Scratch 'n' Sniff

I probably never would have become America’s leading fire-eater if Flamo the Great hadn’t happened to explode that night in front of Krinko’s Great Combined Carnival Side Shows. The tragedy—if such it may be called—took place at eleven o’clock when there’s only time for one more show before the carnival closes for the night, so all the concessions compete for the late crowd at the same time. The sideshow had a bad location, being next to the Oriental Dancing Girls (“Fugitives from a Life of Shame in the Sultan’s Harem”) and it’s pretty hard to compete with ten naked girls for the public’s interest.

But a good sideshow can compete with anything. When Flamo stood up on the platform outside the side-show tent, naked to the waist with two great torches in his hands throwing up plumes of golden fire topped by black smoke that reached above the Big Wheel—well, it was something nothing in the Arabian Nights, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, or an opium smoker’s dreams could top. People left all the other concessions to rush to the sideshow, and I led the rush.

Some of the other acts had come out on the platform to join Flamo: a cowboy playing his guitar, a Hindu fakir sticking hat pins into himself, a gypsy palmist, and an almost nude girl hopefully holding up a fifteen-foot rock python. As I say, in a sideshow there’s something to appeal to every taste. But none of them could Flamo as a public attraction.

Slowly the fire-eater put back his head and thrust one of the burning torches between his lips. Flames rushed out of his mouth like the backlash of a blast furnace, making his cheeks and throat glow like a jack-o’-lantern and throwing a witch glow over the other acts. Women screamed in the rapidly forming crowd and a man beside me suddenly turned sick and tried to force his way out through the mob. Flamo gradually closed his lips over the flame until the fire went out, leaving only the dancing light of the torch in his other hand to illuminate the platform. Taking care to hold the lighted torch well away from his body, he filled a drinking glass half full of petrol from a scarlet tin marked DANGEROUS. Instantly the Hindu fakir grabbed up a potbellied flute and began to play a wild chant into the microphone while the sideshow talker beat on a metal triangle and shouted, “This is it, folks! Something you’ll never see again.”

From Memoirs of a Sword Swallower, Dan Mannix


Freak Show: Sideshow Banner Art

Carl Hammer and Gideon Bosker

Circus art as entertainment, chattering, luring and sizzling the dollars out of patrons’ pockets. “With its retina-searing colors, freak appeal and bombastic reconstructions of human and animal anatomy, the circus sideshow banner preyed on our inexhaustible curiosity to come face to face with the grotesque and the unimaginable.” Banners from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries include: “The Sword Swallower!” “The Alligator Man!” “Priscilla, the Monkey Girl!” “Woman Changing to Stone!” “Popeye!” “Iron Tongued Marvel! The Great Waldo!” (A talented “ingestor” from Germany, he could “gobble objects of unusual size, including lemons and mangos, which he then regurgitated on demand.”) An entirely different assortment of banners than presented in Freaks, Geeks, and Strange Girls. GR

Publisher: Chronicle
Paperback: 96 pages

Freaks, Geeks and Strange Girls: Sideshow Banners of the Great American Midway

Randy Johnson, Jim Secreto and Teddy Varndell

“It’s Alive,” the banners cried from the flapping tarpaulin walls of the circus midway. They lured patrons to shell out for erotica (teasing) and exotica (foreign); two-headed creatures, human artworks tattooed from head to toe; short, tall and fat freaks; chicken-eating geeks and strange, bearded girls. “Sideshow banners document an aspect of our culture that we don’t all want to face: People would (and will) flock like flies, they’ll pay good money to see freaks—aberrations of nature and culture—representations of the grotesque, real or fabricated…” This is the midway as folk art, saved from destruction by artists and other admirers of the crudely painted banners’ strong graphics, humor and lusty garishness.” JM

Publisher: Hardy Marks
Paperback: 169 pages

Freaks: We Who Are Not As Others

Daniel P. Mannix

Daniel Mannix is the author of the classic Ballantine sado-historical paperbacks Those About To Die (a vivid account of the Roman gladiatorial games), The Hellfire Club (about the blasphemous and decadent English secret orgy society) and the aptly titled History of Torture. Long fascinated by the carny life and an experienced sword-swallower and fire-eater (see his Memoirs of a Sword-Swallower), Mannix did not get around to completing his book on freaks (originally titled We Who Are Not As Others) until 1976. It was summarily yanked by the original publisher after only one month in print. Mannix recounts with love and respect the life stories of Prince Randian the human torso, Pop-eye Perry, Sealo the “Seal Boy,” Johnny Eck (the legless star of Tod Browning’s Freaks), Percilla Bejano “The Monkey Woman,” Mignon “The Penguin Girl,” Frank Lentini the three-legged man with “double sexual organs,” fat men and fat ladies, hermaphrodites, Siamese twins, pinheads, randy midgets and other remarkable human oddities. This recent edition includes many previously unpublished photos from Mannix’s personal collection. SS

Publisher: V/Search
Paperback: 124 pages

Memoirs of a Sword Swallower

Daniel Mannix

Originally published as Step Right Up!, Mannix’s account of life as a sword swallower and fire-eater on the road with a carnival in the ‘30s is an acknowledged classic. Who, after all, doesn’t like to read about fakirs, neon-tube swallowing, and freaks? But even people lucky enough to own copies of the long-out-of-print original are going to have to run out and buy this one. As has been often noted, the only thing missing from the original was pictures, an oversight the good folks at V/Search have corrected in spades. This new edition features dozens of photos from Mannix’s scrapbooks. Now we can finally see what Krinko, Jolly Daisy, the Impossible Possible and, of course, Billy the Stripper looked like.
“I probably would have never become one of America’s leading fire-eaters if Flamo the Great hadn’t happened to explode that night in front of Krinko’s Great Combined Carnival Sideshows.” JM

Publisher: V/Search
Paperback: 128 pages

Nightmare Alley

William Lindsay Gresham

A chilling novel about a guy determined to claw his way to the top of the heap no matter what. Stanton Carlisle rises from humble sideshow magician to spiritualist reverend who preaches to a gullible, moneyed flock that doesn’t know it’s all really done with mirrors. But his real secret is to find people’s deepest needs and fulfill them, while taking them for everything they’ve got. Of course, this being the classic carny noir novel, an ascent must be followed by a descent and Stanton’s ride down to the bottom is a grim piece of poetic justice with none of that goddamned happy ending stuff they had to stick onto the movie. After all, geeks aren’t born—they’re made. JM

Publisher: Carroll and Graf
Paperback: 275 pages

Shocked and Amazed! #1: 1st Amazing Issue

James Taylor

“The sideshow is the metaphor for the turn of the millennium”—James Taylor. “This is a book about people’s motives, their drives, their joys. It is not intended as another exposé of the sideshow business nor as a collection of cheap shots at the showmen and performers who appear here.”
If the Shocked and Amazed books are “periodicals,” as the author claims, then they are the sort that encourages one to collect the entire set to put into a pissy binder in order to lord it over friends because “these are all the original issues.”
Everything but the covers is in black and white, but that’s not a major loss. There are some great all-color titles to be had on sideshow art. The stock in trade of Shocked and Amazed are stories and information using first rate source material. And what a wealth of information it is!
This first volume includes James Taylor on the true nature of sideshow publishing; an account of Ward Hall, renowned “King of the Sideshows”; the Supreme Court ruling that gave the green light to sideshows; a tour of sideshows within spitting distance of the Big Apple; a portfolio of the work of the photographer Kobel (a specialist in the unusual); a piece on a lady sword swallower who was immortalized by Diane Arbus; a chapter from Jim Tully’s Circus Parade, a guide to sideshow lingo, a source list for sideshow collectibles and a bibliography. SA

Publisher: Atomic
Paperback: 80 pages

Shocked and Amazed! #2: The Only One in the World

James Taylor

Volume 2 proves that Taylor has tapped into a rich vein of source material. Once again, the theme is sideshow lore. Taylor’s attitude toward his subjects is “Nobility is what you make it.” Indeed, they are treated as the greatest nobles alive, whether they are “playing the hand they were dealt” or purveying an unusual skill. There is nothing mean-spirited about this presentation, only a genuine love of the unusual.
Includes: “the world’s strangest married couple” (Jeanie Tomaini, the half girl who’s all heart at 2 feet 6 inches and the American giant Al Tomaini); a photo spread of “half people”; the intimate lives and loves of the Hilton sisters (Siamese twins); Sammy Ross, the world’s smallest entertainer; sideshow fat man Bruce Snowdon; a reprint of a whole magazine that is dedicated to midgets; a sideshow memoir in the spirit of Daniel Mannix by Walt Hudson, an in-depth look at a flea circus; a profile of a knife thrower; assorted short features; and more sideshow lingo. SA

Publisher: Atomic
Paperback: 104 pages

Shocked and Amazed! #3: On and Off the Midway

James Taylor

Includes: “Anatomical Wonder!”, “I Was a Teenage Blockhead!”, “She Never Asked To Be Born!”, “Gorilla Show!” and more.

Publisher: Atomic
Paperback: 104 pages