By Amy Bickel – The Hutchinson News
Operator calls it the last traveling one in the nation as venue’s past its heyday.
Pete “Poobah” Terhurne eats fire outside of the “World of Wonders” sideshow at the Kansas State Fair on Friday afternoon.
When Ward Hall ran away from his family’s Nebraska home to join the circus as a flame eater at the age of 15, his father told him he’d be back in just two weeks.
But that was nearly 65 years ago, the 79-year-old Hall says with a smile as he stood outside his “World of Wonders” sideshow. He’s known nothing but this nomadic life since 1946, and he couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Yet, he says with a sense of dismay, the American sideshow isn’t what it used to be.
What once was a mainstay at fairs across the nation has slowly faded off the map, he said. He opened his own sideshow in 1951. Now he’s the only one left.
“There’s a permanent one on Coney Island,” Hall said before his 2 p.m. show at the Kansas State Fair. “But we’re the last traveling sideshow in America.”
One by one, they went out of business as employees quit, retired and died, he said.
At one time, when there were more than 100 sideshows in the country, fairgoers would goggle at what some called “freaks.” Hall said it’s not necessarily a more politically correct society that has run the sideshows out of business. He blames a fast-paced life that includes television.
Yet Hall keeps going. He tried to retire in 2003 to his home in Gibsonton, Fla. – a community that has long been a retirement and winter spot for carnival workers and sideshow performers.
The heat of summer, however, was just too unbearable, he said.
He went back on the road.
The group does 50 shows each year during the fair season, said 28-year-old Marcus Epsilon, who has mastered the skill of putting his arms, tongue and other body parts in traps with ease.
“It takes skill,” he said with a smile.
Epsilon is part of a lineup of 12 acts that include a man who swallows swords, a woman who seemingly turns into a snake, a human blockhead and Pete “Poobah” Terhurne, a 3-foot-tall, 79-year-old fire eater who has been at Hall’s side for 55 years.
Moreover, unlike sideshows of the past that featured the fat man, a bearded lady and a lobster boy, these shows are more illusions instead of human or animal oddities.
Hall, however, is hopeful for a good fair. Off the fairgrounds main path, past the carnival rides in the northeast corner of the fairgrounds, his exhibit sits, awaiting anyone who will walk by with a few dollars. They perform every 30 minutes.
When the carnival rides start moving, they’ll open their show about an hour later, he said.
“And when the last drunk staggers out the gate, then we’ll shut down,” Hall said.