Sideshow performers unite at weird Pa. convention

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. - November 11, 2010

How else would you expect a bunch of sideshow performers to behave at their annual end-of-season blowout?

They've been on the road for months, playing bars, comedy clubs, college campuses, motorcycle rallies, Halloween attractions and theme parks across America. Now, performers with names like Coney Island Chris (a quarterfinalist on NBC's "America's Got Talent") and Thrill Kill Jill get the chance to hang out for a weekend, mingle with fans and, best of all, catch each other's bizarre, head-shaking and frequently hilarious acts.

"Show 'em what we've come up with during the year, or throw some jokes in there that only they would understand," said Ling, who performs with Philadelphia-based Olde City Sideshow.

The Sideshow Gathering, held each November in the northeastern Pennsylvania city of Wilkes-Barre, bills itself as the "world's only sideshow convention," a time for sword swallowers, light bulb eaters, glass walkers and human blockheads to unite as one weird and freaky family.

It was started nearly a decade ago by Franco Kossa, co-owner of a chain of tattoo parlors and founder of an annual tattoo convention in Wilkes-Barre called "Inkin' the Valley," to which the Sideshow Gathering is attached.

Kossa, 45, got the idea after a chance encounter with sideshow promoter Ward Hall. They spoke about "how the sideshow is dead," he recalled. As a sideshow fan, Kossa thought it only natural to invite some acts to his tattoo gathering.

"Tattooed people have been (sideshow) exhibits forever," he said. "Sideshow history and tattoo history are conjoined."

About 30 acts showed up this year, among them the Rev. Gunn. He bounds onto the stage, his long dark hair flowing behind him. A bed of 500 metal spikes awaits.

"One mistake and bam! My body slides down till my flesh rests against the bare wood, eight inches of sharpened steel piercing its way through my entire body," he says forebodingly. "It would be GRUESOME."

Gunn, a 42-year-old from Los Angeles who founded a wildly successful troupe called FreakShow Deluxe, stolidly eases his frame onto what looks like a medieval torture device. A second nailboard is placed atop his bare belly, and The Green Monster (5-year-old son Grennan) lies down on it. Then daughter Charlotte, not quite 3, stands on The Green Monster's stomach.

Gunn groans from the bottom of the pile. "You guys gotta lay off the snacks. Ah, geez!"

Afterward, he explains how he does it.

"The human body is amazing. It can do amazing and astounding things, and all you have to do is train yourself to work together in body, mind and spirit," said Gunn, whose real name is Thomas Nealeigh.

It's not all fun and games and placing hands in animal traps. This is a convention, after all, and there's also sideshow business on the agenda.

And so it was that 37 people - amateurs and professionals alike - simultaneously hammered foreign bodies into their noses, setting an unofficial world record for "mass human blockhead." At brunch the next day, the recipient of the inaugural Sideshow Act of the Year Award was announced.

These are unexpectedly heady times for one of the strangest and most enduring forms of entertainment. Sideshow acts are multiplying in number, though a lack of venues remains a problem.

"What we're seeing now is just an insane explosion of the business," said sideshow expert James Taylor, who publishes an industry journal called "Shocked and Amazed."

The business traces its American roots to P.T. Barnum's wildly popular dime museum in New York City (July marked the great showman's bicentennial) and to the circuses and carnivals that traveled the countryside in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Working acts joined with "freaks" - giants, little people, bearded ladies, folks with deformities - to satisfy earthy American tastes.

The rise and eventual ubiquity of television, movies and other forms of entertainment threatened to sink the sideshow. Twenty years ago, Taylor said, performers were dying off. But a new generation is breathing new life into the form.

Why now?

"Probably the toughest question," he said.

Perhaps it's the audience's desire to connect with something real in this age of contrived "reality" TV, computer-generated special effects and virtual friendships over social networks. Real swords sliding down real throats, real feet stomping on real shards of glass, real nails shoved into real nasal cavities, and real consequences for a mistake.

"Generally, the rule is, if you hit something squishy or hit something hard: stop," confided Stacy Hawkins, 26, of Dallas, a stay-at-home mom and bakery owner who performs as Della Deadgirl and counts the ability to shove four nails up her nose at once among her many odd talents.

Or perhaps something else is driving the sideshow's resurgence, something more elemental.

"If it's exotic, we want to watch. We have to watch," said Taylor, who had a booth at the convention. "It's that morbid curiosity that keeps us attached. And nothing generates more morbid curiosity than sideshow."

Ling compared it to a car crash: "The human psyche is always going to look at that no matter if they want to or not."

Back on stage, he swallows a neon-filled tube, jumps up and down on broken glass, and swings an old-fashioned steam iron attached with hooks to his eyelids. Gunn and Della watch appreciatively.

The audience groans. No one looks away.

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