Minnesota State Fair: the life of a carny


Ward Hall, 83, has seen plenty of human oddities in his 67 years on the sideshow circuit. Hall, the “King of the Sideshow,” has transported his traveling 12-in-1 spectacle World of Wonders Palace of Illusions to the 2012 Minnesota State Fair.

(Above) Ward Hall (Photos by Jeff Rutherford)

The World of Wonders (“strange oddities from strange places doing strange things”)  features 12 acts on one stage highlighting carny artists and illusionists such as: The Amazing Spidora (“Eight Legs of Sheer Terror”), Human Blockhead, Weird Women, Divas of Danger, Headless Marvel and Tweedly Dee. The live performances include sword swallowers, escape artist, a whip expert and fire-eaters.

World of Wonders barker and sword swallower Tommy Breen, 32, has been with the show for eight years. He watched fellow sword swallower Red Stuart chug down a car axle from a Model T Ford. “That’s pretty gnarly even for me,” said Breen.

Stuart, whom Breen said is the oldest living sword swallower still performing, holds multiple Guinness World Records for his art. Stuart broke his own record by swallowing 52 swords at the 2009 Minnesota State Fair.

The Sword Swallowers Association International says the art of sword swallowing originated over 4,000 years ago in India, requiring the practitioner to use mind-over-matter techniques to control the body and repress natural reflexes to insert solid steel blades down the esophagus and into the stomach. The Association sponsors a World Sword Swallower’s Day, held the last day in February. One of its fund-raising efforts is to provide monies to the Injured Sword Swallower’s Relief Fund.

(Above) Tommy Breen: barker and swallower.

Dressed in a kilt and vest, Stuart next pounded a large nail into his head up through his nose cavity and said to the audience, “Oh, the life of a carny. They swear up and down that I have a screw loose.”

D J Shorty, a man born with no body below his ribs, was spinning the computer music selections during the acts, occasionally walking on his hands back and forth on stage. Just 27 inches tall, D J was clearly born with no lower half and proved popular with the audience.

Scott Saturn (“like the planet”) lifts weights with his ears. “I heard Minnesota is a big bowling state,” he said to the crowd and attached a bowling ball to chains hanging from his ear lobs, raising it up. Saturn also laid on a bed of nails.

(Above) Scott Saturn on a bed of nails.

Tweedle Dee claims to be the “World’s Fattest Dancer” and performed live dance routines while D J Shorty manned the music player.

A sword cutting demonstration was performed in the back of the tent. Also in the back of the tent is a Freak Museum displaying stuffed freak animals such as Queen Kong and “mermyth,” the mermaid creature.

Working Acts

Ward Hall calls his performers “working acts” and does not deny the World of Wonders includes illusions. The headless woman, Olga Hess “live from Germany” was indeed “headless” but the audience is left wondering if she’s real or illusion. Vickie Condor is a four-legged dancer and moved her four legs while sitting in a box.

Hall said most of his talent approach him for work, but he does recruit through his Facebook page. The World of Wonder’s Facebook page is “dedicated to the preservation of the Circus Sideshow.”

In 1981, Hall published his autobiography Struggles and Triumphs of a Modern Day Showman. A World of Wonder banner displays a tribute to P T Barnum, who is credited with creating the first American sideshows.

Back to the Midway

Last at the Minnesota State Fair in 2010, the World of Wonders is tucked at the end of the Midway, near the roller coaster. Hall said the expansion of the State Fair’s roller coaster cost him his location the past two years. State Fair administrators worked with him to reorganize his vast stage requirements, yet kept the coaster running, he said. Being gone from the State Fair was also good for World of Wonders, Hall said, as it keeps the acts fresh if people haven’t seen it for a year or two.

Tommy Breen, who has a close resemblance to Elvis with muttonchops and all, said the World of Wonders has had good crowds and the audience has been responsive.

The acts rotate and visitors can stay as long as they want, but can’t leave and come back. Admission is five Midway tickets, in addition to State Fair gate admission. The State Fair is open through Labor Day, Sept. 3.

(Above) Red Stuart, the world’s oldest performing sword swallower.

(Above) An escape artist at the World of Wonders Palace of Illusions.

(Above) The four-legged dancer Vickie Condor.

(Above) Spidora: “The weirdest thing to come out of New Jersey since Snooki,” said barker Tommy Breen.

(Above) Kife throwing act.

(Above) The whip artist. She said her whip snap is as loud as a sonic boom.

(Above) Real or Illusion? The Headless Woman.

(Above) Female sword swallower: “Daring Divas” perform at the World of Wonders.