receives usually about $18 a week; a bearded lady, $12; a fat woman, $10; a fire-eater, $10; a tattooed woman, $8, and a Circassian beauty, $7.
In the cities they can no longer find profitable employment. Most of those who are still keeping up professional life are to be found under the show tent of the circus. The outer districts, where the picture show and the mechanical piano have not filled the entertainment wants of the public, are now the havens of refuge of the freaks.
The article does wonder whether the passing of the freak’s popularity might be a good thing:
Is it not a healthier sign of the public mind that it is no longer interested in the sad misfortunes of others? The plea of the museum proprietor that gazing at poor distorted souls was educative can not be defended. No good ever came of staring at the frog-boy, or of questioning the ossified man. In some countries public exhibition of freaks is prohibited. Nothing but morbid curiosity ever sent the public to the dime museum where on one platform could be seen human anomalies from all over the world. Much better is it that a clean moving picture hall where the entertainment is healthful and instructive should supplant the dime museum.
Of course, it wasn’t that much longer before freaks made their way to the movies. In 1932, director Tod Browning (who later directed Bela Lugosi in Dracula) cast several of the most popular sideshow performers of the day in his thriller Freaks, which is available to see in its entirety online at the Internet Archive.
There were still people making livings as sideshow freaks for several more decades, but as medical advances made these sorts of maladies less common, and people became more sensitive to their plights, the sideshow freaks retired. Many of them wound up in Gibsonton, Florida, which was a popular town for sideshow freaks to spend the off-season.
There’s a sad but interesting true crime story that takes place in Gibsonton. Grady “Lobster Boy” Styles, a second generation sideshow performer born with ectrodactyly (which makes the hands and feet look like lobster claws) was convicted of murder in 1978 for shooting his daughter’s fiancé. He eventually got out of jail, and remarried his former wife. But he was a heavy drinker who allegedly abused his family, and in 1992 his wife and son hired a hitman — another sideshow performer — to kill Grady Stiles.
Modern sideshows, like the Coney Island Sideshow by the Seashore are mainly tributes to the sideshows of yore. They feature performances in the tradition of the old sideshows — things like sword swallowing, contortionists, and the human blockhead — and fewer deformities or birth defects, if any.
There is at least one current performer out there I know of who does use his birth defect as a device for his performance art, and that is Mat Fraser, whose defect comes as a result of his mother taking thalidomide while she was pregnant. I first heard of Mat when I saw him at the Coney Island sideshow in the late 90s. He wasn’t there as a performer, but he was talking to some people there about a character he does called the Thalidomide Ninja, and I confess to eavesdropping. I later found out that he made a documentary for the BBC called Born Freak about his condition, and those like him who made their careers in the sideshow business. It doesn’t seem to be available online in is entirety, unfortunatelyhttp://www.sundaymagazine.org/wp-content/uploads/19110226-4-the.pdf