Ward Hall: King of the Sideshow!
An extraordinary biography pitches a tent
by Drew Rowsome -
Ward Hall, none to all as the "King of the Sideshow," has been in the business for 73 years and counting. He began at 15 when he ran away from home to join the circus, and he never looked back. His story, recounted in Tim O'Brien's Ward Hall: King of the Sideshow!, is fascinating on its own, but the book also delivers a delightful twist.
Sideshow and circus fans will find the book irresistible. The photos and excerpts from Hall's bally alone are irresistible, the life even more so. Hall is a jack of all trades - magic, fire eating, sword swallowing, rigging a gaff, etc, etc - but his biggest skill was pitching the bally and creating and managing touring sideshows from 10-in-ones to baby shows full of pickled punks. store shows, wax museums and single-os. He also wrote musicals and revues, is a published author, had countless legal battles, was the guiding force behind the Showman's League of America and the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, and has been honoured by the Smithsonian.
During his very first job Hall met the 14-year-old Richard Penniman who wanted to sing and dance in the jig-show band but was canned because of his love for the then barely-invented rock n' roll. He joined another circus, he and Hall lost touch, and Penniman grew up to be Little Richard. And that was one of the least unusual people he would work with. O'Brien recounts the trials and tribulations of carnival life and the casual anecdotes are jaw-dropping. Occasionally the sheer mass of detail gets a little dry but it is immediately followed by a tidbit that drives the story forward.
Very early on in my reading of Ward Hall: King of the Sideshow!, I surfaced from my absorption slightly puzzled. The teenaged Hall moved into a trailer with Leonardo the Knife Thrower and the two were inseparable for 19 years when the 27 years older Leonard died. The book goes into great detail about the marriages and couplings within the touring shows - including a mildly racy passage about the half-and-halfs, some of whom were actual hermaphrodites, some of whom were drag queens - but Hall's sex life is never mentioned.
He did like to go dancing all night with Percilla the Monkey Girl because her husband Emmitt Alligator Boy was not as fleet of foot. He establishes life-long relationships with women - fat, bearded and half-gorilla - for their good natures and intellectual qualities. His 1961 novel Gypsy Hot Bloods, is a "gay romance novel and quite explicit at times" (explicit enough to not be publishable until 2005). His most popular ventriloquist act was, and is, "Homo the Brave - the Queer Indian Boy" described by O'Brien as "old time burlesque comedy at its best with a large dose of double entendre."
After Leonard died, the will leaving all to to Hall was contested until Leonard's sister announced, "This is the way it should be. They shared the same bed for over 18 years." Soon Hall found another, as O'Briend refers to him, "partner," the fresh from high school Chris Christ who joined the circus, moved into Hall's trailer and, 48 years later, they are still together. The photos of Hall with Leonardo and Christ sent my gaydar into overdrive. And I began to suspect that the circumspect and haphazardly chronological meandering structure of the book might have to do with Hall's sexuality, after all this is "the official biography."
I googled and quickly found that my suspicion was correct. In late 2013, just before Ward Hall: King of the Sideshow! was published, Jennifer Miller - the bearded lady who created Circus Amok and is a sideshow and gender activist - put together a lecture/performance piece/Q&A entitled Gay Life on the Carnival Lot: Jennifer Miller and Sideshow Impresario Ward Hall. In true sideshow fashion they toured it across the US with every stop billed as "For the First Time!" and "One Time Only!" The excerpts that I was able to find were a revelation and amplified the joys, wonders and frustrations of reading Ward Hall: Kind of the Sideshow!
And then I went back to finish the book.
Hall and Christ struggle through the slow demise of the great outdoor carnivals but always manage to keep going. The bittersweetness of the twilight is counteracted by the circus revival and by Hall being acknowledged not only by his peers but also by the public at large and academics. And he gets to sing at Carnegie Hall. And then, on page 225 of 255 pages, is the chapter "Taboo Talk: Sexuality on the Midway," where Hall matter-of-factly comes out. He will never be a figurehead for the gay or queer liberation movement and doesn't necessarily identify at LGBT, but he lived an openly, but never discussed, gay life.
The chapter is short but pivotal and extraordinary. O'Brien, and Hall with much prodding, explain how the circus and carnivals were a place of acceptance for people with then-forbidden sexualities and gender. Diane De Elgar/George Searles, a half-and-half who has made many earlier appearances, is quoted as telling a homophobic carnival owner, "There are so many gay people in your concessions department alone that they are dripping off your canvas awnings." And then, in four paragraphs, O'Brien explains the concept of "circus Sundays" and achieves that elation and heartbreak in a way that is usually reserved for only the very best circus acts.
Of course this is not nearly enough for inquiring minds - just what was Hall and Christ's relationship with Poobah Pete, King of the Pygmies? - and though O'Brien glances over the possibility of arrest for being in drag even in a sideshow performance, it must be remembered that gay was not only not spoken of but also illegal. The story of maintaining two longterm gay relationships, and whatever other escapades he was involved in or knew of, while on the road through a time of persecution must be mindboggling. And I hope it is a book that is written while there are still some of our forefathers around to tell it.
In the meantime Ward Hall: King of the Sideshow! joins Pat Patterson's Accepted as one of the most fascinating and bittersweet stories of the fringe being the gay mainstream ever told. How far we have come and how much we must not forget. And what I wouldn't give to see Hall perform any of his acts or his bally, on a tent set up for Pride. As he says, "The dollar you spend to come inside, you will never remember; but what you see in here, you will never forget."