Hurry, hurry, step right up! Come see incredible sideshow sensations! Witness the unbelievable Siamese Twins Chang and Eng, joined at the breastbone; or marvel at Alexandrinos, the Tattooed Man -- even his eyelids and ears are covered with elaborate designs!"
Wait a second -- that was the middle of the 19th century.
This is 1999, and circus sideshows have changed. Sort of.
This year, it's Marina, the Lady in the Cube, miraculously stuffing herself into a Plexiglas box no bigger than a hat box, or Tong, the Prince of Pythons, intertwining himself with an 18-foot snake and putting the python's head in his mouth.
FOR THE RECORD - Ticket information for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, coming to the Baltimore Arena March 10-21, was unclear in Thursday's Live section. The discount for children is offered for select performances only. The Sun regrets the error.
The 128th Edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is coming to town, and this year, the focus is on the bizarre and the unbelievable. The sideshow has returned.
Touting itself as the "Captivating Cavalcade of Curiosities and Spectacles," the Greatest Show on Earth has rounded up some of the most unusual performers from around the globe to share the spotlight with traditional acts, such as tightrope walkers, clown shows, acrobatic artistry and pachyderm parades.
"If you plant your tongue firmly in your cheek, you can do this," Ringmaster Jim Ragona says of this year's emphasis on the sideshows.
About a year and a half ago, executives at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus gathered to create a new concept for this year's show. Harking back to the classic spirit of yesteryear's circuses, they decided to re-introduce the idea of the sideshow.
"This is the circus adults remember as a kid," Ragona says. "We wanted to capture the essence of the circus at its heyday."
The history of the circus sideshow is, well, bizarre.
The 1920s, '30s and '40s are often referred to as the Golden Age of the Circus, when sideshows entertained visitors as they waited to see the main show under the Big Top. Among the unusual acts were sword swallowers, human pincushions, albinos, living skeletons -- all for an extra fee, of course.
In 1835, P.T. Barnum himself hired Joice Heth, a woman who claimed to be 161 years old and the nurse of George Washington. "Unquestionably the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the world!" read one of Barnum's handbills. Barnum exhibited her in New York and New England, raking in about $1,500 per week.
"The circus has always been about making money," Ragona says. "It's never been a charity organization."
Nonetheless, this year's edition is a bit more generous in nature. An hour before each show, ticket-holders are invited to walk amid the famous Three Rings, where they can meet sideshow performers, take pictures and ask for autographs.
One of the sideshow sensations not to be missed is Michu, whom the circus bills as "The Smallest Man on Earth." Ragona considers Michu his mentor and calls him the "consummate performer."
"He's one of the people I look up to even though I have to look down at him."
At just 33 inches tall, Mihaly Messaros -- known as Michu to his friends and fans -- has been entertaining American audiences since his debut with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in 1973. He's been performing as a clown, unicyclist, announcer and dancer ever since.
Aside from his revered status in the circus, Michu has performed in more than a dozen music videos, made two Pepsi commercials and numerous appearances with his friend Michael Jackson, and he even played the title role in the hit television series "Alf."
When paired up with Kahn, "The World's Tallest Man" (standing at 8 feet tall and weighing more than 380 pounds), the dynamic duo conquer the center ring to grab the audience's attention each night.
Ragona is well aware of the negative connotations that have been associated with sideshow acts in the past. After the Golden Age of the Circus, "freak shows" became a more apropos name for the opening acts, as circuses showcased the likes of lobster boy, pinhead and "The Feejee Mermaid." Many of these acts either capitalized on human deformities or were simply concocted.
"Perhaps the genre [of sideshow acts] was taken to the extreme," Ragona concedes. "Freak shows is what they became, not what they were intended."
Ragona draws a parallel between the mutation of the sideshow to the television talk shows of today. "Talk shows started out as an expression of human interest, like Donahue, but they became Jerry Springer. Human nature is titillated by the bizarre, but there has to be a point where we say, 'That's enough.' That's what happened with freak shows, and I think it's going to happen to tabloid TV as well."
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey isn't afraid of the past repeating itself in the case of its revived sideshows. According to ringmaster Ragona, there is an understanding among circus performers that they will always respect one another.
"For 128 years, circus performers have been able to coexist peacefully. Would that the world take note of that."
What: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
When: March 10-21. Evening shows at 7:30, 5:30 on Sundays. Also, 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Saturdays; 1:30 p.m. Sundays; 10:30 a.m. shows on March 12 and March 18; no shows Mondays
Where: Baltimore Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St.
Tickets: Tickets: Adults, $10.50 to $30; $10 for kids under 12. March 10, all tickets are $9.50 for family night.
Call: 410-347-2010 or 410-481-SEAT
Pub Date: 03/04/99