Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Last Sideshow? Part 1

Because this is a long essay, I will be dividing it up into small pieces and publishing it every couple of days.
(You can find out more about the real life characters and sideshows in general at Sideshowworld.com.)

Ward Hall retired in 2001. After most of his life on the road, 50 of those years owning a sideshow, he earned retirement. However, Ward is a true showman and is on the road again.

It started when he was asked to put together a sideshow for another promoter, but that promoter ran short of funds. Ward took that show out. And the perspective showman? He works for Ward now.

I caught up with the show at the Minnesota State Fair. It is my first visit to a real sideshow, not one of those “new wave” shows. This is the last link to the shows of yore. As a fan of the odd and unusual, I had to see it myself.

It was as cool as I expected and as sad as I feared.

Entering the fair, there are two choices of direction, left or right. I went right. It was wrong way. After walking for an hour, I finished the non-sideshow side of the fair. Minnesota, I notice, has become the junk food capital of the world. At least 70% of all the booths I walk by are food sellers. My favorite, the one I eat at, advertises, “Nothing on a stick”, food served on a plate being a novelty in these parts. There are hot dogs on a stick, pizza on a stick, corn on a stick, candy on a stick. If it is edible and you can put it on a stick, you can eat it at the Minnesota State Fair, which I believe, is their main advertising slogan.

I finally see the show at the end of the left side midway. I fight the urge to run to it like a youthful lover. I take time for a picture and as I near, another. Finally, I stumble towards my dreams and the front lives up to all of them. An upper row of ten banners, a lower row of seven more, and a larger banner above proclaiming, “World of Wonders,” It is a real, live ten-in-one show.

The greatest sideshow banner artist alive, Johnny Meah, painted those banners. Each one costs $2000 to $3000, unless he gives Ward a discount. Ward has bought many banners in his time. The reds, oranges, blues, and greens combine into an orgy of images. The banners do their job and draw every eye. They seduce, not in subtle whispers, but in exclamation points. I take photos of them all. They are my Monets and Picassos, artwork of dreams, fantasies, and nightmares.

They call out...





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