Tommy Breen tilts his head back and swallows nearly 2 feet of sword. A fairgoer gingerly pulls it out. Inside the tent, John “Red” Stuart uses a microphone to hammer a huge nail into his head — through a nostril.
But the World of Wonders sideshow at the San Diego County Fair is just warming up at lunchtime Wednesday.
A woman in her 20s, stage-named Miss Spooky, rests her head in a guillotine. Sir Kade, a young emcee from Camarillo, acts as executioner and rabble-rouser — inciting a couple dozen people to chant: “Off with her head!”
And so falls the blade, cleanly slicing Miss Spooky in two — amid gasps of the audience.
But not to worry! Her head soon is resting comfortably on a nearby chair, being interviewed by Joshua (Sir Kade), who wouldn’t give his last name. But Miss Spooky left a lasting impression — finally appearing again with her body reattached.
The most amazing thing of all?
Over the course of the fair, Miss Spooky’s head will roll hundreds of times. The troupe of more than a dozen performs about every half-hour — more than two dozen times a day.
Based in Gibsonton, Florida, World of Wonders is the oldest traveling sideshow in the world, according to John Robinson of Sideshow World.
“I think that curiosity still sells,” Robinson says. “The old folks who grew up with the sideshows still love to go and see them. The young people just love everything about them. There are not as many traveling today. A lot of performers do clubs. The Venice Beach Freakshow and other venues are very popular today.”
But unlike the days of PT Barnum and Joseph “Elephant Man” Merrick, freaks are not featured in the current WoW show. It’s had midgets and dancing fat men in the past. But no deformed humans on this trip.
“We have a revolving cast,” Breen said Thursday. “While [midget] Poobah and Harold Huge have passed on, we frequently work with Fatman/ProWrestler Tweedle Die, Half-Man Short E. Dangerously, John T. Rex, The Mighty Huan (a dwarf fire eater and escape artist) etc… We only have so much room in the show, and they keep pretty busy, [so] it just depends on when our schedules mesh.”
“Some of our acts would be right at home in Barnum’s show, and others would have been totally unheard of,” says Breen, the show manager. “Some of Barnum’s acts would be considered boring to today’s crowd, but the spirit and the goal of the show is the same.”
WoW is an entertaining mix of skill, illusions and a fair amount of corny humor — with typical hyperbole from the frontmen.
“Have you ever seen a sideshow before?” Breen tells a gathering crowd in the Family Funville area of the track infield. “Today’s your lucky day!”
Breen boasts of having a Big Foot, which he also cutely calls “the Abdominal Snowman.”
“Make up your own mind inside,” he says. “We’re still waiting on testing of hair samples.”
Breen also declares that WoW is the first sideshow at the Del Mar fair in 35 years — based on what fairgoers have told him and “someone in an official capacity.” But fair spokeswoman Linda Zweig can’t confirm that a sideshow last appeared here in 1979.
“I don’t have any facts to back that up,” she told Times of San Diego.
For $3, fairgoers enter a tent bathed in red-orange light. No seating. Just a long, narrow stage where a kilt-wearing Stuart, 63, becomes the Human Blockhead.
In truth, Stuart is a legend. He’s a member of the Sword Swallower’s Hall of Fame, with many records to his name.
Ward “King of the Sideshow” Hall — whose biography was released in June — is the 84-year-old owner of the show along with C.M. “Chris” Christ. Christ was in San Diego for the first visit of World of Wonders to Del Mar but not Hall, Breen said.
“It’s been many years since a sideshow of [this] size and type has been in Southern California,” said sideshow expert Robinson. “You have Single O’s, Pit Shows, world’s largest this and that. But not a show like the World of Wonders.”
For that, you might thank PETA — the animal-rights group.
In late March, Have Trunk Will Travel — the Riverside company that’s provided elephant rides at the fair for decades — announced it wouldn’t return in 2014.
U-T San Diego reported that the owners denied animal-rights protests led to the abrupt pullout.
“It is always a big logistical challenge to balance the needs of our elephants, their human caretakers and all the other breeding, research and business factors involved,” said owners Kari and Gary Johnson.
So when WoW applied for a spot in the fair, it was given the nod.
“Yes, it was a late addition,” Zweig said. “Given the size [of the sideshow tent and adjacent support vehicles], the former home of HTWT was the only space big enough to accommodate them.”
Breen, 33, has been with the show 10 years. He calls WOW “the only true traveling 10-in-1 sideshow left,” and its visit here is the first in the company’s 64-year history.
“WoW travels all over the country, but this is our first time in California,” he said. “We played the Florida State Fair, then had a winter hiatus, and made our way out to California. We played the San Bernardino National Orange Show. … After this, we have several more California fairs for a few months, and then may start to venture back East.”
Although WoW has not been at the San Diego County Fair before, he said, “We’ve gotten quite a few customers come up and thank us for playing the fair! A bunch of people have come up to talk to us about how they saw the sideshow here 35 years ago when they were kids, and always remembered it.
“And now [that] the World of Wonders is here they took their family in with them to share the experience. I think that’s pretty neat.”
Breen has no tally on how many people have visited the sideshow, “but the response has been very positive. Every fair is different, which is why I enjoy traveling with the show.”
In an age of Internet freaks and geeks, how does a sideshow make a comeback?
“I think that people just have not had any experience with them in a long time,” Breen said. “If you’ve never seen a sideshow before, then your only basis on what it’s like is from a horror movie or a comedy skit on TV. I think there is a spark of interest every few years or so when a new film, play, TV show, etc., comes out with some sideshow roots.”
“Pop culture is constantly recycling the sideshow,” Breen says, “and so there are waves of interest. For a form of entertainment that goes back at least to the 1800s, it hasn’t ever disappeared.”
The Smithsonian Institution has called such shows an indigenous American art form, Breen says.
Why the continued interest?
“It’s in our nature to be curious about what’s out there in the world — what’s happening beyond our reach,” Breen said via email. “It’s how we grow, we WANT to know what’s over the horizon, we WANT to know what’s possible, and when we see something different then ourselves and different from our experiences, its how we grow as people.
“To see someone swallow a sword is something that before that point you KNEW wasn’t possible. When you see Red swallow a car axle at the World of Wonders show, it changes your perception of what’s possible.”
WoW’s summer season usually lasts from June to November, and it has a shorter winter season of February-April.
On WoW’s Facebook page, a post boasted that on June 28, “the World of Wonders had the fanciest dressed audience we’ve probably ever had! The San Diego Steampunks came to the fair, and they all came in at once and loved the show. What a great audience.”
With a Twitter handle of @swordswallow, Breen and others have moved the sideshow into the 21st century.
Fair spokeswoman Zweig said WoW came with “excellent recommendations from another fair. Additionally, it was clear in speaking with C.M. he was professional and understood the fair’s needs. This is NOT a freak show.”
She’s seen the show herself.
“How do they do that!?” she said days before Sunday’s finale. “They are great, very talented and nice NICE people. One big family! … The entertainers are very professional and approachable and interact well with the audience.
WoW is on a single-year contract, she says. But will it return in 2015?
“Hard to say,” she says. But: “We hope so.”