A headless lady, a moving mummy and a girl in a goldfish bowl are among the spectacles brought to life as part of a new exhibition charting Britain’s seaside sideshows.
By Alastair Jamieson – Telegraph.co.uk
The illusions, once a common feature of piers and promenades, have been recreated for the first time since falling out of fashion in the 1960s.
The eccentric performances will be shown alongside never-before-seen colour photographs of post-war British fairground entertainment and a waxwork model of ‘professional freak’ Horace Ridler whose extensive tattoos earned him a living as The Zebra Man.
The disquieting creations are part of Showzam, a 10-day festival of variety performances taking place in Blackpool next month.
The festival’s main attraction is the Circus of Wonders exhibition of sideshows and images curated by Professor Vanessa Toulmin, the niece of a professional contortionist who is now research director of the National Fairground Archive at Sheffield University.
“They were the popular entertainment of their age,” she explained. “Before everyone could afford cars or foreign holidays they were at the seaside and wanted to be entertained. This is part of our history.
“These were very tricky live performances yet cheap to watch – sometimes only a penny – so they were affordable and open to the whole family. There has been a return to live performances as people recognise the skill that goes into them.”
She said the colour photographs, taken by fairground enthusiast Lionel Bathe, demonstrated the popularity of steam shows and events such as the Festival of Britain.
“These pictures have never been on public display and their rare colour makes them very special,” she said.
Five “magic” sideshows dating from as early as 1937 will be used in public for the first time since being restored by enthusiasts.
They include Cleo: The Girl in the Goldfish Bowl, Gloria: The Living Half-Lady and The Mummy in which a woman appears to turn into a walking corpse.
They have been recreated by touring theatre company Sideshow Illusions with original equipment used by 1930s and 1940s Blackpool fire-eater showman Jon Gresham.
Jon Marshall, director of the firm, said: “The mummy was inspired by Boris Karloff and toured Britain in places like Scarborough, Morecambe, Southend and Porthcawl.
“A girl in a fish tank may seem tame nowadays but at that time the promise of seeing a girl in a swimsuit was a real money-spinner.
“There was one show called Electra which featured a woman who it was said could generate 27,000 volts of energy and there she stood, wearing only a few clothes, in a mock-up kitchen apparently powering washing machines and toasters.
“This was before mainstream feminism.”
Among those who used to perform in a sideshow is the current mayor of Blackpool, Councillor Mary Smith.
She spent her teenage summers in the 1950s suspended in a block of ice on the town’s Golden Mile wearing a swimsuit.
“I had to get in and out of an ice coffin all day,” she explained. “The space heated up like an igloo, it began to melt and you ended up with a puddle where your bum went.
“I earned one pound a day, which was more than I would have got in a normal job, but you had to work all day and every weekend. It was quite an experience and my only regret is that I don’t have any photographs of it.”