Everybody loves the circus, from the three-ring colossus to the single-ring versions that tour the country appearing at county fairgrounds and other wide-open locations. And part of the enduring awe of the circus for many people is the circus sideshow – that collection of unusual and odd individuals doing surprising feats that at first blush seem unbelievable.
Sideshows have a long history of association with the circus in America, going back to the end of the 18th century. In the mid-1800s, circuses and their sideshows became extremely popular, greatly through the efforts of one of that century’s greatest showmen, Phineas Taylor Barnum.
Realizing that the circus and the human oddities who made up the sideshow had captured the imagination of the country, P. T. Barnum put together not only roving displays that covered the country, but also an unusual collection of objects and natural curiosities.
It was Barnum’s American Museum, opened in 1842 in New York City, that proved to be a place for family entertainment and enlightenment, showcasing natural curiosities with historic and artistic exhibits.
One of the chief curiosities discovered by Barnum was Tom Thumb, actually a boy named Charles Stratton, who weighed only 15 pounds and stood just two feet high. Barnum would go on to make Tom Thumb an international star attraction. Other sideshow human oddities in Barnum’s ensemble included bearded ladies, snake charmers, fire eaters, Siamese twins and contortionists.
Barnum’s “Greatest Show on Earth” opened in 1871 in Brooklyn. It was a grand traveling museum, menagerie, caravan and circus. It would become synonymous with top quality circus performances.
The circus museum at 820 Main Street in Bridgeport can be contacted at 203-331-1104 or by visiting www.barnum-museum.org.
Today, another performance venue calls New York its home – the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. Located at Sideshows by the Seashore at the corner of Surf Avenue and West 12th Street in the heart of the Coney Island Amusement Park, the sideshow seats 99 people for its performances. While it doesn’t have the breadth of Barnum’s spectacle, the Coney Island Circus Sideshow keeps the sideshow spirit alive.
Current sideshow performers include:
• Insectivora, a ten-year veteran of the group billed as a Fiji island orphan who developed survival skills in the jungle. She performs an ascent up the Ladder of Swords, walks on glass, eats and breathes fire and does whip tricks.
• Diamond Donny V, another ten-year veteran, who performs acts that can easily be called strange, odd and bizarre. Diamond Donny V juggles chainsaws, escapes from straitjackets, eats fire, rests on a bed of nails and hammers spikes into his skull.
• Serpentina, also known as Stephanie Torres, a six-foot tall 140-pound woman, is the sideshow’s snake charmer, as well as a contortionist. Serpentina also performs on an electric chair and rests on a bed of nails.
P.T. Barnum brought fire eaters, fire breathers, human pincushions and more to the public. Today, the sideshow lives on in New York at Coney Island.
• Heather Holiday was struck twice by lightning as a young girl growing up in Utah, which she says allows her to absorb tremendous amounts of electricity, which can be seen bleeding off of her fingertips and her tongue. She’s also skilled at the blade box, sword swallowing and fire eating.
• The Twisted Shockmeister, Scott Baker, fronts the sideshow as the Outside Talker (also called the barker). He’s a trained Broadway actor who performs many acts, including magic, ventriloquism, levitation, and eating glass and fire.
P.T. Barnum’s spirit of showmanship continues to live on in the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Conn., where Barnum served one term as mayor and four terms in the Connecticut General Assembly.
Inside the museum, exhibits explore Barnum’s life from his humble beginnings in Bethel, Conn., through the “curiosities and marvels of nature” in the American Museum in Brooklyn, and concluding with his most famous enterprise, “P. T. Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth.”
Other exhibits include a reproduction of Barnum’s renown “humbug,” the Fejee Mermaid, a piece of souvenir cake from Tom Thumb’s 1863 wedding, a 4,000-year-old Egyptian mummy and a 700-pound mounted pachyderm, the second elephant born in captivity.