What does it mean to be a part of New Jersey’s illustrious circus and sideshow history?
There’s a story I have been told by my parents about how I almost wound up with nine toes when I was a baby. It seems that I had an elongated hair wrapped around the third toe of my right foot. The circulation being cut off caused the appendage to turn blue, and there was talk of amputation. Instead, the strangling hair was successfully removed, leaving behind a mark of sorts [as I don’t believe it could qualify as a scar] that is only discernible when blatantly pointed out. Admittedly, I often wished the toe had been amputated, for one very good reason. It would only aid in the slew of things I was exposed to early in life that helped to both inspire and transform me into who I am today. After all, how cool would it be to say: “Guess what? I only have nine toes. Want to see?“, and the story would be that much better.
My first exposure to any sort of carnival was the eight years spent each May gazing out of the classroom window, watching the parking lot being transformed from boring asphalt to the colorful atmosphere typical of all carnivals. The rides were pretty tame [fun and exciting when small, but hardly impressive years later], but that never detracted from the excitement and anticipation that built up for the annual fair. It was complete with games, food, a 50/50 raffle and a white elephant sale down in the cafeteria. What really captivated me the most was the fact that those who assembled and operated the rides did not go elsewhere for the nite, but rather slept in trailers parked on the grass. At that age, I thought they must have had the coolest job in the world, and often wondered what it would be like.
These parking lot carnivals seemed to appear in a number of locations only for a few days, where time spent trying to take it all in was always too short. There are at least two others I can recall attending, however this phenomenon was not limited to just lots. There were also plenty of street fairs and festivals that took over the center of town for a weekend. One could purchase merchandise on display and for sale, as well as take in the aroma o various foods, pause a moment to listen to the band, and yes, even take a spin on one of the few rides that were able to be squeezed on the street.
Exposure to the circus also came at an early age, so long ago that I hardly remember much. However, I know for certain that I have been to the Shiner’s Circus and the infamous Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey show. Of course I was just like every other wide-eyed child in attendance, turning my head in different direction to take it all in, awed by the blinking, buzzing and spinning souvenirs, no matter how cheap [in manufacturing that is] or how quickly they were tossed aside once bored with the no longer working piece of plastic. Even though I have no idea what became of hose things, I sort of wish that I had held onto them, or anything that came from a circus or carnival. Over the years, I have learned to appreciate those significant slices of Americana, and it would be great to have those moments of my childhood; a physical representation of the faded memories I now hold dear to my heart.
The Flemmington Fair was perhaps the first true carnival I ever went to, and I say this because it had a real midway; at that time it was the largest one I had seen. Alongside the multitude of rides, games and concessions were a menagerie of livestock and other animals there to compete for top prizes, horse riding and jumping contests, sandcastle building, tractor pulls and other assorted entertainment. Mixed in for good measure were eye-catching single-o’s [that is, a single attraction housed in its own tent or trailer] with vivid—and often times exaggerated—depictions of what one would see for a small admission price, the grind blaring over loudspeakers. Sure enough, I begged whichever parental unit had accompanied me for the money to go inside, often times being told “No“, and even now I can recall the disappointment. However, there were a decent amount of strange things I did gain entry to, from over-sized rats and reptiles to the headless girl who returned the wave after I made the same gesture, much to my surprise. Even then I was captivated by the man or woman who easily held giant snakes as though they were a fashion accessory, which pretty much explains my long-standing desire to own one myself.
None of those things could compare to the red and yellow striped tent pitched off the midway, larger-than-life illustrations painted on banners one had to gaze up at in order to see. For years, I watched people enter the tent, natural curiosity wanting to know what they saw. Many came back out with complaint of it being ‘fake’, ‘stupid’ or ‘not worth it’, which only drove me to wonder even more what all the fuss was about. Eventually, when I was old enough to have an allowance, I could no long be denied access to the mesmerizing tent, and finally paid that dollar to go in. To call it a sideshow would be a gross understatement of the museum-like collection that greeted me, but it could still be considered as one. For some reason, I wasn’t as dissatisfied as most, and took my time to investigate every single display, as well as read the information provided with them. At the very end of the end was the only thing actually alive, which came in the form of a fat man who sat quietly on an elevated platform. For an extra dollar, one could purchase a postcard bearing his likeness—a pitch card—and while I didn’t, part of me once again wishes that I had, as it would be most valuable to me now. There was also a baby show in a separate tent, but I didn’t get to see it.
The fairgrounds, like so many other things, have since been razed, along with the only square race track in New Jersey, making room for progress. Just another memory I cling to, for fear it may someday vanish just as tragically. There is a history of sideshow visiting Flemmington in a by-gone era, read about in a volume of James Taylor’s Shocked and Amazed!, where I discovered that real-life freaks such as the two-faced man had once been on display in the Garden State. At the time I was doing volunteer work for the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus and the Palace of Variety on 42nd street in Times Square. It was an up-close and personal learning experience of what sideshow [as well as vaudeville and burlesque] was all about. The Palace of Variety was part museum and part theater, the last of it’s kind in New York City. While only spending the first two months of ‘04 there, commuting four days a week from New Jersey and spending more money than I made, the opportunity had an impact on my life , the proverbial cherry on top of a sundae that was already built up in the previous years.
The first exposure to real sideshow came in 2000 when I was taken to Coney Island, infamous for its share of exhibiting the strange, odd, bizarre and unusual. To this day I recall the elation that filled me as I was brought up to the stage, to stand on Eak the Geek as he laid atop a bed of nails. While I’m aware hundreds of people had been in my position, there came a feeling that defies explanation as I looked out at the crowd, as though it was something I had been meant to do. The second time I graced the stage was three years later on Halloween, when brought up to sit in the electric chair; an act I had seen many times at that point. Suffice to say that I went to the Island as much as possible to catch the sideshow, which is the only authentic 10-in-1 that exists in residence. It was in that very same building I learned some of the working acts, with the intention of becoming a performer myself some day.
Would like to note here the first time I saw anything of this nature on television was during an episode of Ricki Lake, which featured the Enigma and Katzen. I watched in amazement as she stuck a pair of scissors in her nose and thought I can do that. Ignoring the warning of not trying the stunt at home, I taught myself how to replicate the act, and would gross-out my friends at clubs. During one of these demonstrations, I happened to catch the attention of Jon Lovelace. In the following years, we would not only become very dear friends, but we also spent much time discussing all things circus and sideshow. Together we would perform various acts at private parties or basement shows, and I shamelessly admit that I enjoyed the rush of adrenaline it gave me, as well as the satisfaction I felt from the reaction of the crowd. Being introduced to the infamous Outlaw Cirkus only cemented the feelings I had of wanting to belong to a circus-oriented family, and the years I spent performing with them and Jon are perhaps some of the best memories of my life.
New Jersey has a rich history of circus and sideshow, having been the birthplace and home to freaks, not to mention at one time the Ringling Brothers Estate, and I feel as though somehow I am keeping that tradition alive. Over the past few years, I attended a number of circuses, some of which have graced this weird state, which hosts its own fair yearly in the Meadowlands [and at one point in Trenton], with the explicit purpose of paying that dollar for the single-o’s and Ward Hall’s World of Wonders in ‘05. It also pleased me to see that Weird New Jersey had written an article about the Brosthers Grimm Sideshow, which pitched its tent on the boardwalk in Seaside [I saw the show twice myself]. Even Tiny Tim, the World’s Smallest Horse made an appearance by the sea.
Even though I currently reside in Philadelphia—which just coincidentally happens to be the birthplace of American circus—my home will always be New Jersey, and I am proud of that fact for so many reasons. As I mentioned, I believe I carry on the legacy of Jersey-based sideshow, having performed at private parties, basement shows and clubs throughout the Garden State. Even when I toured last year with the Great American Circus Sideshow, I made sure everyone that came in to see my act knew that I was from Jersey by proclaiming the glass I walked on had been collected from the Shore—and yes, quite a number of people laughed at the joke. There is no shame in having been born and raised in a state with such a colorful sideshow past, and even now I am proud to be living in a city that has its own circus history.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t know if there are any others that feel as though they have sawdust in their veins—even at a young age—and somehow through a string of related experiences, knew they were destined to be a part of this past-time. Sideshow has been around for centuries, and while it has traveled across the country and around the world, it seems to fit best in New Jersey, alongside all of the other things that make it weird. I am grateful such facts have been preserved for future generations [and aficionados such as myself]. In the same vein, I will continue to bill myself as the Strange Girl, Bizarre Beauty from the Wilds of New Jersey and educate others about the great tradition of sideshow it has.
[This article was originally published in Issue 1 of Alive On the Inside, copyright 2005]