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Circuses: Goodbye, Tom Thumb

3 minute read

As the Big Top has given way to the hardtop, the circus (TIME, April 13) has undergone many a change. But nothing has changed more than its co-attraction, the sideshow. Once a traveling chamber of biological horrors, it has now been tamed into a sort of Ed Sullivan variety show with cotton candy and Cracker Jack. Rationalizing the metamorphosis is Nate Eagle, 62, the corpulent, mustachioed talker and general manager of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s sideshow. Says horn-voiced Eagle: “You don’t find freaks in sideshows any more. You find strange people, odd people, unusual people—sword swallowers, tattooed people, strongmen, magicians, escape artists, ventriloquists, or men who can walk up a ladder of swords. But no freaks.”

Part of the change, according to Eagle, is due to advances in medicine and science. Mercifully missing are geeks (“Always some poor ugly fellow who was mentally unbalanced. Nowadays he would be in some rehabilitation center”), the Porcupine Man, or the Bird Girl with “skin as rough as a turkey’s foot and a downy fuzz of body hair.” Says Eagle: “If somebody now is born with short arms, you don’t put him in a sideshow and bill him as the Seal Boy or the Frog Boy; you try to make his arms as normal as possible.”

Lost Midgets. Particularly noticeable nowadays is the shortage of midgets. The little people have always been Eagle’s specialty, and he feels an almost paternal responsibility for them. Midgets, like giants, are sometimes caused by a malfunctioning of the pituitary gland, and now most such defects are remedied medically.

Eagle, who once towered over a troupe of 187 little people, now has to make do with only one midget—Felix, the smallest Perfect Man—who sells the World’s Tiniest Bible for 25¢. The sideshow’s giant, Eddie Carmel—the World’s Largest Giant—allows children to take a huge ring off his finger for 25¢ a take. They get to keep the ring—Eddie’s supply is endless. According to Eagle, Carmel would be 18 inches taller than he looks if he could straighten up; he is billed at straightened-up height (8 ft. 9½in.) anyway.

Older & Wiser. These modest attractions give klaxon-larynxed Eagle no opportunity to launch into the splendor of his oldtime spiel: “Now, ladies and gentlemen, I invite your undivided attention to the most amazing attraction ever presented for the edification of the citizens of your fair city (come closer, please, so that I may describe this educational exhibit to you in the confidential tones most appropriate for information of this nature). I refer, ladies and gentlemen, to the biological, yes, the anatomical wonder of the age: Jo Jo, the Dog-Faced Boy from deep in the heart of the jungles of Madagascar . . . He crawls on his belly like a reptile . . .”

Eagle blames the new tame look in sideshows on that old folk-culture killer, television. People are wiser (and perhaps sadder too) and won’t take bamboozling with the good humor of a more innocent time. Says the Last of the Great Carny Talkers, with monumental sadness: “There just isn’t any such thing as a rube or a hick these days.”

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