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Sex Death And Ronald Mcdonald
ON THE ROAD DURING THE ERA OF GREATEST PERIL FOR THE ONE INDISPENSABLE AMERICAN SHOW
September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
The drizzle had stopped, and the midway was now jammed. Crowds milled in front of the sideshow. Stewart and the others onstage trooped inside, and Count Nicholas, the big-top ringmaster, who also ran the sideshow, took their place on the bally. He was dressed in glossy knee-high black boots, brown jodhpurs, a khaki shirt, and a red windbreaker. He had a thin mustache, the dirty white of wood ashes. As he spieled, he leaned toward the audience and made eye contact with people.
“Wonders of the world and strange people,” he said. “All these oddities are real, nothing faked, stuffed, mummified, or papier-mâché. All real, all alive. Pat the elephant’s trunk, walk right up. Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus spares nothing to bring you these wonders. What your eyes see, you’ll never forget. Step right up.”
But Shandor Kalif—a young man named Paul who had joined the circus when he was out of work four years earlier and saw an ad in the paper for big-top laborers—hardly raised an eyebrow in an audience of est graduates, transcendental meditation practitioners, and dope-smoking inner-space voyagers when he lay on his bed of four-penny nails, an act he performed with the help of nothing more occult than his will.
“They file the nails down some,” he said, “but there’s really no trick to it. It hurts.”
He pulled up his shirt and turned around. His back was covered with tiny scabs and scars, hundreds of little black spots that made his skin look like acoustical paneling.
“The sideshow isn’t what it used to be,” Count Nicholas told me later. “The last real sideshow was in the late thirties. The alligator-skin man. The boy with two heads on one body. Real freaks of nature. We don’t call them freaks now though.”
Ever since the public objected to the word freak when the Barnum & Bailey Circus visited London in 1898, circuses have described the malformed they exhibit as “strange people” and “human oddities.”
“Circuses don’t have freak shows anymore,” said the Count. “People won’t take their kids to them today.”
In the past, when children were born at home, monsters—undetected by X rays, sonograms, and amniocentesis, unaborted, not killed at birth by kind or cruel obstetricians—were both more familiar and, paradoxically, more wondered at. They were revelations of nature, nightmares dreamed into being by God.
If people would pay to see strange animals, wouldn’t they pay to see “strange people”? In 1771 the dwarf Emma Leach displayed herself to the public for a shilling, the first freak show presented in the United States. By the end of the nineteenth century, the public’s curiosity was being fed by a parade of the misshapen and bizarre: the Toccis Twins, who were born with two bodies on one trunk; Theodore Peteroff, who was billed as Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy; Jonathan Bass, the Ossified Man; midgets, giants, fat ladies, thin men—Hieronymus Bosch characters wending their way through a Winslow Homer landscape.
The public, barricaded behind their normality, could gape with an unembarrassed shared astonishment, which today has been replaced by a scrupulous humanistic horror at any fascination with the abnormal. We want to shield our children not from the knowledge of birth defects but from the knowledge of that part of themselves that would dehumanize the afflicted and categorize them as alien, as creatures to goggle and giggle at.
“Everything’s changed,” said the Count. “When I started with the circus, it was the first time I’d ever seen a lion or a tiger. Now kids see wild animals all the time on television. We don’t even have the circus parade anymore. The last real parade was in 1927.” The heavy wagons did too much damage to the paved streets. “It’s all different from when I joined.”
Count Nicholas, who was sixty-eight years old, said his real name was Angel Nicholas—“Angelo, in Greek” —but when he ran away with Ringling Bros. in 1927, “Everyone started calling me Count, so now my car, my house, my Social Security card, everything is in that name, my name, Count Nicholas.”
In 1945, when Fred Bradna, whom he called the world’s greatest ring-master, retired, the Count was chosen “out of sixteen hundred applicants for the job. I knew I would be; I’d been grooming myself.” In 1955 he left Ringling because “I heard they were going into arenas; the circus wouldn’t be under the big top.” The next year he joined the Clyde Beatty show.