In Gibsonton, Florida, the carny capital of the nation, a new generation of glass walkers and knife throwers keeps the sideshow alive for at least one more summer.
September 4, 2003
BY DAVID KUSHNER
PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARY ELLEN MARK
"HEY, GRANDMA, YOU GOT A TOWEL? I NEED TO BREAK GLASS." IT'S a humid afternoon outside a modest home in Gibsonton, Florida, carny capital of the nation, and the world's youngest torture artist needs help setting up his act. He walks on broken glass! He sleeps on a bed of nails! He's the Great Alexzander! Or, at least, that's what his grandma calls him.
Usually he's just Alex Morrow, a fourteen-year-old redhead with screwy glasses and a voice cracking through the shell of pubescence. But of all the carny kids around this riverside town in west central Florida, Alex is a star, great-grandson of Gibsonton's founding oddities, the Tomainis - Al the Giant, an eight-foot-four-inch-tall man, and Jeanie the Half-Girl, a legless woman.
Until the Seventies, so-called freaks such as bearded ladies and frog boys were a fixture of traveling carnivals: the amusement festivals of fun houses and junk food that set up temporarily in small-town fields. But those days are gone. Alex's family of sideshow luminaries are either dead or retired. His mother, Tina Tomaini, doesn't perform. His dad, Scott Morrow, hates the business. Only Alex has the drive to keep the spirit alive. He represents a dying breed - the sideshow entertainers who once ruled the midway. Now, against all odds, he's fighting for their future. That is, if he can just get a little help.
“Yes, that is a screwdriver in my mom’s nose”: Alex Morrow, 14, with his mother, Tina Tomaini – descendants of Gibsonton’s founding oddities, Al the Giant and Jeanie the Half-Girl.
Alex leans in the doorway of the cottage, the walls of which are papered with head shots of Bea Arthur, Geraldo Rivera, Jesus and dozens of smiling celebrities. His grandma, Judy Rock, sits at her computer with her aching feet on a stack of old tabloids. She's been laid up since hurting her back carving vanity tombstones - a hobby she's pursued since retiring from stock-car racing under the name Shady Lady. At the moment, Judy is clicking through online wedding pictures of the Enigma, a well-known performance artist who is tattooed in blue puzzle pieces - just like the one creeping out from under her own bra. "You are not going to use a good towel to break glass, young man," she tells Alex. "And don't you be using those beer bottles, either. You could cut your foot, and beer'll get all up in you."
"All right," Alex replies, peeling off his green BMX jersey. "I'll just use my shirt."
Outside, he gathers a pile of empty Coke bottles in his shirt and proceeds to smash them with a broken headstone. Then he empties the glass shards on the ground and jumps on them - barefoot. And he doesn't feel a thing. He's on a mission to keep the freak flag waving high, fighting to carry the torch. And swallow it.
LAST OF THE HUMAN BLOCKHEADS
THE SECRET HANDSHAKE OF ANY TRUE sideshow artist is the blockhead trick: pounding a foreign object, usually a nail, up through the nostril and straight back into the recesses of the nasal cavity. It's the kind of dazzling display of will and power that made sideshows the lifeblood of the midway. It's also a vanishing art among the next generation of carnies.
That's why Melray Timberlake, a thirty-four-year-old blockhead working the Mind-winder Swing Ride at an elementary school carnival outside Gibsonton, has to show me the trick on the down low. Melray resembles Schneider, the potbellied super from One Day at a Time, and wears a blue shirt stitched with the logo of a carousel. After shooing away the last Sno-Cone-stained five-year-old, he quickly slips behind the ride and rifles through a tool kit until he finds a screwdriver. A rusty screwdriver. "This is supposed to be clean," he says, glancing furtively over his shoulder. "I don't want the kids to see this." He expertly flares his nostrils and slips in the tool until the metal vanishes. His eyes water as he twists it free. "OK, kids!" he barks, jogging back out to the ticket line. "Let's go!"
Like Alex, Melray was a carny-kid dreamer, raised on the road by a family of performers. He ran a goat show at six and swallowed fire at twelve. He trained zebras, inhaled swords. He was literally baby-sat by a baboon. "My dad used to chain me to the baboon whenever he had to go perform his act," Melray says. Today, the monkey is gone. And so are Melray's dreams. "There just isn't a place for the sideshows anymore," he says.
Sideshows are the original reality television, stages that elevated real people into something extraordinary and even sublime. But today they're considered too bizarre and edgy for politically correct family fairs. And the better-known acts Jim Rose, the Enigma - descend not from generations of festival operators but from the urban underground. They're not carny kids, they're punk rockers.
This never used to be the case in Gibsonton. With its warm weather and special zoning laws allowing carnies to keep midway rides and wild animals in their back yards, the town was the Hollywood of human oddities. For a time, the fire chief was a giant and the police chief a midget; when the midget had to stop someone for a traffic violation, he'd hold up a sign in his car that said POLICE PULL OVER. The carnies had their own traveling pastor. And they had their share of sensational press - mostly stemming from the 1992 murder of Lobster Boy, a notorious local born with claws for hands.
Today, the last of the town's - and the country's - original sideshow barkers is seventy-three-year-old Ward Hall. Hall is the Clive Davis of his craft, responsible for discovering some of the most renowned performers in history: the Ossified Girl, Otis the Frog Boy and Turtle Man. He used to be on the road nearly 365 days a year; now he's lucky if he gets a gig at a local Shriners club. Hall presides over Gibsonton's last few remaining sideshow veterans, such as Howard Huge, the 712-pound man, and Li'l Pete the Fire-Eating Dwarf. Like most carnies, Hall doesn't cotton to the f word. "Once the rock & rollers started calling themselves freaks in the Sixties," he says, "we used the phrase human oddities instead. We didn't want to be associated with that crowd."
The Junior Torture King (a.k.a. Alex Morrow) with his grandma, Judy Rock, a retired stock-car racer formerly known as the Shady Lady.
When Florida tried to apply an outdated law banning the exhibition of malformed persons in the Seventies, Hall led a contingent of oddities to Miami to protest the 1976 Miss Universe pageant for displaying women with abnormally large breasts. The state's Supreme Court overturned the law, making freak shows legal to this day though, to Hall's dismay, no more acceptable. "I'm hoping the kids find a way to bring the freak shows back," he says. Hall's wood-paneled living room has become a point of pilgrimage for aspiring sideshow stars.
It's a risky business, though, and circus lore has it that one wanna-be kid perforated her esophagus while chugging a sword. Another supposedly died when the tube of neon he was swallowing burst in his throat.
CONFESSIONS OF A CARNY GIRL
THE CARNY KIDS LUCKY ENOUGH TO GET A gig aren't necessarily that lucky at all. This is clear when I go to a carnival in St. Cloud, a small suburb about two hours north of Gibsonton. Two giant banners flap above the crowd from a rafter in a makeshift big top. One illustrates a dopey bovine chewing its mutant cud beneath the airbrushed words SIX LEGS! TWO MILK BAGS! ALIVE! The other shows a four-horned sheep, also billed as ALIVE! - but both are missing in action. Riding out onto the small stage beneath the signs are not these monstrosities of twisted genetic meat but Simone Dykes, a pretty blond girl. On a unicycle. Waving. A disgruntled fat boy in a Sponge-Bob T-shirt grabs his elephant-ear pastry and heads for the fun house.
Simone is an exceptional aerialist for a thirteen-year-old, but, to the boy's obvious disappointment, she has all her DNA strands in place. She's been reared, along with her siblings, on the sideshow fringe. Sometimes her family does animal shows. Sometimes they walk on wires. Basically, they do whatever they need to do to make a living. And the living they make is scarcely enough to get by on. These carny kids embody the first hurdle keeping Alex from bringing back the sideshow: the miserable realities that await.
The kids spend most of their days traveling in rusty trailers. Their only relief is in the winter months, when they come back to park their trailer in Gibsonton. During a break in her act, Simone shows me around her family's rig, a tin box of a home cluttered with Lord of the Rings dolls and a carnival photo of the sisters' heads grafted onto a pair of bikini models. "I used to be afraid that the trailer was going to get sucked up in a tornado," Simone says with a nervous laugh. In the past couple of years the family has played Kansas and Oklahoma, where there are regular tornado warnings.
One night as she was sleeping, she thought she felt the trailer start to lift in a storm. "You always wake up to the tornado sirens going off in the middle of the night," she says. Maybe that's why her bunk is lined with newspaper ads for PT Cruisers -her dream means of escape. But earning eighty-five dollars a week for full-time work, she won't be driving away anytime soon. Simone and her family barely survive on their income of $40,000 per year.
Like most carny kids, Simone spends nine months a year touring the country's fairs. She travels with her three younger sisters, her new baby brother, her parents, four dancing dachshunds and six trained fantail pigeons. The family has been in the business for three generations. Simone began performing when she was eighteen months old. She soon became an accomplished contortionist, bending into a pretzel inside a box that her grandpa would dice with swords. "I only got nicked a couple of times," Simone says.
A few weeks before I visit, Simone's dad, Ron Dykes, took an ugly spill off a unicycle and injured his back. The kids had to do the routine for three days without him. Simone hasn't been immune to injury, either. Three years back, she broke her arm when she fell off her perch on Ron's shoulders as he rode a unicycle. The adult pressures sometimes get to her, particularly when she thinks about all the proms and parties taking place in the towns she passes through. "The first time I did my act, all I could do was cry," she says. "I feel different from normal kids. When I go to the grocery store, they say, 'Look, the circus freak buys groceries.'"
This upbringing has both emboldened and corroded the teen carnies' sense of themselves and their place in a world of "normal" people. And of all the carny kids I meet, none knows this better than Simone's sixteen-year-old cousin, Kelly Fairchild. I find Kelly snapping gum as she twirls a fat pink wand of cotton candy inside her family's vending trailer.
Kelly's shirt is dusted with stray wisps of sugar crystals, and her tight bluejeans are cuffed above her tan ankles and purple sneakers. She hands over the candy to a rosy-cheeked girl, and from the weary look on Kelly's face, it's clear she's performed this transaction a million times, a million dull times. The irony of Kelly's life is that she's getting tired of everything that an ordinary kid would relish: corn dogs, carnivals, amusement rides. "I never wanted a cotton candy in my life," she says as we head outside for fresh air. "I hate the smell. It makes me sick."
The eldest of three kids, Kelly has been on the road since she was three months old. Her parents were die-hard carnival fans who followed different shows around the country for fun. Eventually, they got work as a knife-throwing act. One of Kelly's earliest memories is of shopping next to the Monkey Lady, a woman covered in furlike hair, at the local grocery store. "I didn't recognize her because she had just shaved," Kelly says.
THE CARNY ELITE
For some kids, life as a carny means big business and living large.
Joey and Oliver Weaver, relaxing in their indoor pool, are members of a family considered the Trumps of the carny world, with a warehouse full of rides worth a half-million dollars each.
Elite kid carnies such as Sebastian (left) and Alexander Mitchell, whose family owns the Baboon Lagoon animal show, disdain the freaky white-trash reputation of the sideshow world.
When Kelly was only eight, her dad, Bobby, would practice his knife-throwing act, spinning her around strapped to a target wheel. When he started throwing blades, she barely flinched. "It's strange," she says. "Your reflexes are going, but you're not scared." Before long, Kelly was toting buckets of her parents' cutlery to the shows and then hitting the road for the next town. They traveled the country, crisscrossing fifty states a year, only stopping in the winter to wait out the off-season in Gibsonton. It was painful for Kelly, who was always home-schooled, to watch other kids her age going back to school, to friends, to familiarity. "Every time I looked around, I'd realize how different I am," she says. "All their dads were going to work while mine was throwing knives."
As a result, she carried a deep longing for the normalcy that other teens seemed to take for granted. "A lot of kids my age dream about being a pop star or an actress," Kelly says, copping some shade under a tree during her break. "Or they want to join the circus. That's a laugh. All I wanted to do was go to school."
The older Kelly got, the harder the work became. Seeing a pot of gold at the end of the Ferris wheel, her parents decided to risk all their savings on starting their own carnival: the Family Fun Fair. They bought a fun house. They built a spider ride. They got tubs and tubs of cotton-candy goo. The bigger the business grew, the more Kelly had to work. The physical labor was intense, sweating in the hot sun in the height of summer. The T. Rex slide needed to be inflated. The Pirate Fun House had to be mopped.
Kelly's stepmom, Lauren Fairchild, tried to see the bright side of Kelly's hard labor. "We're always with our kids," she says. "Not many parents can say that." But there's a consequence to this kind of intimacy. Though midways are legendary among suburban teens as great places to get stoned and dry hump, the reality for carny workers is much less tantalizing. It's hard to make out behind the Himalaya ride when your folks are tearing the tickets. Growing up under their parents' watchful eyes, kids like Kelly don't necessarily become little rebels but rather little adults all the way down to their hankering for their parents' music. Kelly's favorite band isn't Good Charlotte, it's Lynyrd Skynyrd. On her time off, Kelly wouldn't hang at the mall with the local kids, she'd retreat to the back of her trailer and read Capote and Hemingway.
Just last year, however, Kelly decided she'd finally had enough. She wanted off the road. She wanted off the midway. She had had it with the sick Fellini-esque fantasy, the freaks and the fried food, the fat kids and the cotton candy. She wanted out. She wanted normal. She wanted school. And her parents agreed. "All she wanted was to go to school," says Lauren. "I didn't get it."
Now Kelly lives year-round in Sarasota, Florida, and works carnivals on the weekends only. In 2002 she attended her first year of school ever - as a high school freshman. And, on the plus side, all her home schooling has paid off. She's getting a 4.0 average, and her younger brother Matt, also in school now, was skipped from seventh to eighth grade last year. Kelly hopes to get into a good college, where she can study to be a criminal lawyer.
But the transition from the midway hasn't been easy. She still feels freakish compared with other kids. And she feels eons older than the other girls her age - especially when it comes to boys. "The other day, I saw this girl in the hallway crying," Kelly tells me, as we work our way back to the cotton-candy stand. "I'm like, "Girl, what are you so upset about?' And she says, 'My boyfriend!' And I'm like, 'No boy's worth crying over. There are more important things in life, you know.”
On the circuit since she was three months old, Kelly Fairchild went to public school last year for the first time ever.
THE JUNIOR TORTURE KING
"OK, THIS IS GOING TO START spinning really fast, then you're going to slide up this wall, and you can't move or anything," Alex explains giddily as we climb aboard the Starship 3000 - a flying-saucer-shaped ride at the Strawberry Festival, a country fair an hour from Gibsonton.
Nearby, families scarf batter-dipped deep-fried Twinkies. Farmers rustle racing pigs into a maze. Inside the putrid, windowless ship, a half-dozen teenagers lean against the walls. Kids have been known to barf mid-ride, only to have their half-digested corn dogs fly back into their faces and remain there for the duration of the centrifugal force. The hatch closes. The room spins to "Crazy Train." The teens become a screaming blur of belly rings and candy perfume. Alex calmly grins. For someone who walks on a ladder made of swords, this is kid's stuff.
Alex grew up at the Giant's Camp, the famed winter retreat for carnies that his family has run for four generations. His great-grandparents, Al the Giant and Jeanie the Half-Girl, built the camp in the 1940s after visiting Gibsonton during a winter break from the freak-show circuit. Alex's grandma took over with the help of Alex's mom after Al and Jeanie died.
As a kid, Alex spent Sunday barbecues with the aging freaks in his grandma's back yard. Melvin Burkhart, the Human Blockhead, taught him how to contort his stomach until his ribs practically poked out of his back. His grandma hammered together a bed of nails for his ninth birthday, and his first feat was sleeping on it. After seeing Alex walk up a ladder of swords, Tim Cridlan, who performs as the Torture King, anointed him the Junior Torture King. "None of this ever seemed weird to me," Alex says.
As Alex and I stumble from the Starship, he tells me how, like Simone, he feels like a freak of the modern world, too. For years, Alex has tried to get listed in the Guinness World Records as the world's youngest torture artist. Every time he applies, though, he gets the same rejection letter. "They say they don't want to put a kid my age in there doing the stuff I do," he says. "They don't want someone to copy me and get hurt."
Alex is having an even harder time finding understanding at school. A lot of the kids and teachers in his school think he's "disgusting," he says. Alex has never had a girlfriend and is shunned by his peers. His only friends are neighborhood kids. In March, Alex was expelled for allegedly covering a bathroom stall with his own shit - a piece of performance art he denies. This wasn't his first run-in with school authorities. The day after 9/11, he showed up on campus with a dismantled battery that the teachers thought looked too much like a bomb. The police arrested him. Earlier this year, he wanted to walk on glass for the school's talent contest, but his dad wouldn't let him.
Alex says his dad, Scott Morrow, a printer, typifies the sentiment that's keeping him off the midway. Alex says one of the reasons his parents got divorced was because his father is ashamed of the family's history. "He's always telling me that I'll never amount to anything," Alex says. "He thinks I'm going to be a lowlife carny."
Scott, however, says it's more a matter of concern for his son's personal safety. One time, Alex sliced open his toe to the bone when he tripped on the bed of nails. Another time, he stabbed himself in the arm while building his ladder of swords. Scott drew the line when Alex's grandma wanted to teach him to swallow swords. "That's going too far," he says. Instead, he'd prefer to see Alex tone down his act and join a big production like Ringling Bros. or Cirque du Soleil.
But Alex disdains the fancy carnivals and swank carny kids who try to distance themselves from the sideshow past. "They're losing the spirit of the midway," he says, spitting out a taffy wrapper. "They don't care about acts like mine. They don't want to have them at their shows. All they want to do is make money."
The last of Gibsonton’s sideshow barkers, Ward Hall discovered such legendary oddities as the Ossified Girl and Otis the Frog Boy.
NOT EVERYONE’S MOM IS THE BEARDED LADY
HALFWAY THROUGH THEIR FILET MIGNON, the kid carnies set down their knives and flash their teeth. The nine tanned and athletic teens around the table at the Frontier Steakhouse in Tampa, Florida, are the upper crust of carnival clans, and they're proving a point to me: that, unlike the stereotype of sideshow kids, they possess all their pearly whites. "Everyone thinks we're poor, dirty, uneducated freaks who don't have any teeth," says fourteen-year-old Sebastian Mitchell, a Polo-shirted kid with spiky gelled hair. "I've got all my teeth right here."
Unlike Alex, Simone and the aspiring blockheads who embrace their sideshow legacy, the elite sons and daughters want nothing to do with what they perceive to be their gummy, strange past. They use skin cream. They tie sweaters around their necks. They're shedding the stigma by cleaning up their acts. Instead of running sideshows, they're inheriting fleets of fun houses and cotton-candy machines. Every summer, they work hard on the circuit, preparing to one day run the business.
Sebastian speaks disdainfully when he recalls watching a video of some performance artist suspending himself from a meat hook through his skin. "That's not a real sideshow," Sebastian says. "That's just a bunch of New Age stuff." Sebastian has never seen the junior Torture Kings act, and he doesn't care to. Instead, the Mitchell kids think of carnivals as big business, opportunities to excel, to own, to franchise.
The Mitchells take pride in building big Vegas-style productions. "We've got hydraulics, light shows and that kind of stuff," says Sebastian. This is family entertainment now, and they don't want to give people the wrong idea. "Not everyone's mom is the bearded lady," Sebastian sniffs.
The business-minded carny kids are leery of outsiders -particularly of the media, who they think always portray them as freaky white trash. The only reason they agreed to participate in this story is to set the record straight. 'We're not a bunch of kids in a freak show," says Alexander Mitchell, 17. His mom, Judy, chimes in bitterly, "You know what the word carny means to us?" Her eyes well up. "It means we're independent business owners. It means we're proud of what we do."
What the Mitchells do is run a lucrative traveling animal show called the Baboon Lagoon. At first, they lived a life much like that of Kelly and Simone. They used to work for Ringling Bros. and live out of a mobile home. The days were long, the nights lonely. Much of their time was spent watching the lights cruise by their trailer's windows. When they weren't traveling, they were slipping on monkey shit onstage. Alexander's first memory is of working the seal act - at the age of one. But they left Ringling Bros. seven years ago to work for themselves. The difference between their outfit and that of Kelly's family is their relatively low overhead. As a result, the payoff has been sweet. "All the profit is ours," says Sebastian. "We're the bosses now." This sense of pride has removed the onus of sideshow freakdom, they say. They don't want to be normal –“We are normal," says Sebastian. The Mitchells live in a big house on two acres near Tampa Bay. On weekends, they party with friends on their high-priced pontoon boats. And they know how to spend their hard-earned cash. On a good day, a carny teen can clear $400, enough to let them buy their own jewelry and fancy car stereos. "I'm saving up for a Porsche GT3," Sebastian says.
The long days on the road aren't anywhere near as tough as those of sideshow kids such as Kelly and Simone. "Most people think we live under the Tilt-a-Whirl," Alexander says. The reality couldn't be further from the truth. The Mitchell brothers spend their leisure time playing Xbox in the air-conditioned back of a forty-eight-foot luxury trailer, complete with satellite TV and Internet access. Though the kids work hard, their off-season is cushy. The boys run with the popular crowd at their local high school and play on the football and wrestling teams. On weekends, they hang out at the Showman's Club, a community center financed by the local carnival operators, complete with baseball fields, a bar and a jungle gym under the palms.
Unlike the Junior Torture King, who has never left the state, the elite kids vacation regularly. Fifteen-year-old Olivia Weaver and her thirteen-year-old brother, Joey, show off their tans from a recent jaunt to New Mexico. Their family, the Myerses, are the Trumps of carny land. Before dinner, we take a stroll around their mission control in Gibsonton: sprawling grounds a vast warehouse filled with dozens of rides such as Gravitrons and roller coasters. The kids are more impressed with the rides' price tag - a half-million each - than with their thrill power. "Rides all get boring after a while," Olivia says. Olivia, Sebastian and their friends attribute their success to business acumen. “We've been counting change since we were in kindergarten," Sebastian boasts.
Steaks eaten, the Mitchell boys and their friends check their cell phones for messages, pile into their SUVs and head for the mall. No matter where they go, they're always braced for the usual questions kids throw their way when they find out what their families do for a living. No matter how successful they become, they know what most kids think: that they're trash, punks, four-eyed monsters sucking hay under the fun house. And, yeah, that hurts, says Sebastian. No one wants to feel like a freak.
So when they're catching a bunch of shit from know-nothing kids, they straighten their backs and hit the replay button in their brains. By now, they know how to respond. 'Whenever anyone asks me if I know Lobster Boy," Sebastian says, "I tell them, 'I make more money than you."
For those not blessed with claw hands or a dog face, success on the midway requires the fearlessness of a Melray Timberlake.
FILLING THE GIANT'S SHOES
THE SUN IS COMING DOWN OVER GIBSONTON. Howard Huge is heading to Alabama to appear in a Tim Burton movie. Li'l Pete the Fire-Eating Dwarf has fallen asleep in his chair. The carnies at the Showman's Club are getting ready for the annual Hit the Road BBQ, the final party before the families clear out for the summer circuit.
Over at the shacks of the Giant's Camp, Alex's mom twists a screwdriver free from her nose as her son applauds. She sniffles and wipes a tear from her cheek. "Makes your eyes water when you do it," she says. But the Phillips head won't be passed down at the moment. Alex still has some learning to do, his mom says, before he moves up to the blockhead trick.
On the other side of the camp is a pair of his great-granddad's shoes. If Alex is going to fill the Giant's boots, he's got to self-inflict his torture one shard of glass at a time. He's got to work, hard. Because he's got to live up to the family name. He's freaking royalty, after all, blood of the Giant and the Half-Girl. And nothing can stop him from finding beauty in the most freakish of things. Alex steps on a pile of broken bottles and says, "It feels like I'm walking on roses."