His career move was hard to swallow only at outset

November 11, 1993|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

Swallowing neon tubes for a living might be rough on the digestive tract, but it's a smart career move for some, says Ward Hall, a sideshow impresario, who at 13 joined the circus as a fire-eater.

The world is supersaturated with would-be actors waiting tables, but there's always work for razor swallowers, live-rat regurgitaters, broken-glass dancers, knife throwers and other purveyors of the bizarre, says Mr. Ward, who has just completed his 46th season on the fair and carnival circuit. His sideshow is called "World of Wonders."

But practical concerns like employability can't fully explain why someone would choose to make a living in the realm of this dark and distorted universe.

Mr. Ward, speaking from his Gibsonton, Fla., home, offers another reason: Sideshow performers have a congenital desire to shake up the mainstream.

This is not some freakish urge, he says. Sideshow performers do this "for the same reason Madonna wants to run around the stage in her underwear. . . . She wants to shock her audience," he says.

And why do audiences like to watch as performers consume filaments and flames? Some folks love to shock and some love to be shocked, Mr. Ward says.

Baltimorean Richard Flint, past president of the Circus Historical Society, backs up Mr. Ward's take on shock value. "It has to do with a fascination for going to a limit," he says. A sword swallower is defying the risk."

There is more here, Mr. Flint says. Sideshows, first presented in medieval times by traveling performers from Eastern countries, inspire a certain religious awe. These grotesque, thrilling feats 00 appear supernatural and mystical. "You're putting a sword down your body," he says. "By all accounts, you should be hurting yourself. You don't. It is both a skill and a mystery."

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