I've been trying to get to the annual Sideshow Gathering for the past three years. Because of the date I haven't been able to go, this year it was changed from Labor Day weekend to November 2-4.
I had arranged a ride with Bob "Odd Bob" Blackmar, and his son Tom and Tom's wife. On their way to pick me up they also picked up John Bradshaw in Virginia. Needless to say, I learned a lot on the ride to Wilkes-Barre, PA. I had known that John had started the actual sideshow at Coney Island USA, and I had known he was a master showman and pitchman, I even knew he does Jam Auctions. What I didn't know was the he was the one to teach Natasha Verushka how to swallow swords, or that he made magic mice and I never knew how genuine this guy was, I've met very few that were nicer than him.
November 1, 2007;
I had a show the previous night, and got home at 3am, I had to leave at 5am.
I hastily packed up my stuff, making sure I had enough underwear and socks. I then decided to pack some props just in case.
I didn't get any sleep.
I depart at 5am with my grandfather so that we can meet Bob and his crew at 10am somewhere in the middle of nowhere VA, when my left ear wasn't being talked off I caught a few Zs and before I knew it we were at the Waffle Inn, and about 15 minutes later there came the carny caravan. They stopped to stretch and my grandfather talked to Bob and John while Tom and I loaded the van with my shit, carefully avoiding the items to be auctioned off on Saturday.
The trip lasted six or seven hours, but only felt like one or two. Hearing Bob and John reminisce of years past was just wonderful. I was just like listening to Ward and Chris talk about days gone by.
We arrived at the Holiday Inn at around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, I still didn't have a room. So since John Bradshaw wasn't staying with anyone I slept in his room for the night (the rest of the weekend I had arranged to stay with a friend that was coming).
That evening John showed me some old photo albums he had brought along, full of pictures he and others had taken at Coney Island and the other sideshows he had owned or worked with. For the first time ever, I saw a colour photo of Bill Durks (the three eyed man, the same man whose face was so badly disfigured Ward Hall in one of his books, described it as if "...he was struck in the face with an ax." He didn't really have three eyes, and in truth he only had one that worked.) , and it has really stuck with me, I can only imagine what the marks thought what they saw him.
John gave me an old Odis Jordan pitchcard one with a story on the back, that was hastily written and printed up by John after Odis had run out of his other pitchcards.
After I had gotten settled in the room, I went down to the commons area where a group of performers had gathered, this is where I met the Cheeky Monkey Sideshow, Kathleen Kotcher, James Mundie and a bunch of others.
I had a great time bullshitting with everyone for a few hours, but I was very tired and had to get some sleep if I was to wake up in time to meet up with Mike Vitka (Who was the outside talker at World of Wonders this past season).
Mike took a bus to Wilkes-Barre from Salem. He specifically came for the auction, and walked out with some really great stuff.
November 2, 2007;
John woke me up that morning since I slept through the wake up call. It was about 11am. Most everyone was already at the showroom setting up for the weekend, so while I was waiting for Mike to get to the hotel from the bus station, John and I talked some more, he showed me his mouse pitch, which is just stellar, and then gave me a few of the magic mice (I plan to start pitching them after my performances).
After Mike arrived we all (John, Mike and I) got a ride with Bob over to the hotel where the festivities were being held.
It was around 1pm and all the tattoo artists were still scrambling to get set up in time for the doors to open at 3pm.
I wandered around a while and chatted with James Taylor and Walt Hudson (Who is just delightful), and I also got a chance to admire the Midget display that was set up, it was a collaboration of Rob Huston and Bob Blackmar, it was packed with wonderful ephemera pieces, clothing and props ranging from Tom Thumb to Billy Barty. For a meager 25¢ you could view a slide show with sound about the little people in the display.
Another feature was Col. Hunsly's two headed turtles and cyclops dog, he had a beautiful collection on display.
Toni-Lee Sangastiano had a beautiful display of her banners, along with postcards, jewelery and other fun things.
James Taylor, had a stand with great books, and his newest Shocked & Amazed!, he had some really rare, great books.
Three O'clock came and went, and people began to pour in to the convention.
From this point on the convention was a non-stop performance extravaganza!
The stage was empty until a little after 5pm when Aye Jaye, master MC graced the stage, and officially opened the Sideshow Gathering 2007. He was snazzed up in a red and white striped blazer, laden with buttons that said thing like "Trust Me", and he had a sprig of mistletoe pinned above his ass.
After the amazing introduction from Aye Jaye, the Disgracedland Family Sideshow took the stage. Their performance was something. It was probably the closest thing to a geek act that I will ever see. The main feature that I remember was facial pincushion with 40 needles, loads of blood and a gruesome bug eating act.
Bizzaro, a very original and creative guy then came to the stage with his strait jacket escape and magic act. He is quite the performer, really the only way I can describe it is, as being unique. I mean, the guy gets attacked by a bag of Doritos on stage! He performed twice over the weekend.
The Crispy Family Carnival was next, Crispy and Boobzilla head up this troupe, with comedy and quick wit, it was a fun show. They presented classic sideshow acts, along with a glass routine titled the "Masochism Tango".
Natasha Verushka performed after them, and I've got to say, it was a remarkable sight. Sword swallowing combined with belly dancing! Her finale was a neon swallow.
After her act she brought John Bradshaw up on stage to thank him publicly for teaching how to swallow swords.
After that spectacle, Tim Cridland aka Zamora The Torture King, Wowed the audience with his amazing skill. I've seen him work before and it really is incredible how he can do that act, day in and day out without having to just stop and take a break! He also had a booth set up with his books and DVDs and was being helped by Jackie the Human Tripod, who sadly didn't perform.
After the short intermission, Dr. Wilson aka Paul Szauter did his fantastic Memory routine. I've only seen a few but Paul's is by far the best of all, after seeing him perform I would without a doubt buy a case of his miracle working Elixir to avoid that awful Cataleptic Neuroplexy. I'd also like to add that he is a grade "A" story teller, the cut and restored turban was astounding.
Stephon Walker is a funny guy in his own right, but when he transforms himself into Swami Yomami, he's just plain ol' hilarious! He's this nerdy guy that comes on stage and really makes you feel better about yourself, his only nerd rival could possible be Steve Urkel. I really enjoyed his act, I really can't think of any words to describe it other than hilarious. The Bed of nails bit was by far the best way I've ever seen that act presented.
Stephon was followed by his own troupe called The Cheeky Monkey Sideshow, they are tightly choreographed, funny and original. They even had a freak! Sally the Cinch, who has two, count em' TWO belly buttons and a waist that is so incredibly squeezable it shrinks down to a mere foot in circumference.
The Cheekys closed the show that night and every one went back to their rooms at the Holiday Inn, where everyone gathered in the breakfast room to talk about the day. At around 2am we were all shooed out by a bird like woman named Henryetta, who was there to start breakfast.
November 3, 2007;
I started the days performances at around 3pm, after an introduction from Aye Jaye that made me sound so damn good, I just couldn't compete with myself. I swallowed a variety of objects, ate a light bulb and was heckled by John Strong. I'm still not sure what I did to him...
The rest of the acts that day were repeats of the previous days performances, some of them varied and were all exceptionally good.
At 9:30pm, a large group of folks from the gathering (including the Cheeky Monkies, Red Stewart, Knotty Bits and some hardcore sideshow fans) went down the road to a club called Cafe Metropolis, where a group called the Olde City Sideshow was performing. I was invited to perform as a special guest, and they certainly made me feel very welcome.
As good as The Gathering is, it is mostly the same acts over and over, just presented differently. Olde City of course had the staple stuff, but included stunts that didn't make a single appearence at The Gathering. They are great group of talent. Sword Swallowing, CLASSY bug eating, a grinder act, great blockhead variations among other things, and I did a bit of contortion, balancing and I inflated a hotwater bottle by mouth until it exploded.
Olde City Sideshow is truley one of the best groups I saw that weekend.
We all headed back over to The Gathering, to catch Dr. Wilson again and to see The Bindlestiffs.
At 11:20 the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus took the stage and performed is such a manner that I can only describe as beautiful. Keith assumed the roles of Kinko the Klown and Mr. Pennygaff, he made balloon animals and "other" things, made a candy pitch with a very funny kicker ending and did diabolo and swallowed swords. Their musician whose name escapes me (I'm sorry) played the trombone whilst riding a unicycle. Stephanie did a fantastic bullwhip act and performed an inspiring monologue about condoms. Like I said before, it was beautiful.
After their performance was over, the convention floor was cleared as quickly as possible to make way for the auction.
Before the actual auction started, John Bradshaw did a mini- Jam Auction, which was an amazing thing to behold... I've never seen a real one, and neither had a lot of the audience. It was great! He even pitched his mice, and to see the master work was, again, wonderful.
There was so much up for sale and the room was full of excitement. A porcelain fat lady figure went for $105.00!!! A husband a wife bid against each other for it, and it was one of the sweetest this I've ever seen.
I walked away with a Harper's Weekly newspaper from 1865 that has an article about Barnum's museum fire, a freeze dried turtle and some pitchcards.
My friend Mike Vitka won a miniature sideshow, that was built by John Koman in the 1950s, I have it now and I'm in the process of restoring it.
At the end of the auction most people were so tired they went to their rooms to get some sleep.
I tried that.
I found myself in Bizzaro's room, with Keith Nelson, James Taylor, Crispy and some other folks, I hung out there until about 6am!
I finally got back to my own room, with was at this point being occupied by four people besides me. I woke them all up by mistake, and we all stayed up for about an hour as our conversations became less and less lucid.
Sleep, at last!!!
November 4, 2007;
The last day of the Gathering and tattoo convention was started with the Awards Brunch, among those honoured were Bob Blackmar and John Bradshaw.
We all got to the show floor at around 2pm when the Stephon and the rest of the Cheekies graced us with another performance.
And the closing of the Gathering at 3:30 was performed by Aye Jaye.
Bob Blackmar and the rest of the gang loaded everything up in the giant van, said our good byes and hit the road.
After having this weekend, I will never miss another Sideshow Gathering.
I'd like to thank Franco for putting this together and everyone else that made it an enjoyable experience.
See You Down The Road!