The tall, successful-looking man next to me in the elevator was just making small talk when he asked why I carried so many books and notes with me.
I’m writing a book about traveling carnivals. I spent the year working and living in traveling carnivals and now it’s time to write a book. There was lots of hitchhiking involved too, I said.
“I used to work for the freak show every year at the Minnesota State Fair,” he said. “I used to pull the sword out of the sword swallower’s mouth.”
Writer Amy Tan says she wonders if the “universe” is sending her material for her books when she’s writing, because so much comes her way when writing that inspires her work (they are good novels).
It happens to me too but my subject is carnivals, carnies and the ephemeral locus of American communities. With a subject that broad, one is likely to run into people with connections to carnivals.
You never know what you’ll see in a freak show, or who those performers are in real life.
For my last day in my year in traveling carnivals, I asked King of the Sideshows Ward Hall if I could work in his freak show for a token amount and for just a day.
I saw the World of Wonders several times when I was working the billiards game for Adam West’s crew in at the Minnesota State Fair last summer.
The “World” was playing the Florida State Fair in Tampa and I wanted to get a toe into the freak show side of the industry. Hall agreed and I took tickets and was a gopher.
Twenty-two-inch tall Short E. Dangerously is the only classic “freak” in the show, called a “half man” because he was born without legs.
At the World of Wonders show in Florida, people ate fire, swallowed swords and performed magic, including a guillotine routine with a head thrown into the crowd. Illusions, Ward said, are most of the show these days.
Hall blames political correctness for the decline in “human oddities” wanting to perform in sideshows. Hall has worked in the sideshow business for 60 years and knows his freaks.
“I’ve worked with hundreds of human oddities,” he said. “Giants, midgets, alligator skin men, bearded ladies, the monkey girl, pinheads, midgets, dwarfs, the armless girls, the living half men, all worked for me in the past.”
Shorty started touring in sideshows just a couple years ago and now travels the world. He’s knocked out by the fame and travel. Before one performance, (performances run continuously almost all day), he looked back at fellow performer and beautiful assistant Sunshine and said, “I know, sometimes I can’t believe all this myself.”
It’s hard work as you’ll see in his interview.
I found his lack of neuroses compelling. He says he had a happy childhood. He loves music and women. He’s healthy. He makes money and travels the world. He’s a happy man.
Without a hint of self pity for the cards he was dealt, he proclaims himself a lucky half man and a rocker.
I’ve read experts who say otherwise, but I believe a man is happy if he thinks so. I also believe most of what we see, we should question.
You never know what you’ll see in a sideshow, on stage, behind the stage or in an elevator.
You never know the shape of a happy man.
Q & A with Short E. Dangerously
1 – Where did you grow up and what was it like?
“I was born a mile and a half from the Ohio- Michigan border. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio. But my mother’s side is completely from northern Michigan, I spent a lot of my life there with relatives. My childhood was fairly normal. My parents split up when I was 5. My mom raised me as a single mother.”
2 – Do you have medical problems that accompany your disability?
“I have no medical conditions related to my disability. I do have joint problems in my shoulders and arms. But I manage the pain thru over the counter medications and other herbal remedies.”
3 – How did you take your condition, were people cruel?
“I took my condition just fine and so did the people around me. If they didn’t then they didn’t need to be a part of my life.. Plain and simple. There were a few assholes along the way, but it was dealt with accordingly.”
4 – How did you decide to get into the entertainment business?
“My love of music is why I choose the entertainment business. I had a band in High School. I have always liked being on a stage. Things with the band didn’t work out. So while I was in college I knew a DJ and him and I talked a lot and realized that is what I wanted to do.”
5 – Being a DJ at a strip club? Were you a favorite of the dancers? Were there wild nights?
“I was a favorite of most of the dancers. The ones I wasn’t still respected me and didn’t give me any problems. There were plenty of wild nights! But I’m not going to go into details. I think you can figure it out.”
6 – How did make the transition to the carnival shows?
“I made the transition to the sideshow by a phone call form Tommy the manager of WOW. I was tired of DJing and was looking for something different to try. I was offered the chance to tour with them for the 2012 season. It changed my life and the rest as they say is history.”
7 – What is your act?
“The acts that I do are acrobatics, fire breathing, and I also throw knives.”
8 – Where in the world have you traveled with you act?
“I have been to New Zealand, Brazil, Venezuela, Germany, Spain, and Australia.”
9 – Do you feel like you are part of a bigger tradition, a time honored profession? What do you call yourself, “freak,” “carny,” showman, entertainer?
“I do feel like I am part of something. Its becoming a dying art and I only wish I discovered it sooner. I consider myself and entertainer first and foremost, but I’m also a showman. I just happen to be a freak.”
10 – How hard do you work?
“When I’m with WOW between 15-20 1/2 hour shows a day. Sometimes as many as 30. I know that I have done the bowling ball stunt at least 15-1800 times since I debuted it in Minnesota last year.”
11 – What makes you happy, in life?
“Being on the road good friends family. Being on Stage is an incredible rush.”
12 – What makes you happy when on the road?
“On the road is the performing, the fans, but most I love just going down the road to the next gig.”
13 – What’s the future for you. Wife and kids and grandkids? Buy a business and get off the road? Movies, books? More countries and more roads?
“Not so sure about wife, I will never get off the road. I would like to have my own show in the next 2-5 years or so. So yeah, more countries and more roads.”
14 – Are you a happy man?
“I am very happy right now with my life.”
15 – If you could do it all again, who would you be in the next life (Ward Hall told me he’d be a faith healer).
“If I had to pick I would be a rock star!”
16 – What kind of rock star. Any road stories? Any tricks gone wrong? Are you really Dangerously?
“Metal!,,, We were a cover band. Lots of Metallica covers. I was the front man. No nothing super funny on the road… No real problems. We are/were very close. Everyone pretty much got along. I have had knives bounce back at me before.. I was in LA filming a TV show and one bounced back and almost caught me in the chest… and the name is taken from an old wrestling promoter. His name is Paul Heyman but his ring name was Paul E. Dangerously. I took the name and made it Short E. so I could still keep Shorty in my professional name. My real name is Aaron.”
*Answers are in full and unedited.
This month marks the end of my year working and living in traveling carnivals around the USA. I lived on carnival wages so I also hitchhiked between jumps. I’ve traveled through 36 states, Canada and Mexico, for more than 20,000 miles. My 15,000 miles of hitchhiking makes me the #1 Hitchhiker in America. I worked carnivals in California, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Alaska, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, Georgia and Florida. I worked rides, games and one freak show.