Back around the time of the dust bowl, most Americans were living in an isolated rural area. The only entertainment was when the circus would come through town along with a small group of nontraditional acts and “human oddities” dubbed the freak show or sideshow. The circus is an old European tradition, but the sideshow is pure Americana, invented by Midas-like P.T. Barnum. When the circus began to lose popularity, the sideshows struck out on their own to join state or county fairs, following the dusty roads to the next dollar. Now there is just one traveling sideshow left, and it’s Ward Hall’s World of Wonders.
With its transience comes many difficulties, and life in the World of Wonders requires true dedication. After working non-stop for up to 14 hours, the clown and sword swallower set up their beds right onstage underneath the red and blue tent. They don’t have air conditioning, heat, or running water, and the only reason they have electricity is so they can light up the tent and perform late into the evening. There’s no privacy, which leads to the usual riffs of cramped quarters, but also to intensely loyal relationships. The performers say that the few that last more than a week will stay for life.
The country has changed since the World of Wonders first started its travels. People prefer to find the bizarre from the glow of a screen, safely removed from potentially uncomfortable situations. There is a hypocritical political correctness which has led to fair organizers illegally banning performers because of how they look. And when the World of Wonders is able to book a spot, they are often given a small lot on the edge of a fair, hidden away from the crowds. The admission fee is a mere $3- and “babies in arms go free”- for ten live acts. Because of these obstacles, the traveling sideshow may be near the end of its performance. To let it disappear would be to lose a piece of our culture and “the strangest show on earth.”