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David Mills on dwarves, tatooed ladies, & fire eaters

David Mills, a former Post scribe and award-winning writer for shows such as "Homicide: Life on the Streets" and "The Wire" died Tuesday. He was only 48 but left behind an incredible body of work, not only as a frequent collaborator with his old friend David SImon, but also in print, as I discovered yesterday, rummaging through the Post's archives.

Read this story by Mills from 1991 about sideshow performers, presented here in its entirety. Enjoy.

The Disappearing Act;

Once Carnival Staples, Fire Eaters and Tattooed Ladies Are a Vanishing Breed

David Mills, Washington Post Staff Writer

LEWISBURG, W.Va.--Little Pete, the fire-eating dwarf, is sitting on a patio chair, a groggy python draped across his lap. A painted soup can -- for the gasoline -- rests behind him, two wands sticking out. But now is not the time to eat fire. Not with the sun posted high over the West Virginia State Fair. The fire eating you save for twilight.

Besides, this is enough -- a sprawling snake and a stumpy man -- to draw attention. People interrupt their strides, approach the platform. They stand and stare. Or they point. Some smile and wave at Little Pete.

"Does that thing bite?" a wide-eyed teenage girl wants to know. "Sometimes," Pete says, his voice a quiet rasp amid the clatter and roar of thrill rides. His sweet grin rests upon a large, jutting jaw. Across his knotty fingers, the python is slowly squirming, flicking its tongue.

"That's the baby snake. The big ones are inside," Buck Campbell announces in a husky singsong. "One dollar! Today only, half price! Let's go! Awright!" He's the ticket man. And behind him, a long, long tent.

And under that, the sideshow. Or what's left of it.

Sitting with Little Pete up on the bally is a woman, her body concealed by a huge flowery sheet, her head a mystery in a crimson sack. In the great old days of the sideshow, this would have been the best, most shocking freak. Someone like Priscilla, the Monkey Girl. Standing there, covered up.

And there'd be a talker, a master of gruesome seduction. "I would like to call your particular attention to the person you see standing here, heavily veiled from your sight. Ladies and gentlemen, you are viewing possibly the strangest living human being in the entire world today." And the people -- the marks -- would gather under his voice. "To show you just a sample of what I'm talking about, I'm going to ask her to expose her leg to you at this time, so you can see the long black hair that grows from her body. ..." Soon the marks would be handing over their money, eagerly, and stepping under the tent to see the human oddity unveiled.

There's nothing bizarre about the covered-up woman here, unless you count a recent gallbladder operation, and you can't exactly draw a crowd talking about that. No, she's the ticket man's wife, and she's just here as an eye-grabber. And as a faint tribute to a dead tradition.

There's not even a talker. Just a continuous tape loop, a thin, tin voice. "See lifelike facsimiles of famous freaks! Laloo, the Double-Bodied Man! The Mandarin of China with double eyes! The Pig-Faced Man and the Mule-Faced Woman! ..." The sign says "World's Largest Freak Museum." But what you find are shabby mannequins in glass cases, their clothes dirty, their heads cracked.

A world is gone. Just old people's memories now.

It is comforting to believe that America simply outgrew the sideshow, that our sensitivity conquered our curiosity, that we are somehow better than we used to be. Or at least that our impulse to gawk at strange people is now being satisfied by television talk shows. And we can tell ourselves that medical science is making genetic anomalies a thing of the past, that "freaks" are a dying breed.

That's part of it. But some in the sideshow business say they are victims mainly of carnival economics. The "big metal," the fast rides, that's what the modern carnival is about. Over the years, as carnivals acquired more and more rides, space on fairgrounds became increasingly expensive for sideshow operators to rent. Eventually it became impossible to afford the 20, 25 people it takes to mount a big, old-fashioned sideshow. (This one is now at the Clarke County Fair in Berryville, Va., 60 miles west of Washington, through tomorrow.)

So what you are about to see here, ladies and gentlemen, is a rare sight indeed, one of the last traveling sideshows in America today. It might amuse you. It might amaze you. Yes, it might even disturb you. But come, come, witness it with your own eyes. For tomorrow it too may vanish.

Under the Tent The loudspeaker comes alive at the far end of the red and blue tarpaulin tent. "Before we start, why don't y'all come down this way in front of the stage here, we'll try and entertain you." Time for the live show. "We don't bite. We've had our shots. Come on down."

On a cluttered stage, a 40-year-old guy in a black T-shirt is beckoning. It's John Stuart, a man with hitchhiker eyes and orange hair sweeping back like flames. He begins to pace and lecture. "I'm going to give you people a very small demonstration of what the powers of the mind can do... ."

The air hangs hot and moist in here. Two electric fans are onstage, one beside Stuart's empty folding chair, the other in front of a stout, elderly woman who's still sitting, her bifocals never lifting from the needlework in her lap. Blue-green tattoos cover her bare arms and legs.

"What I'm going to be doing up here on this stage has been done for many thousands of years by Hindu fakirs and other masters of yoga," Stuart says dryly. "It is what we call here in America in the entertainment industry -- the human blockhead.

"In other words, I'm gonna take this nail ..." His fingers twirl a frightening spike. "This particular nail is a 40-penny barn nail. It's about five inches in length. It's almost a quarter-inch in diameter." About 50 people are looking at him now. "I'm going to drive it into the center of my head."

Girlfriends look up at boyfriends, smiling.

Stuart hands the nail down to an onlooker for inspection. It is an actual nail. He takes it back, places the point inside his right nostril. "Watch." Then he starts tapping it with the microphone. Tap tap tap tap tap. The nail disappears into his face until only its head is visible.

Children's mouths hang open. A woman lifts a dainty hand. Some heads turn away.

Stuart continues his deadpan lecture until it's time to pull the nail out. Then he picks up a Phillips screwdriver. "The carnies out there, they think I have a screw loose," he says. So he pushes the screwdriver straight into his sinus. "It does go in by hand, by the way. You really don't need a hammer, or in this case a microphone, to drive it in." Half smirking, he taps the plastic handle sticking from his nose. "But it does create a real nice sound effect, doesn't it?"

When Stuart sits down, the 77-year-old woman puts down her yarn and rises wearily.

"Ladies, gentlemen and children, I am Lorett, the Tattooed Lady. Upon my arms I have 106 roses. On my chest, the American eagle. On my stomach, a three-masted schooner." A thousand times she must have said these exact words, exactly this way. Flat. Staring out at nothing. "And on my legs I have snakes of various sizes and shapes. On the left knee I have the face of Genghis Khan, and on the right knee a Chinese pirate girl. Below her the peacock, and below him, from India, the hooded cobra. ... "

When she's through, Stuart stands again to lecture on the ancient art of sword swallowing. He lowers long steel blades deep into his esophagus. "The fastest way to get iron into your system," he says, wiping one sword dry with a dirty dishrag.

"Wow, that was unreal!" says Richard McMillion of Quinwood, W.Va., leaving the tent, shaking his head and grinning, spitting tobacco juice. "How in the world could he do that? Hard to believe, I swear."

Ten minutes later, Stuart has drawn a fresh bunch of folks toward the stage. "I'm going to give you people a very small demonstration of what the powers of the mind can do... ."

What Once Was The "10-in-one" sideshow -- 10 attractions, one price -- was a unique feature of the 20th-century American carnival. You'd see not only human oddities but "working acts" -- sword swallowers, contortionists, human pincushions, fire manipulators.

Only a few 10-in-one-style shows remain on the carnival circuit, and one of them belongs to Ward Hall. Featuring John Stuart, Lorett Fulkerson and Pete Terhurne, Hall's show is a shadow of its former self.

Until a few weeks ago, the troupe included a fat man, a 700-pounder billed as Howard Huge. But the heat was too much for him, so he went home. (Maybe that's just as well. "You wouldn't have wanted to see our fat man," confides one person with the show. "He was filthy. He would never wash.")

The show also featured a cute little dog, a Chinese crested hairless named Pinky. It would sit on stage with Lorett, and stand when she stood, turn when she turned. Unfortunately, before the season began, Pinky apparently got hold of a poisoned rat at Hall's home in suburban Tampa, Fla., and died.

As recently as 1986, things were different. Hall had Dick Brisben, the Penguin Boy, whose feet grew out of his hips. He had Dolly Reagen, the Ossified Girl, "the woman turning into stone." He had Little Pete and Lorett. He had a fat man and a bearded lady.

The last stop that season was the Texas State Fair in Dallas, and Hall says 80,000 people saw his sideshow over 17 days. Then Brisben and Reagen retired, and Hall decided to merge his separate touring freak museum with the remainder of his 10-in-one. "My people got old," Hall says by phone from his home. "And I didn't take the effort to go out and find new ones because I'm getting old too."

Hall, 61, has been in the sideshow business for 40 years. In the 1940s, by his estimate, there were a hundred 10-in-ones traveling North America. "Every circus had one," he says, "and just about every carnival."

And at the big carnivals, the sideshow would be just one of many live shows. "They would have performing midget troupes, big girl revues and posing shows, all-black revues, motorcycle thrill shows, big magic shows, trained animal shows," Hall says. "Where now we have one fat person in the sideshow, back in those days they would have a separate show with maybe five or six fat people who would perform."

In the '50s, he says, American carnival owners began investing in more sophisticated European thrill rides. They discovered it was cheaper to put a down payment on ride equipment than to produce an elaborate show. Besides, the independent show operators used to keep 60 percent of their gross; with rides, the carnival owners kept 100 percent. "It was just a matter of economics," Hall says. More and more rides. Fewer and fewer shows.

But Doc Swan of Palmyra, N.J., who runs a traveling two-person "vaudeville circus," thinks changing public tastes had a lot to do with the demise of the 10-in-one. "A lot of people just don't think the exhibition of human oddities, to be gawked at by the curious and laughed at by the merciless -- that just conjures up images of, 'Oh, I wouldn't want to see that. Why would I want to see a guy with no arms and legs?'

"The world has changed to try to give these people their rightful place in a normal life," he says.

Swan, 36, got started as a teenager in a Ward Hall 10-in-one. Now he does a "family-oriented" presentation of fire-eating, escape artistry and magic. Tongue-in-cheek, harmless. Although he knows how to swallow swords and do the nail-in-the-head, Swan says even those acts are too intense for modern sensitivities. "If I go to a fair and they find out I'm doing blockhead and sword-swallowing and the needle-through-the-arm," he says, "there's no way I'm getting on that fair lot."

Attractions "It was -- " the girls say together, then giggle. "It was bizarre," says 15-year-old Lisa Burford of South Charleston, W.Va. "It was amazing, though."

"I don't know how he got it down his throat," chirps her friend Laura Harvey, 16.

"I think it would be neat to be a tattooed lady, though," Burford says.

Around midafternoon, things slow down under the sideshow tent. So John Stuart is sitting on stage sucking chicken wings. In a 14-hour workday, you take your nourishment when you can.

After returning from Vietnam in 1967, Stuart says, he was taught to swallow swords by a performing "hermaphrodite" (actually a transsexual). Since then, he has been an all-purpose carny, working the games, working the illusion shows, working the rides. But he prides himself on his mastery of the "yoga torture acts" -- "that's sword swallowing, fire eating, fire and glass dancing, hot-coal dancing, bed of nails, bed of spikes and daggers, the human blockhead and the pincushion. And they just don't pay to do it anymore. I just do two acts." (The low-end salary for a sideshow performer, according to Ward Hall, is $ 500 a week.)

"I don't know whether it would be worth it for me to go as a single-o, and do five acts in one," Stuart says, wearing down a cigarette. "The thing is, you do exert an awful lot of energy doing what I do. And I couldn't be doing this every 15 minutes constantly, you know, all five acts. Two acts, eh, nothing to it. Blockhead, once you learn how to do something like that, it does become automatic. But when you start doing the pincushion, fire and glass dancing, at night you'll be spending hours picking glass out of your feet. You're not bleeding or nothing, because you can control mentally your blood flow. Same thing with the pincushion. But every once in a while you will hit a main vein or a main artery and you will bleed, but not a whole lot. But it does run you down."

Mentally control his blood flow, huh? Even after you've seen him stick a screwdriver into his nose and deep-throat a broadsword, something about Stuart's squinty eyes, as friendly as he is, makes you wonder about him. Did he really use his skills as a sideshow "human ostrich" to win bar bets by eating shot glasses? Did he really eat light bulbs, tacks, razor blades and old 78 records onstage? ("I can literally shut my digestive system down and let the stomach acid work on it.") Did Cass Elliott really tutor him in a Philadelphia orphanage?

Lorett Fulkerson tells a simpler tale, and she tells it with a feisty charm. She grew up in Kansas. Got married and divorced as a teenager. One day, the carnival came through her town. "I said, 'I think I'll run off and join this thing.' [My ex-husband] said, 'You won't be gone a week till you'll be writing me for money to come home on.' Been gone 60 years and I ain't wrote him yet."

She started out in a girl revue. "Dancin'. Strippin'," she says. "Whatever they told you to do, you did. As long as it wasn't you-know-what."

After her first season on the road she decided to get herself covered in vegetable-dye tattoos. She can't say why. "Something to do. Something to do."

There was a cost to being a self-created curiosity. "You couldn't get a job when you went home in the wintertime," Fulkerson says. "They looked down their nose at you. Now, it's an up-and-coming thing. You'd be surprised.

"You look at the girls coming in here. They got one here, they got one there, they got one down there. And they all say, 'You want to see my tattoo?' 'No, I don't want to see your tattoo. I see mine every day.' " She's not kidding. "You know, they don't think. They don't seem to think that you're tired of looking at tattoos. Because I see 'em every day of the year. Every hour of the day that I'm awake, I see 'em. Why should I want to look at yours? Does it make sense?"

A Love Story Show manager Bob Fulkerson, in a trailer behind the tent, has just counted the previous day's front-door gross, one dollar bill at a time. About $ 3,000. Not a lot when you consider that the rent for a show this size can get up into five figures. (Most carnivals don't take a percentage anymore.)

"We are surviving," says Fulkerson, his bulky body settled into this dim space. At first, Fulkerson tried a $ 2 adult ticket price here. Nobody would pay it.

At 68, Fulkerson remembers the glory days of the American carnival. He came out of the service after World War II with a severe drinking problem, he says. "I was in Chicago, on skid row. A man came up and he said, 'You look like you're sober. Would you like to do a little work tonight?' I said, 'Yes, I would. I'm running out of drinking money.'

"He took me out to a carnival, and he put me to work on the big Tilt-a-Whirl." Soon, he was the full-time "Tilt man" for a small carnival that traveled West Virginia, and he had cut way down on his drinking. With a first man and a second man, plus four or five others on tear-down night, Fulkerson would take the ride apart, load it onto a truck, drive it to the next spot, then put it together again.

"One night, I had just finished the Tilt and I was sitting down on the steps. And here's this gal over there by the Ferris wheel." He points out the back of his trailer, toward the red-and-blue tent, toward Lorett. "We met, we fell in love, we got married. Whatever I am today, I owe to that girl. She fought for me. You know, a drunk -- I don't think there's any willpower. There's spiritual power. She taught me some spiritual power about God, Christ."

She also talked him into giving up his beloved Tilt-a-Whirl during the late '50s. "Lorett said, 'Now honey, there's an easier way to do this.' She suggested that maybe I might want to change. I said, 'Absolutely not. I'm happy with my Tilt.' She says, 'You won't be 10 years from now when you ache in every bone in your body.' I gave in," Fulkerson says. "We went to a sideshow. And I found I was a perfect fit." Within a few years, the Fulkersons were running their own 10-in-one.

Even a heart attack and stroke in 1976 couldn't keep Bob Fulkerson off the road for long. "My doctor told my wife, 'If you don't get him back with the people that he loves in life, we're going to lose him.' "

Now Lorett says this is going to be her last season performing. "I'm tired," she says in front of her fan. She had knee surgery two years ago; the scar cuts right down the face of Genghis Khan. "Wait till I get home [to Louisiana]. I'm gonna stay home and I'll work my buns off in my garden."

"Oh, we've been saying that for 10 years," says the man in the trailer. "I don't think the day will come in our lives that we will stay at home. I love my home, I'm comfortable with it. But after Christmas, in January, I get my atlas, I call Ward. 'What've we got cookin'?' And he'll say, 'Well, we're definitely here, here and here.' The next thing I know, I've got the whole scheme laid out, mileage, estimated cost to produce, and I'm ready to go.

"Lorett wants to quit. Of course," Fulkerson says. "I can understand that. I do too. I'm tired. But come February, somewhere we find a hidden strength" -- he laughs -- "to go on."

Sunset When the western sky becomes a purple wall behind the great flashing spokes of the Ferris wheel, and the air turns cool, Little Pete waves two torches in the air. He tilts back his head, lowers one flame onto his outstretched tongue, closes his mouth around it, snuffs it.

Pete Terhurne is hearing-impaired, doesn't say much. In 1954, when the carnival came through his home town of Breckenridge, Minn., Terhurne approached Ward Hall about work. "He told me, 'We'd be glad to have you.' And I've been with him ever since," Terhurne says.

Years later, Terhurne and a man known as "Sealo, the Seal Boy" (his hands grew out of his shoulders) were listed as plaintiffs when Hall challenged a Florida law against the commercial exhibition of "any crippled or physically distorted, malformed or disfigured person."

In 1972, the Florida Supreme Court struck down that law as unconstitutional.

"Such exhibitions," the state had argued, "tend to generate the public concept of physically handicapped and deformed persons as freaks. Such a concept is morally intolerable in light of its impact upon those handicapped and deformed persons who do not care to be looked upon as carnival acts." But the court agreed with Hall that "individuals in this unfortunate condition" could not be barred from making an honest living.

Despite carnival economics, Hall is convinced that "today would be a golden time for a big sideshow." For the exhibition of unusual human beings? "Oh yes," he says. "Recently I saw a 'Donahue' show that featured all fat people. I saw an 'Oprah Winfrey Show' that had three sets of Siamese twins," he says. "And people keep turning back to Oprah and Donahue hoping they're going to see something else strange."

If only he were a younger man, with the energy to round up some new attractions. "I'm sure there's a lot of people out there today who would like to be in this business," says Hall. "But they don't know how to get in touch with us."

By Annys Shin  | April 1, 2010; 8:50 AM ET
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