The chilling first line of the dark musical, “Side Show,” boasts, “Come look at the freaks!” The musical centers on the tragic lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton, good-looking, Siamese-twin vaudeville performers from the 1920s and 1930s.
The history of side shows, which contain variety-act performances, masterful illusions and put persons with physical deformities or curiosities on display, dates back as early as 1102 to Bartholomew Fair, a London street fair. The shows stemmed from traveling exhibitions, often associated with circuses, carnivals and traveling museums.
Some historians claim the sideshow, prominent in the early 18th and 19th centuries, began with showman P.T. Barnum. His first touring act in 1835 was Joice Heth, a woman he claimed was a toothless 161-year-old nurse of baby George Washington. Eventually he grew a collection of acts, and then the Ringling Bros. eventually had its share of freaks.
Circus town Sarasota has historical ties to sideshows nearby. When the Ringlings moved their winter quarters in the 1920s from Baraboo, Wis., to Sarasota, sideshow performers settled nine miles south of Tampa in Gibsonton — where land was cheap and zoning ordinances allowed their trailers and equipment. A giant who later became the fire chief, George Auger, aka Giant Al, founded the peculiar town; a little person was police chief; and Siamese twins sold Florida citrus.
It’s no wonder the history of sideshows intrigues Michael Newton-Brown, director of “Side Show” — he graduated from the second class of The Ringling Brothers Clown College in 1970.
The script features generic characters based on acts that most sideshows contained: a fat lady, tattooed lady, snake charmer, sword swallower, etc. So, ladies and gentlemen, step right up, get your tickets and satisfy your curiosities by learning more about these characters. See them in person before the curtain closes May 5.
Daisy and Violet Hilton
Played by Alana Opie and Danae DeShazer
The first set of sideshow Siamese twins, Cheng and Eng Bunker, traveled with P.T. Barnum. They were born in 1811 in China, but had settled in Siam. They both married and had a total of 21 children — Newton-Brown met one of their descendants last year at The Players.
Daisy and Violet Hilton were not as fortunate in their relationships as the Bunkers. They were born out of wedlock and sold to a couple that exploited them for profit. Later, their older stepsister and her fiancé enslaved them until age 23. The sisters had pygopagi, the term for being attached at the buttocks. They were good-looking, singing-and-dancing musicians who earned $5,000 a week at the peak of their careers.
But their love lives were tragic — they were both engaged and married on multiple occasions, but none lasted, and the musical plays to some of these elements. But it doesn’t touch on how the director of their sideshow absconded with all the money, leaving them to take jobs as grocery store clerks. When they didn’t show up to work one day in 1969, police discovered they had died from the Hong Kong Flu.
Played by Teri Lyons Duncan
Fat ladies were typical sideshow acts. One famous fat lady and little person was Carrie Akers. Another was Dolly Dimples (born Celesta Herrmann). She was known as “The World’s Most Beautiful Fat Lady.” Her first words as a child were “meat, meat, meat,” and she dropped out of high school because of teasing classmates.
There was also Baby Ruth Pontico, the daughter of a Ringling Bros. fat lady. She wanted to be a stenographer, but was too large for the office equipment. She weighed 815 pounds (gaining an average of 40 pounds yearly) and her slim husband, Joe Pontico, ran a restaurant near Sarasota.
Played by Joseph Grosso
According to Newton-Brown, few sideshows carried a Geek, and many performers wouldn’t join a show that carried one. Geeks were typically homeless; being a raging alcoholic who nursed the bottle was seen as a job requirement.
The often savage-looking Geek would bite the heads off chickens, snakes or rats. Rumor has it, The Players production has a rubber chicken and fake-blood capsules for this role.
Played by Sharon Bartley
The sideshow typically included a snake charmer, usually female, or handler who would exotically present snakes. And as Newton-Brown says, “It doesn’t take a lot of talent to be a snake charmer, you just have to have the right kind of friendly snake.” The director says he initially cast a boa constrictor for the snake role, but that it was pulled out due to a custody battle. As of April 18, he was working on signing another.
Played by Casey Kelley
Trying to find a woman completely covered in tattoos who could sing and dance posed a challenge, so Newton-Brown settled for printed body sleeves. Becoming a tattooed lady was an option for working-class women looking for a job.
Nora Hildebrandt and Irene Woodward competed for the title of first tattooed lady in 1882. Hildebrandt’s claim was that Sioux Indians captured her and her tattoo artist father, and he was forced to tattoo her until his death. Woodward’s claim was that her tattoos saved her from an Ute Indian raid.
Grady Stiles Jr., AKA Lobster Boy
Played by Alex Mahadevan
“Side Show’s” script calls for a reptile man, but Newton-Brown thought it was too generic, and people here could remember the Gibsontoner’s story. The Lobster Boy, the Hilton Sisters and Dolly Dimples are the only characters based on historical figures — the rest are generic.
Grady Stiles Jr., aka Lobster Boy, was a second-generation ectrodactyly, or man born with fused hands and feet resembling claws. His legs were deformed, and he walked with his arms. He became a sadistic alcoholic and abused his first wife and five children, two of which were also ectrodactylies.
He opposed his 15-year-old daughter Donna’s engagement by shooting her fiancé, Jack Layne, to death, but in 1978 he got out of prison (even with a guilty confession) because it wasn’t handicapped accessible.
He and his first wife, Maria Teresa Herzog, eventually rekindled the relationship following his second marriage, when he quit his Seagram’s 7 habit. Herzog and her son from a previous marriage hired a neighbor, Chris Wyant, to shoot him dead Nov. 29, 1992.
IF YOU GO:
When: 7:30 p.m. April 25 and runs through May 5
Where: The Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail
Info: Call 365-2494
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