In Chicago in 1893, Victorian men and women got their first flash of electricity and their first flash of a stripper. Newspapers implied that the "electricity" of Egyptian beauty, Fahreda Mahzar, and her "Hootchy-Kootchy" belly dance upstaged the real thing. Despite all the Renoirs and Pissaros hanging in the Palace of Fine Arts across the way, visitors were most entranced by Mahzar's dance in a nearly transparent skirt as part of the World's Columbian Exposition's upscale sideshow, the Midway Plaisance.
The fair's organizers insisted that the Midway was "educational." (No doubt it was to many Victorians). Sideshows have been "educating" people in their own special way since 17th-century English fairs and have rarely lacked an audience. Although many of us today think of ourselves as sophisticated, we're not unlike our Victorian ancestors in our capacity to find great entertainment in freakish acts, even at the cost of culture. To put it more bluntly, some of us would be just as satisfied seeing Jim Rose's Circus Sideshow at Lollapalooza as we would watching Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has just the show to fulfill that uncivilized desire for entertainment with mere shock value. This year, in the age of political correctness, the circus is bringing back its sideshow.
But unlike its 1842 display, there will be no Blue Man, Lion-Faced Boy or Three-Legged Spectacle. This sideshow is decidedly more PC, or — at least — more honest. Why is Barnum & Bailey promoting sideshows after all these years?
According to retired clown and Barnum & Bailey Performance Director David Kiser, "Every year we try to come up with something new or put a twist on something old. The sideshow may not be as politically correct as we have become in recent years. However, it's still universally appealing. People still love to see people who look like you and me do extraordinary things."
Except for Michu, The Smallest Man on Earth, and Khan, The World's Tallest Man, most of the people in this circus are showing off their extraordinary talents rather than their extraordinary appearances. Indeed, Michu and Khan both perform in the show and are not simply "spectacles." As Kiser says, "We've brought back the appeal without bringing back, maybe, the freakish side of the sideshow."
Of course, these performers still do freakish things, or else it wouldn't be a sideshow. Though Barnum & Bailey's won't make your stomach turn like Jim Rose's, it will keep you on the edge of your seat or, at least, inspire you to psychoanalyze the entertainers. Among other bizarre talents, the troupe includes Marina, The Lady in the Cube. While other people work inside office cubicles, Marina prefers a real cube, a 14-by-14-inch Plexiglas box. A contortionist, she's able to squeeze her lithe body into it, making the lotus position in yoga look like fun.
Her co-worker Tong, The Prince of Pythons, handles snakes weighing more than 150 pounds. It's a job he just fell into, according to Kiser. "Our gentleman, Tong," he explains, "who plays with 16- to 18-foot Burmese pythons, started as a performer in other circuses. He had a pet snake and began to utilize it as kind of a hook and realized that is was very popular, more popular than his acrobatic act at the time. So he began working with snakes." During his act, in a moment which can only be compared to that classic alien/mouse scene in V, Tong carefully places the head of one of his "pets" into his mouth.
It's hard not to ask the inevitable question: Where does Barnum & Bailey find these people? Kiser explains that the circus employs full-time talent scouts who peruse everywhere from "the jungles of Vietnam" to "central Africa." The scouts also occasionally make stops in New York City. According to Barnum & Bailey's media kit, the circus found Khan, The World's Tallest Man, in Pakistan and Michu, The Smallest Man on Earth, in a Hungarian village.
"Vesuvius, who's our human volcano, is from Africa," explains Kiser. "He's part of a tribe and one of the things that they hold very precious and dear are earth, wind and fire, and they use fire and dance as a physical showing of their innermost thoughts. Fire, to them, is precious and the manipulation of fire is to be held precious and is to be done by only the uppermost members of their tribe. It's almost shamanlike."
It may seem like a bizarre culture, but the circus, according to Kiser, is really a warm and fuzzy place. For those who've become cynical towards the circus after seeing too many Fellini films and Diane Arbus photographs, Kiser offers a reassurance. "We all work well with each other," he says, "We all enjoy each other's company. We go home and barbecue with each other. We have foreign performers who are with us and their countries are at war. And here we get beyond the politics. We get down to the person and see each other as valuable individuals in a community."
Kiser spins one last, happy circus tale about Mysticlese, The Master of the Mind. According to the performance director's story, Mysticlese was simply a trombone player with the Romanian State Orchestra when he was fixed up, by friends, with a woman from the circus. He went out with her, fell in love, and the next thing he knew he'd entered circus school so that he could travel with her.
As Kiser says, Mysticlese didn't want her to have to "give up what she loved most — being a circus performer." Now, in the company of his wife, he travels with Barnum & Bailey, walking across glass and swords. How could you miss the chance to watch a man who's literally willing to walk up a stairway of swords for love?
THE RINGLING BROS. AND BARNUM & BAILEY CIRCUS will perform at the Firstar Center (formerly The Crown, aka The Coliseum) through Sunday.